The 67th Venice Film Festival pulled off the difficult trick of presenting a diverse roster of films while simultaneously maintaining a thematic consistency. Mental instability, for instance, featured large as film after film was populated by psychopaths (13 Assassins and Homeland), suicidal depressives (Norwegian Wood), the institutionalised (La pecora nera), Gilliam-esque dream animations of brawling psychiatrists (Surviving Life) or the encroaching depredations of age (Barney’s Version). The opening film by Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan, is a portrait of a ballerina (Natalie Portman) on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a jangling mix between The Red Shoes, Cronenberg-like body horror and Repulsion. The film is almost as mad as its subject matter, and whether it’s any good or not seems beside the point. The madness inherent in art was also applied to filmmaking itself in Sofia Coppola’s airless Somewhere, in which Stephen Dorff looks like Bryan Adams. Initially setting off to attack the pressures of fame, Coppola pulls her punches so much she ends up hitting herself in the face. Her Hollywood is far from the horrific excesses of Italy, which replaces Lost in Translation‘s Japan as the defining and mitigating other â€” movie people are basically decent people who just need to realise how much they love their daughters. Dorff’s angst is never credible and his meltdown feels like an Oscar clip, rather than any genuine torment.
Far from Coppola’s sleepy indulgence, I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s ferocious mockumentary, deconstructs the celebrity in the form of Joaquin Phoenix, only to reserve its genuine ire for the culture that elevates only to destroy. A bloated, chain-smoking Phoenix produces the most courageous performance since Andy Kaufman stepped into a wrestling ring.
Alongside the insanity there were tales of sexual awakening (the Greek gem Attenberg, which won Ariane Labed a best actress award) or adventuring (the French film Happy Few and Tykwer’s brilliant Drei). The latter two were both refreshingly intent on the normalcy of sexual adventure, setting acutely observed comedies in comfortable yuppie households, where a more open idea of sexual love can be possible, at least until they run out of steam.
East Asian Cinema was well represented with Tran Anh Hung’s aforementioned Norwegian Wood, films from Tsui Hark, Andrew Lau and Takeshi Miike, as well as a lifetime achievement award for John Woo (there was also a screening of his co-directed production, the intricate Reign of Assassins) and a surprise entry into competition of Wang Bing’s The Ditch, a harrowing account of the experiences of forced labour camp in the Gobi desert. Miike’s film 13 Assassins merits a mention as a blood-soaked samurai epic that is amusing without ever being silly (except for the scene with the bulls).
Of course, there were films that don’t fit into any easy parallel or thematic schema. Vincent Gallo annoyed the hell out of everyone with his indulgent tosh Promises Written in Water (which he wrote, edited, produced, scored and directed) before infuriating everyone even more by turning in an excellently intense performance in Essential Killing, elevating what is an implausible Taliban version of The Fugitive into something hypnotically special. There were two slick entries from veteran French cineastes, Le Bruit des glaÃ§ons by Bertrand Blier and Potiche from FranÃ§ois Ozon, the latter, a political comedy from the 1970s featuring crowd-pleasing turns from Gérard Depardieu and a phenomenal Catherine Deneuve as a kind of Sarah Palin with brains (that is to say…).
Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff was the kind of Western Kubrick might have made. As slow-paced as the century in which it is set, the film tells the tale of a nascent America, in the form of three families split off from a wagon train, trying to find their way. Full of possible contemporary analogies, (ie to Bush’s legacy in the figure of the bloody-minded but hopelessly lost Meek), the film is rich in historical detail and is enduringly compelling to it. Similarly paced and equally powerful is the Russian film (also showing in competition) Silent Souls, which relates the journey of two men transporting the body of a loved wife through Russia to be burnt by the river in accordance with their Merjan culture: a magical film on the persistence of difference in what seems to be, on the surface, a globalised and homogenised culture.
The disaster of the festival was Julian Schnabel’s Miral, which championed the Palestinian cause via the history of an orphanage so cack-handedly as to make one wonder if it wasn’t financed by Mossad. The odd visually striking set-piece was hopelessly marred by tin-eared dialogue (much of it, nonsensically, in English), Mrs Merton wigs and a rushed pace that forced the audience to give up any hope of caring about the characters despite the cloying prodding of the soundtrack.