Venice Film Festival had an incredible line-up this year, with films directed by the Coen Brothers, Cuarón, Greengrass, Guadanino, Lanthimos and Mike Leigh, starring famous actors such as Tilda Swinton, Nathalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly and unexpectedly, Lady Gaga, who debuted in a leading role in a film presented out of competition – A Star is Born, with Bradley Cooper who also directed the film, a remarkable debut.
All in all, it was a thrilling edition. Most screenings have divided the press and the public, a desirable outcome actually since it makes for more passionate conversations. I haven’t seen all the movies in the official competition because I also watched a parallel section, Orizzonti, from which I can recommend this intense drama from Uruguay, The Twelve Year Night. Unfortunately I missed Rome, Cuarón’s Mexico-set drama, a personal film that took the Leone d’Oro this year, awarded by a jury chaired by Guillermo del Toro. Roma will also be screening at London Film Festival in October and will be out on Netflix in December.
From all the movies I saw in Venice, there are three that stood out and that I critically embraced without a shadow of a doubt:
I wasn’t at all surprised that it took the Grand Jury Prize. If you’re not a fan of the macabre fictional universe the Greek director got you accustomed to, I understand, it’s not to everyone’s taste, but this film is very different in tone, being based on an original script signed by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara whose screenwriting career I’ll have to follow closely from now on. At the same time the film retains the same technical virtuosity, sublime camera movements and mise-en-scène with which Lanthimos impressed in his previous creations, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And the result of this collaboration is an astonishingly sumptuous and scrumptious film.
In short, the action takes place around 1700 at the court of Queen Anne, played with extraordinary flair by Olivia Colman who took the prize for Best Actress. Rachel Weisz is Lady Sarah, the queen’s right hand and her favourite, for reasons that become clear after 30 minutes of viewing time (do not read the synopsis!). Lady Sarah struck me as the strongest female character in the history of cinema, her strategic skills in conducting the war with France only surpassed by her cunning in the way she leads her personal life. Lady Sarah is omnipresent in the film and conquers you by always saying what she thinks, to the dismay of most males at the court, whom she humiliates without the slightest hesitation. Asked why she does this so consistently, she answers bluntly: “A lady must have her fun.”
But the fun starts to turn sour when Lady Sarah realises that her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whom she takes under her protection at the beginning of the film, is even more cunning and skilful than she is, something that this powerful character couldn’t have foreseen in her blinding arrogance. What follows is a fierce personal duel between these two different types of femininity for the place of Queen Anne’s “favourite”. We are humorously entertained to see the different strategies the two rivals use to achieve their goal. It’s like a game of chess. Abigail, more rudimentary, goes straight to the target by directly fulfilling Queen Anne’s physical and emotional needs, while Lady Sarah tries to upstage her by more sophisticated manoeuvres, her tactful deploying of humour in the bathing scene being one example. In the end, Queen Anne seems to regain her strength and mental faculties and with them, her dignity. Unfortunately, it’s all an appearance as long as there’s a favourite!
I’m not much into Westerns but this film was top of my to-watch list in Venice being a big fan of Jacques Audiard, one of the best directors working today in my opinion. You must have heard of A Prophet (2009) or Dheepan for which he took the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2015.
His latest film and the first one in English, The Sisters Brothers, is, at least on the face of it, a Western whose action takes place in 1850 in America, a period known in history as the Gold Rush, a very fertile source of inspiration that makes you think immediately of Charlie Chaplin’s film from 1925, The Gold Rush.
Bu why would Audiard, who is an auteur, be interested in tackling the Western genre? Here’s why I think he was interested. The classical Western is a tool America used to explain itself. Who makes the law and what does the law stipulate? Where is the frontier? Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys? Each Western was a national ritual dramatising the triumph of civilisation, the victory of a socially responsible individual towards the Indian “savages”, a very hypocritical narrative, hence the amount of revisionist Westerns, such as the one under discussion.
In contrast to the classical Western, there is no Indian savage in Audiard’s film. The Sisters Brothers are two notorious assassins working for a mobster in Oregon City known as Commodore. Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is the elder brother and the more responsible of the two, while Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) is a rebel and a drunk. Their mission is to catch Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a prospector who invented an effective way to find gold, based on scientific methods. But they are not the only ones on his trail, there is also John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a well-educated detective who writes them regularly. At some point, the letters become implausible and the Sisters brothers start to suspect that something is wrong. Should they go ahead, at the risk of losing their lives or should they return home and change careers? But what kind of life could they build for themselves, wonders Eli Sisters, very keen on re-inventing himself. Perhaps they could open a shop? Huh?His brother Charlie is not so sure.
What’s interesting about this movie is not what happens on the screen, even though the action does not disappoint for a second. What really captivated me is the characterisation of the brothers of the title. Their psychological profile is the opposite of what you expect and it gradually emerges from their incessant chatting and mutual teasing in times of peace on screen. Although they come across as two macho males armed with all the arsenal of guns and pistols to decimate an entire brothel within seconds, the last scene of the movie marvellously captures their psychological essence: the two skilled assassins are in reality two tired little boys who can’t wait to go home to their mum! And with this very funny story of two homesick brothers that challenges obsolete notions of masculinity in cinema, Audiard took the Best Director Award at Venice Film Festival this year.
3. VOX LUX
This extravagant, baroque creation from Brady Corbet (who distinguished himself on the Lido in 2015 with The Childhood of a Leader and whom you saw as an actor in Haneke’s Funny Games as well as a host of independent American films) is the most daring piece of cinema I saw in a while. The film could have been a total fiasco due to the unusual narrative techniques it adopts and the tendency to combine somewhat disparate ideas. But it’s not, quite to the contrary, it’s phenomenal!
Structured as an opera, with a prologue, two acts and epilogue, Vox Lux is the furthest away from classical cinema, with its strict rules of building a story. The film actually seems to draw more from literary techniques. The result is seductively agile, highly effective and surprisingly cinematic. Just when you expect the movie you’re watching to engage in a certain direction, it suddenly changes course and drags you down a different, but equally delirious, path.
With a stellar cast (Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin), the film tells the story of Celeste, a child with an innocent air and musical talent, who, after a traumatic event in childhood, becomes famous overnight and turns into an extremely anxious diva / pop star with a behaviour that borders on the ridiculous. But the film has a greater ambition than to trace the birth of a celebrity in the making. The director uses Celeste’s character to illustrate how key events of contemporary history impact her personality. These events are succinctly dealt with, Corbet doesn’t bore you with a detailed socio-political dissection. Moreover, he carefully selects a handful of contemporary events that intersect the story. Thus, the narrative is punctuated by numerous intrusions in voiceover and filmed in fast-forward, from a commentary about Abba’s importance on the Swedish music scene, to the shock of 9/11, a terrorist attack on a beach in Croatia, in relation to which Celeste is being interviewed by journalists in a memorable scene in the film. It all culminates in an adrenaline-inducing music performance worthy of Grace Jones and you leave the cinema dizzy and enthralled.
I would have also liked to include Guadanino’s Suspiria, with a superb Dakota Johnson in the main role and a most powerful performance from Tilda Swinton, but something was a bit awry in it – the film is so overloaded with symbolism, it brought to the mind’s eye a heavily adorned Christmas tree that’s about to fall over.
I also had high expectations from Werk ohne Author (Never Look Away) from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck but it lacks the impact of his debut film, The Lives of Others and it also packs in some strange inconsistencies in the portrayal of some of the characters. I enjoyed watching it though, and this was mainly due to mesmerising performances from Tom Schilling Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer.