The line-up for this year’s Venice film festival looked excellent and it had to be. With Cannes snatching some of the most prestigious directors (Malick being a particular catch) and Toronto nibbling away at its calendar, Venice is beginning to look increasingly embattled, threatened as it also is by domestic rival Rome and increasingly important European festivals in London and Berlin.
The programme offered a good mix of established hands – David Cronenberg, Roman Polanski, Ermanno Olmi and William Friedkin – and relative new-comers – Yorgos Lanthimos presented his follow-up to last year’s Oscar contender Dogtooth, Tomas Alfredson cashed his Let the Right One In cheque with a classy le Carré adaptation and Britain’s very own Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold were both in the main competition, making it the strongest British presence that Venice had seen for years.
One of the first things that became apparent was the fact that many entries were drinking from a theatrical well. Polanski’s Carnage, based on the French play by Yasmina Reza, maintained its stage origins most closely, refusing to pretend that it was anything other than filmed theatre. This one-set, real-time play follows two couples attempting to come to a civilised agreement after a fracas between their children ended with one of the boys in hospital. Each character begins firmly in control of their respective roles: Christoph Waltz is a high-powered, Blackberrying lawyer, Kate Winslet is the beautiful wife who smoothes things over; John C. Reilly plays the kind of ‘hail fellow well met’ type familiar from his many character parts and Jodie Foster a furrowed-browed finicky liberal who won’t let matters rest. However, as the strictures of middle-class politeness struggle with a primal urge to have the last word, each character regresses to something much more savage. The result is often hilarious and the film is a master class in acting, with each character a lead, and in minimalistic direction as Polanski manages to make his limited resources play out to their best advantage. In this he achieves what Sidney Lumet managed in 12 Angry Men.
If Carnage doesn’t quite fulfil the hyperbole of its title, Killer Joe could just as easily snatch it for a one-word summary. William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracey Lett’s play is a ferocious dissection of a Texas trailer park family; absurdist and blackly funny, the film goes somewhere to re-establishing Friedkin after years in the wilderness and shows, perhaps for the first time, that Matthew McConaughey can act. David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method was a solidly realised version of Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Method (Hampton had also done the English translation of Carnage but there have been wrangles about credit), and yet Cronenberg suffered from the expectations raised by his own career. Had this been directed by Stephen Frears, the plaudits would have flowed, but with the director of Crash handling sexual shenanigans, madness and Freud, many felt let down by the formal restraint on display.
Michael Fassbender’s spanking of Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method paled in comparison with Mr Fassbender’s second festival performance in Steve McQueen’s Shame. This was one of the highlights of the festival and Fassbender fully deserved the best actor prize he subsequently won. He plays Brandon, a successful New Yorker whose fastidiously orderly life is threatened by his compulsive sexual needs. The arrival of an untidy and emotionally needy sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, sets to tip the balance towards the chaos that always threatened. As only McQueen’s second feature, the film is remarkably confident. Compositions are assured and scenes are held long past the time required, but to wonderful effect. Carey Mulligan’s performance of ‘New York, New York’ is given in its entirety and almost all of it in a close-up of the singer’s face, allowing us to become immersed in the experience. The film refuses a pat pathology of sexual addiction and sex is seen in its whole spectrum, from the genuinely sexy to the mechanical and boring, the sleazy to the pure and occasionally the comic. Its explicitness is well earned and applied.
Unfortunately, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights came over less as a passionate love story than a convincing but cold post-colonial reading of the mid-19th-century Victorian novel. The academic validity of certain choices (a black Heathcliff and the use of non-professional actors) sadly did not translate into on-screen interest. The sense of place is marvellously rendered – never has the Wuthering of Wuthering Heights been so effectively reproduced – but a film that should have left the audience emotionally exhausted left many simply exhausted, with none of the affecting power of, say, Jane Campion’s better period pieces. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a much more appropriately cold adaptation, which oddly packed more of an emotional punch.
Other fare in competition included Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow up to Dogtooth, Alpis. As decidedly oddball as his previous film, Alpis follows a small group (the Alps of the title) who hire out their services substituting for a recently dead family member or friend, reciting set speeches, wearing items of their clothing and re-enacting scenarios. The film lacks any real sense of reality to offset the barmy ideas of the Alps group; there is no outside world, the way there is in Dogtooth. In fact it is almost as if the madness contained in the family of the earlier film has infected the whole of society, and so no one questions the morality or even efficacy of what the group are trying to accomplish.
Perhaps the surprises of the festival were Johnnie To’s Life without Principle and Sion Sono’s Himizu, which won best newcomer awards for its teenage actors. Both filmmakers have been made famous by their often extreme genre pieces, but these films were more mature and weirdly quieter films. Life without Principle sees the financial crisis affecting a series of characters, cops and criminals alike, whose scurrying to fix things seems trivially small set to the background of the amoral, if not immoral, operations of the banks.
Himizu starts with a nightmare vision filmed in one of the worst hit areas of post-tsunami Japan. Two teenagers are left to fend for themselves as all the structures of society fail: family, school, the police. There is violence in the film but it is divided between the innocent violence of the rough and tumble of emerging adolescent sexuality and the more sinister grown-up version of the yakuza, and more disturbingly still, parental violence, which is located often in the brutal dialogue as much as in fists and feet.
Himizu and Alpis both picked up prizes and the Golden Lion went to Sokurov’s Faust, an unapologetic piece of high cinematic art that mixed inventiveness and wit with occasional stretches of tedium. It very much served to highlight, however, Venice’s resolve to serve both the glamour the Lido provides for visiting Hollywood royalty – George Clooney has been almost a fixture since Good Night, and Good Luck premiered here in 2005 – and showcase cinema from the most challenging directors.