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by Harlan Kennedy


Winds howling across the lagoon. Lion statues tumbling down steps. Festival officials tossed about like balloons. (Isn’t that Marco Mueller himself, Mostra del Cinema chief, flying over a roof?) Rain descending like giant combs to sleek and slick the hair of hurricane-lashed trees.

We knew the 2010 Venice Film Festival would close with a tempest. Julie Taymor’s film of Shakespeare’s play, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, was the scheduled last-night gala. We didn’t know a tempest would begin the event.

But how great to be on an Adriatic island when hell breaks loose. Action, spectacle, elemental music. You think you have died and gone to a Cecil B DeMille movie, laid on as a billion-dollar film sorpresa at the Mostra del Paradiso.

This was the year Mueller said everything would be different. For a start there were three opening films, not one. On the first night the Palazzo Grande audience – nobs, toffs and designer-dressed signorinas – sat white-knuckled through a trio of thrillers: Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN (blood at the ballet), Andrew Lau’s LEGEND OF THE FIST (punch-ups in Peking) and Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’s MACHETE (gore galore, siphoned off from RR’s spoof trailer from GRINDHOUSE). The evening of harum-scarum entertainment was planned to illustrate Mueller’s newest pronouncement on movies: something about a “contract between the filmmaker and his audience,” ignoring or combining genre differences, from which the audience emerges shaken and stirred while the filmmaker, like a barista making a good cocktail, takes the compliments and the money.

Ah Venice. It’s always different. Not just from year to year but from day to day. The clouds had barely drawn back on the morrow to reveal the usual blue skies when we were in art business as usual.

Three pics from around the globe qualified as best in fest. They came, in order of projection, from Japan, Russia and China. They each – you could say if you were looking for a tema della mostra (theme of the festival) – explored the potential drama and communicability of inner states or esoteric ambiences. Not excepting, indeed distinctly highlighting, the realm of death.

NORWEGIAN WOOD. Tran Anh Hung from Vietnam, a former Venice Golden Lion winner (CYCLO), is the helmer entrusted with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s international bestseller. It’s been read in 30 languages. It’s got a Beatles song for a title. (We’re in the 1960s). Yet its tale of suicide, depression and wayward love, clumsily handled, could have sent world audiences screaming to the exit doors. Watanabe, the hero-narrator, loves two women, the depressive Naoko and the life-loving Midori. He tries to juggle the romantic tasks but finds them, if anything, juggling him, The novel was full of antic, anguished mood changes elegised by recall. Tran, directing, finds a screen style to suit. Images of nature – mainly the grasslands and mountainscapes around Naoko’s mental convalescence retreat – have an animistic power (wind, rain, changing colours, fluctuating textures) while the humans seem transfixed each by his own, or her own, comedy or tragedy. Hypnotic at its best, the film has a starmaking performance from model-turned-actress Kiko Mizuhara, whose Midori, combing the wilful and wistful, is Murakami’s character to the life.

OSVYANKI (SILENT SOULS). Russian cinema is unbeatable for tales of epiphany at the edge of the world. See its last Golden Lion winner, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s THE RETURN. Alexei Fedorchenko’s film unfolds in a Finno-Russian remoteness, where the old ways cling on surreally, decayingly, like the snaky pontoon bridges, crumbling factories, desolate highways. This is the land of torch-lit midnight atavism. The land of what seems to us a social-historical trance state. Are we really in a community, the ‘Merjans’, where a widowered spouse, such as the factory boss friend of the hero (a paper-mill worker and amateur cartographer/ethnographer), whose wife has died, takes his deceased partner to a beach and burns her on a pyre? Before that he and the hero hand-wash the woman’s body and tie ribbons to her pubic hair. It’s a tribal tradition. The surviving mate also reminisces aloud – it’s called ‘smoking’ – about his bygone sex life. “All three of her holes were working and I unsealed them.” Crikey. This is Russia? Politically and socially repressed for the last 100 years? The film is spellbinding, like a wound reopened so the air can reach it and friendly animals can lick it. Bereavement, and Russia, with a human dimension.

THE DITCH. Now we go to China. Wang Bin’s movie, sprung on us as this year’s film sorpresa, is a gruelling account of a re-education camp in the Gobi Desert. Time: 1960. They weren’t listening to Beatles’ songs back then. If they had been, it would be ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ That’s what life was. Hard labour under a searing sun, shivering sleep (or more labour) under a cold moon. The men bunked – according to this film based on documents and survivors’ accounts – in rat-infested dugouts, hence the title. People became corpses and were carried out, trussed in their last blanket. Food was rat soup, seeds scrabbled from the desert or sometimes – look away now – the best-looking bits from your friend’s vomit. Wang Bin can’t quite sustain the cold horror. A midsection with a bereaved wife seeking a vanished (and, we learn, cannibalised) husband seems routine: just tears, wailing, agony, despair. The real unbearability of this story is the way the doomed men just get on with it. Eating the uneatable; remembering things too painful to remember (like freedom); watching their own souls, minds and bodies shuffle forward in the queue for death.

A new Russia? A new China? Countries which can produce films like these, candid, countercultural, counter-revolutionary? Human? Holistic? Which is to say, complete in the understanding of the holes humans dig for themselves – and must then find ways to transcend or escape.

The Venice Film Festival had its own hole. Its own ‘ditch.’ Its own quarried habitation for the sighing of silent souls. I mean the building site where the new festival palace is going up. Or would be if the project weren’t going over-schedule. The latest delay to a building planned for inauguration next year is the discovery of an asbestos burial site.

Yes, it’s a toxic Mycenae. Festivalgoers skirt the bio-hazard, as large as a necropolis, and marvel as they circumambulate at the traces of pink and pillared ruin on the excavated sides. Great gods and little caryatids, were temples once here? Or sacrificial shrines? Or an ancient forum? Everywhere you go in Italy, or everywhere you dig, seems to turn into history and romance. FELLINI ROMA Part 2, Part 3, Part 4….

Dangerous too. This year, if you opened the wrong door to flee a bad movie – and there were a few – you could fall straight into the giant hole. Down you plunged, to where asbestos-formed monsters, retired festival directors, or old corpses of Venetian doges, embraced you slitheringly or tried to drag you deeper down, perhaps to hell itself, which in this abyss is one floor down after ancient kitchenware, lost digging tools and broken Roman pottery.

Fear not. These were only dreams or nightmares. Fest boss Mueller, dressed in black, went about reassuring us the hole would be a palace one day. La Cenerentola (Cinders) will go to the ball. Meanwhile happy times were available this year watching, for instance, that wild notion of Marco’s for an opening triple bill: the noblest men and women, in their finery, splashed with blood from seven to midnight. Marco has only one year left of his second four-year contract. Was this a farewell Walpurgisnacht? Or a phantom-of-the-palazzo gig from a man who dreams of staying on as a spirit to dash about the Lido kinos and haunt their rafters, in future Mostras, now and then dropping a memory like a giant chandelier?

Marco has a good record: let it be taken into account. And though the 2010 Venice festival was not his finest, count the number of talking-point movies. The prattling classes had a lot to say about Abdellatif Kechiche’s VENUS NOIRE, for instance, closely followed by Jerzy Skolimowski’s ESSENTIAL KILLING and Pablo Larrain’s POST MORTEM.

VENUS NOIRE re-enacts the true history of the Hottentot Venus, the African woman whose stupendous attributes – including prominent posterior and protrusive pudenda – became the craze of Europe in the early 19th century. She was a circus star, salon celebrity and curio for anthropologists. Finally, when luck waned, or so claims writer-director Kechiche (whose last movie was another provocateur tale of ethnic collision, COUSCOUS), she was a sex worker satisfying men who liked it racially mixed.

At 2 hours 40 minutes, little is left unsaid about race and gender attitudes two centuries ago – about prejudice and prurience – and much of it is said fortissimo Andre Jacob and Olivier Gourmet, playing the consecutive masters of ‘Venus’ (real name Saartjie Baartman), shout their dialogue to the rooftops. Down in the bearpits of what passed for society, in London and Paris, the baying toffs prod and paw the poor girl – to the point where Venice audiences said Kechiche was exploiting his actress, Yahima Torres, in the same way the world of 1810 exploited Saartje.

You pays your Euro and you forms your verdict. Me? I thought the film’s fault was not its complicity in the voyeurism it purports to condemn, but rather the lecturing, hectoring tone. At shorter, more teasing length it could have genuinely allowed the filmgoer to think for himself, instead of suspecting he was being mugged by an ideological highwayman saying, “Your agreement or your life.”

ESSENTIAL KILLING is a skilful manhunt flick about an escaped Afghan jihadist (Vincent Gallo), pounding the Polish snows as he flees men depicted as CIA torture-transit goons. Skolimowski evidently went nutty in the editing room: the 83-minute story contains lacunae and non-sequiturs. (How did the protagonist replace his torn and ratty prisoner threads with that handsome, perfectly fitting white jumpsuit he suddenly wears in a new scene?) But at least we are posed an interesting question. Can an adventure story, confidently told, get us rooting for the last person on earth with whom we’d normally identify?

POST MORTEM is about sex, autopsy and the corpse of Salvador Allende. Chilean director Pablo Larrain made the morbidly brilliant TONY MANERO, a SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER riff whose protagonist had a white suit and diseased mind. Actor Alfredo Castro – mouldering pallor, shoulder-length hair – returns as a mortuary scribe, taking down autopsy details until the day the assassinated President appears before him on a slab. Place: Santiago. Year: 1973. What effect will this sudden drafting into political history have on the hero’s creepy love life? His ex-stripper girlfriend, caught up with dissidents, is hiding behind a wall in his house. How long will she stay there….? Yes, creepy is the word. Larrain has cornered a part of the movie market where the meat starts to stink a little. For low prices – his films look as if they cost almost nothing – he will sell you something with the unforgettable odour of mortality, and sometimes as here, a spice of wit, even wisdom.

The weakest films at Venice went to the wall, in quite a different sense – or perhaps not – from the heroine of POST MORTEM. Personally, I would like to wall up alive Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE. Or to bonfire as a vanity this LA-set variant on SC’s LOST IN TRANSLATION. Where Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray marooned in a Japanese hotel were magic, Stephen Dorff as a spoiled film star and Elle Fanning as his estranged teen-brat daughter stuck at the Chateau Marmont are not. Too much like Lalaland realism: the truth at 24 narcissistic whinges a second.

Julian Schnabel’s MIRAL is one man’s UN-style statement about how Israel and Palestine should live together in an ideal world. Unfortunately Shnabel’s ideal world appears to consist of bimbo casting (the vapidly decorative Yasmine al Massri as the orphan-of-discord heroine), bumper-sticker dialogue and the kind of flatulent liberal generalities that gave Stanley Kramer’s cinema a bad name.

Better, if not by a mile, was Tom Tykwer’s THREE, an infidelity drama-comedy that breezes along until we realise the man and woman two-timing each other are doing it with the same guy. German cinema is crazy for this kind of polysexual screwball romp. She gets horny-hetero, he gets horny-gay and the cynosure of their desire is a baby-faced stem-cell scientist who looks like a Botoxed Gordon Ramsay. Weird. There’s a biological-philosophical idea – none too convincing – that human sexuality is really a blank cheque (like a stem-cell) that gets filled in by volition not destiny. Hmmm. As a partner-swapping romp, it was at least better than Anthony Cordier’s HAPPY FEW, a swingers’ rondo from France and by pretty general consent the worst movie in concorso.

Never mind!

Whenever we thought all was lost at the 67th Venice Film Festival, winners blew in like tumbleweed. They might be slender, might be modest, but they indicated life and growth in the desert. Among small pleasures my favourites included Patrick Keiller’s ROBINSON IN RUINS and Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF. The first is a British pastoral documentary – how else describe it? – from a filmmaker whose past works (LONDON, ROBINSON IN SPACE) teasingly trace social/cultural/economic history in the curves and tilth of the UK countryside. Sometimes Keiller is drily authoritative, at others a seriocomical tease. ‘Robinson’ is his unseen protagonist, a German-born agro-boffin supposedly cast away on the Britannic isle (like Robinson Crusoe) to sleuth the footprints of a nation’s past, present and potential future.

Kelly Reichardt, in MEEK’S CUTOFF, bounces back from that damn film about a dog everyone liked and I didn’t, WENDY AND LUCY. This is an eschatological western, exploring the point where hope ends and so might life as a three-family wagon train gets lost in the Oregon desert. They end up trusting to a dodgy white guide (Bruce Greenwood) and dodgier Indian captive (Rod Rondeaux). In bleak and fabulous landscapes the skeletons of despair start to show, as if x-rayed, through the Quaker clothes and the youthful trusting faces.

Reichardt, despite seeming to expand into genre cinema with a big-landscape movie about settlers versus Indians, takes care to tell us she’s still an indie director at heart. There are few concessions to spectacle. The screen is box-shaped, literally square as if shot with a primitive, pioneer camera. The cast is sub-stellar, though led by Michelle Williams.

So it was left to Ben Affleck’s THE TOWN and Richard J Lewis’s BARNEY’S VERSION to represent ‘Hollywood’ in the Mostra main event. Affleck’s Boston-set bank heist thriller scores for pace, script and idiomatic characterisation. This actor-turned-director, synonymous with career suicide back in the GIGLI/PEARL HARBOR days, keeps getting his professional credibility back in Venice. Four years ago he won Best Actor here for HOLLYWOODLAND. Did it help that he had brother Casey in Venice this year – a recent near-miss himself for Best Actor when he was pipped by co-star Brad Pitt in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES. Casey was squiring his likable, funky doc about Joaquin Phoenix, I’M STILL HERE.

BARNEY’S VERSION crashes through the usual stations of sentimental agony associated with a Mordecai Richler novel. Main point of interest: star Paul Giamatti. Playing Jewish he seems spookily like a new-millennnium reincarnation of Richard Dreyfuss: manic, emoting, eye-rolling, a ‘lovable’ grown-up baby at war with everything adult. The whole film tries a bit too hard to be loved. The coolest thing on show is the best: Waspy British actress Rosamund Pike (late of AN EDUCATION), glacial and gorgeous even though weirdly cast as a Jewish wife and mama.

Stars? There weren’t too many tripping the red carpet this year. Probably too risky for the big-name celebs. They might take a wrong turn and fall straight into the building-site hole. But nothing keeps Catherine Deneuve or Gerard Depardieu away from the spotlight. They were the stars of Francois Ozon’s POTICHE, the purest, silliest fun of the festival. It’s an adapted stage comedy, a boulevard trifle about a factory boss (Fabrice Luchini) forced to retire by his ambitious wife (Deneuve) in collusion with the ex-communist mayor (Depardieu). Luchini then becomes the ‘trophy husband’ of the title. Ozon directs with all campy barrels firing. Deneuve gets to sing. Depardieu is barely restrained from dancing. Fun is had by all, not least the audience.

A feeling of ‘seize the day,’ or as they said in these parts 2,000 years ago, ‘carpe diem,’ was hardly surprising. On the Lido this year reminders of change and finitude were everywhere. Not just that hole in the ground, but the apocalyptic news that the Hotel Des Bains will close to become a set of luxury apartments. It will preserve a small part for wealthy overnighters. The rest will become Condoland on the Adriatic.

Hotel Des Bains? Doesn’t ring a bell with you? Oh reader, hear the bells that rang long ago from room to kitchen, to front desk, to bar service, to tuxedo-pressing. Thomas Mann, Gustav von Aschenbach, Dirk Bogarde and Luchino Visconti all stayed there, respectively the author, hero and screen star and director of DEATH IN VENICE. Everyone once stayed here. I once stayed here. The place was a bella epoca legend.

Closure too, though temporary, is the sentence passed for next year on the Excelsior Hotel, the Lido’s other palace for the plutocracy. It will close for improvements. Look at the place, dear reader. Does it look as if it could be improved?

But we mustn’t stay the hand of history. All will be better in the best of all possible festival islands. And by 2011 we will have swapped a cuckoo jury for a sane one. This year’s delivered the most gaga prizes on record.

The Golden Lion went to Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE – I haven’t changed my opinion, see paragraph 20 – while the runner-up Special Jury Prize was handed to Skolimowski’s ESSENTIAL KILLING (see paragraph 18), for which Vincent Gallo won Best Actor. Best Actress went to Ariane Labed, playing the alienated daughter of a dying architect in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Athens-set ATTENBERG, which is, in essence, SOMEWHERE done as whimsical Greek tragedy.

With howling injustice China’s THE DITCH and Japan’s NORWEGIAN WOOD went prizeless, while Russia’s SILENT SOULS was fobbed off with Best Cinematography. (Nice hands, dear).

Yes, we definitely need a better jury or jury president. Get me Henry Fonda. Or alternatively get me last year’s jurors, who not only nailed the Best Film – LEBANON – but got every other prize right. As befits a team led by Quentin Tarantino, this year’s jurors were inglourious basterds. Another Adriatic hurricane such as the one on the first day will deal with a similar jury if picked again.

In the meantime, book my gondola for 2011. It is the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. It will be the party to end all parties. Viva L’Italia. Viva Garibaldi. Viva la Mostra.





©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved


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