The 69th Venice Film Festival opened with a slightly beleaguered air. The encroachments of international – Toronto overlaps with Venice – and domestic rivals seem to have taken their toll. The veteran organiser Marco Mueller had left with his address book and took over Rome, which is rumoured to be lining up an impressive roster of films for November. Meanwhile, the programme of 18 films in competition and a bunch in sidebars looked like a chance to see some festival regulars (Ulrich Seidl, Kim Ki-duk, Takeshi Kitano, Brillante Mendoza) and a couple of big Hollywood films (most notably The Master) only days before they were screening at Toronto. As a knock-on effect, there were practically no Northern American journalists on the Lido this year. And yet the festival turned out to have more than one surprise.
In an early scene from Terrence ‘The Machine’ Malick’s new offering To the Wonder, two lovers, Neil (Ben Afleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), on a visit to Mont Saint Michel almost get caught with the tide coming in. Light will be captured through the spray of a garden hose, there will be mist, and rain, snow and puddles, but it is this moment of time passing, an unstoppable and dangerous flux, which the film returns to again and again. And again. And Neil and Marina’s French passion fizzles in the suburban spaces and wide skies of Oklahoma. With a firmly established aesthetic – ‘magic hour’ photography, copious voice-over, elliptical narrative – last year’s Tree of Life divided audiences along the fully clothed and the obviously nude emperor line: one thing not in doubt was that even if you hated the film, there was ambition and great technical skill. When we hear the first word of the voice-over in To the Wonder– ‘newborn’ – the heart sinks. Here we go again. The voice-over tells us why Neil and Marina are in love and what happens in their relationship while we watch them acting out the narration. There’s no reason they’re in love or out of love except what we are told. A guess might be that Neil gets bored of Marina’s interminable dancing, her embracing of the sunlight, her dashing off through fields and not only her tree-hugging but at one point twig-licking. And the film dances along with her. The Steadicam swoops and the sequences are all cut like some intellectual Michael Bay, never allowing us to settle and actually engage in character, or watch the drama unfold. This is essentially a melodrama directed by someone who doesn’t understand melodrama: there’s nothing to latch onto. No characters, no conflict. And no blocking. Afleck and Kurylenko look lost. Javier Bardem turns up as a Catholic priest and gives us some tedious preaching about love and Jesus. His social conscience is signalled by the fact that he wanders around (also looking lost) in a poor neighbourhood. The moment is insultingly flippant. What made Malick’s previous films was the way they portrayed characters in the midst of an environment that had a vital relationship to them. Here however the GPS signal is weak.
Whereas Tree of Life was determined to involve all elements, To the Wonder is a watercolour, the only Malick film I’ve seen not to have some fire at its heart, both literal and metaphorical.
Also set on a precarious waterline is Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb (Sinapupunan, 2012). Set in the out-to-sea Philippine stilted villages of Tawi-Tawi, Mendoza’s film tells the story of an infertile midwife, Shaleha (Nora Aunor), and her husband Bangas An (Bembol Rocco). Following an almost fatal shooting incident, Shaleha decides to find her husband a second wife who will be able to bear him a child. Mendoza and his actors create real people with a subtle awareness of gesture and asensitivity to the complex emotions the two characters are living through. There could not be a starker contrast with Malick’s unconvincing meandering.
Also in competition, but sadly neglected when it came to awards, was Jessica Woodworth and Petter Brosens’s The Fifth Season. Closing a trilogy of films that included Khadak (2006) and Altiplano (2009), the latest work from Belgian husband and wife team is a piece of magical realism. Seen from within the limits of a small Belgian village, a calamity strikes nature, putting the seasons out of joint. Winter refuses to budge and the crops fail, soon starvation beckons. The slow disintegration of social ties and the descent towards irrationality and cruelty is seen through the wide staring eyes of Alice (Aurélia Poirier) and Thomas (Django Schrevens), two youngsters, whose love also suffers. The Fifth Season is a deliberate and moving piece of work, which is informed also by an absurdist sense of humour that bursts from outsider and beekeeper Pol (Sam Louwyck). Here there was danger and love and an environment broken. There was also humour and wit amid the horror that made this one of the most effective films of recent years to talk to our changing relationship to the environment.