AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE 54th VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
IT CAME. It soared. It conquered.
We gasped at the fluttering
mane, marvelled at the crackling wings, trembled
at the six-track roar! The beast that turns to gold each September, to hug
the latest nervously lionized auteur, starred this year in his very own, new,
digitally animated logo-movie. It preceded each program and was a knockout.
In glorious color, the CGI lion flies over Venice's canals and roofs before
settling with a stern roar on its St. Mark's Square pillar and morphing into
the film festival trademark: a bossed shield aglow with gold lettering.
People instantly noted the likeness to new
He had to put himself about, since in early days this Mostra looked suspiciously like business as usual: semi-controlled pandemonium. Press screenings beset by delays and technical hitches unspooled, or didn't, in the Palagalileo, a hangar-style hall and former open-air arena named after the man who helped to invent space, gravity, and the telescope. Galileo said it first, but we all said it again this year as a chant of faith: "E pur si muove" – There will be movies!
kept dashing before the audience to make speeches in passionate Italian. He
said things would get better and they eventually did. For this was the new
America still managed to
smuggle in Air Force One and Cop Land, with crowd-gathering
The Winter Guest is directed by Alan Rickman, once known for
delivering such momentous lines as "Ziss is a
gun, Mr. McClane" (Die Hard) and
"Cancel Christmas!" (Robin Hood). Rickman maroons Emma
Thompson and a supporting cast of seven in a frozen fishing village
somewhere in Fableland. Against pellucid, gorgeous
backdrops, four cross-generational couples – a pair of woman gossips, two
schoolboys playing on the beach, two lovestruck
teenagers, and Emma herself plus real-life mom Phyllida
Law as her mom – act out barely intersecting duologues on hope, love, loss,
and emotional horizons. The line readings are overtutored,
as we might expect from a stage actor turned movie helmer.
And at times the snow-crusted scenery seems like Ultimo
Wilde is another go at the downfall of dear Oscar. Brian Gilbert's biopic was no doubt prompted by a new age of graphic liberalism in the movies – there is a lot of all-male embracing – and by the availability of an actor designed by nature to play the heavyweight dandy with the feather-fine wit. Brit comedian Stephen Fry is tall, elegant, and whimsical, and wears fin-de-siècle clothes as if born in them. Though a touch underpitched, his performance is a perfect center for others to whirl around, including Jude Law's Bosie – an angel with dirty thoughts – and Tom Wilkinson's mad, bad Lord Queensberry, whose sidewhiskers look like smoke seeping from a volcano. Vanessa Redgrave is brief, barmy, and sensational as Wilde's Irish mom, and Gilbert has the taste and sense to let the lush period design sit back and act as foil to the thespian folderol.
The Tango Lesson was quite the oddest pic
in the festival. A critic friend came up to me after it and said, "I
don't want to watch two hours of Mrs. Thatcher learning the tango." And
yes, writer-director-star Sally Potter does look like a bit like Mrs. T,
though you could hardly call prior feminist syntagmas
like The Gold Diggers and
Potter, playing Potter, wants to parlay her newfound passion for the tango into a movie. So she signs up three men who earn their livelihoods tripping and teaching the dark fantastic, starts to hunt for finance, and well, that's about it for plot. That and her love affair with Veron, a sort of young Gilbert Roland with exploding hair and beard.
But this black-and-white yarn – as shadowy and beautiful as a Lang movie – is full of subtle caesurae: little dialogue scenes or visual entr'actes in which the larger themes are allowed to breathe and grow. It's about the synaesthetic frustrations of love and art. It's about the trials of human faith in every arena from romance to moviemaking to religion. It's about the dilemma of who leads whom when a woman used to giving orders on a movie set seeks creative, and amorous, entente with a lord of the dance trained in the most male-chauvinist mating ballet in the world.
WHO LEADS WHOM? It was the
question of the fortnight at
And both theoretically and
practically, popcorners could enjoy Paolo Virzi's really good Ovosodo from
For sterner tastes there were
austerity gigs like
So the East was expected once
again to wrest or rescue the Golden Lion. But even here the first high hope,
Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool, was a letdown. His modern-day urban comedy begins
as Cyrano de Bergerac, with the stammering hero hiring passers-by to
yell endearments at his highrise-dwelling beloved.
Then it turns into a bilious buddy romp, built around a feud with another man
over a computer busted in a street fight. Zhang has decided on a stylistic
change of pace. Out with lush classical symmetry; in with hand-held camera,
bulging closeups, hectic editing. It's Wong Kar-wai on steroids; MTV gone east;
Wayne Wang's tribute to the last days of colonial Hong Kong, Chinese Box, was little better. West meets East in a movie that's like outtakes in search of a script. Gong Li clenches majestic cheek-bones as the courtesan who loves – ah! too late – the dying Jeremy Irons, while Oriental action star Maggie Cheung plays the scarred, defiant street waif who won't lie down with the Brits or the Chinese. Irons is a photojournalist with a "rare form" of leukemia: that is, one favored by movie screenwriters. His history-conscious doctor, diagnosing him in late '96, gives him "three to six months" to live, so we're pretty sure he'll beg out symbolically around handover day. His death, like his whole life in this movie, is a display of chic cutting, gestural rhetoric, and glassy cliché, again proving that great historical moments are not foolproof templates for great historical movies.
The other keenly awaited flick
of Eastern origin or ambience, Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi (Fireworks) was quieter and
slower, and Zen some. Kitano's self-played cop hero Sergeant Nishi has become
a modern Japanese icon: Dirty Harry in the shadow of
No one could really complain
about anything by the end of this friendly fest. Laudadio
was known to drag unprotesting critics off to
vinous lunches. The agelessly gorgeous Charlotte Rampling
was everywhere, doubling as jury member and star of
Since Jane herself gave us a
Henry James pic at
Expressionism is the new
British forte. Twenty-four hours before this high-octane heritage flick we
savored the mad brutalism of the best Limeyland
late-show of all. Jez Butterworth's Mojo proves that
EVEN THE BEST of British, though,
baled beside the cargo of imagination arriving on the last day from
The same characters go through much the same Laocoon wrestling with life and death, good and evil, medicine and meaning. But Kingdom 2 is better than a superior sequel: it's a deconstruction of the nature and expectations of the "continuing story." The struts and girders of individual subplots – a monster-baby (Udo Kier), a Masonic lodge, a kamikaze ambulance driver, a voodoo doctor who plucks out pausing patients' affected organs barehanded – are extended way beyond their architectural (or psychological) plausibility. Hence rupture, collapse, and warping become the new design structure.
The stories and characters in Kingdom
2 are almost uniformly crazed. But the film's madness grows from organic
faultlines and slyly deliberate
overreachings, as if in imitation of the
Trier again directs with a restive hand-held camera in a range of pale, sickly yellows and oranges. First shots of individual scenes flatter with a slightly richer color range, just like the frontispiece tableaux in Breaking the Waves. But this is just to dangle the "normal" world before us prior to exposing its fraudulence. The film is a postmodern ER, at once exegesis and parody of the wicked charms of the hospital saga. It is, of course, about these institutions as a model of the world, the universe, even of collapsing systems of faith. When one doctor says to another, "We always feared the day when patients would learn Latin – it's a code that stops them understanding," we hear a Reformist's dig at Catholicism – except that Trier would never stop at Reformation, he'd go right on, and does, to a high-romantic nihilism.
The Kingdom was the one
My operation is scheduled for...
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1997 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.