With the looming infringements of this year’s Toronto ahead and the snapping of the glitzy behemoth that is Cannes behind, the Venice International Festival of Cinematographic Art – the oldest international film festival in the world – is beginning to feels its age. Despite the roundness of the figure 70, the line up that was announced in August in Rome included few big names and no giants, and the sense at the festival was that the programme had been front loaded so that big-name journalists could leave halfway through and not miss much. That said, with the absence of big hitters, the field felt open and there was a general high level, including some surprises.
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
Festival favourite Hayao Miyazaki returned to the Lido with what is promised to be his last film, The Wind Rises, an epic biopic of the aeronautical designer Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), who dreams of great things and goes on to design the Mitsibushi Zero fighter. In Japan the film is being viewed as a timely intervention in the debate regarding the rewriting of the post-war pacifist constitution; but film’s pacifist stance and adoration of the dream-like qualities of airplanes clang at times with the real rise of fascism and the bellicose uses that Jiro’s dreams are put to. The film follows the myopic hero’s own vision in failing to see or ignore the obvious historical context of his work, the invasion of Manchuria and the disastrous course of the war. In fact, the soft development of a love affair between Jiro and Naoko (Miori Takimoto) increasingly becomes the dramatic focus and emotional core of the film. This is such a sui generis movie for Miyazaki that many fans of the Japanese animator will be confused, but deep down the themes are the same: the dangers and delights of a beguiling imagination.
Watch the trailer for The Wind Rises:
Child of God (James Franco, 2013)
James Franco has alienated many with his interview techniques, the temerity of his ambition and his pretty-boy good luck, but his latest literary adaptation, from the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God, is as much a snarling, feral beast as its protagonist Lester Ballard, played here with ferocious abandon by Scott Haze. Ballard is a disenfranchised woodsman who lurks in the mountains, gripping a rifle that seems a part of himself, while gripped by his own mental demons and a hidden yearning for company. Franco’s dedication to the original text can occasionally dip into Sixth Form literalism – to represent the different perspectives of the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, his version employs split screen throughout – and here lumps of text are quoted on screen; the plot of the book is followed closely, but the core of McCarthy’s concerns, the violence of male loneliness and madness of the heart and the head, are clearly depicted.
Watch the trailer for Child of God:
Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil.
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)
Having won the 1994 Golden Lion with Vive L’Amour, Tsai Ming-liang returned to the Lido with Stray Dogs, a ‘motion’ picture of glacial slowness, a portrait of life clawed by the sharp end of the Taiwanese free-market economy. Lee Kang-sheng is a human billboard, standing at a busy intersection to make some cash, battered by the wind and rain and the incessant thunder of the traffic. When not blowing his money on booze and cigarettes, he supports his son and daughter (played by the director’s nephew and niece), who have to fend for themselves during the day, eating free samples at supermarkets and killing time until they can retreat to the container squat where they sleep amid the flotsam. A kindly/disturbed supermarket worker (played by three actresses: Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Yi-ching) visits a ruined tower block to feed the ‘stray dogs’. She befriends the little girl and, when the drunken father tries to take the children away on his boat one stormy night, she rescues them.
The experience of watching the film is mixed. Initial curiosity and admiration for Ming-liang’s obvious skill at shot composition gives way to an awareness of boredom and discomfort as single shots of not-very-much-happening begin to push the ten-minute mark. The initial realism gives way to an absurdist, archly black humour. When we watch Kang-sheng holding up his sign for several minutes we can get an inkling of the boredom and unpleasantness of the job. Life is literally passing him by; he’s forced into paralysis by the harshness of an economic system which has no room for him. But later, as he stands staring at a wall with the woman who has taken in his family, I began to suspect Ming-liang was forcing his character into stasis as a way of preserving the austere beauty of his composition, and the wall staring was a meta-joke on us.
Watch the trailer for Stray Dogs:
Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, 2013)
With four feature films to his credit and at the fresh age of 24, Xavier Dolan might be someone any budding young director would gladly see roughed up, and in Tom at the Farm Dolan gives us that opportunity. Based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the young director casts himself as Tom, a dishwater-blonde city boy in an oversized leather jacket who drives into the rainy countryside to attend his lover’s funeral. However, once at the farm, Tom finds it difficult to escape the cloying needs of his lover’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy), who knows nothing of her son’s homosexuality, as well as the violent intimidation inflicted on Tom by elder son and psychopath, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). With a streak of self-loathing-fuelled sado-masochism, Tom’s burgeoning relationship with Francis goes from being enemies to something resembling a weird love affair. There is a Lynchian apprehension of the weirdness of normality, with the rural rain-drenched setting, the endless fields, the barns and creaking rooms of the farm, and the neon-lit bars adding a sense of Alfred Hitchcock menace. Gabriel Yared’s richly orchestral score swoops and soars with the delirious decadence of a Bernard Herrmann composition circa the 1950s.
From his casting to the score to the occasional change in film ratio, Dolan’s film is a firm-handed piece of filmmaking. The comedy is unnervingly funny and the performances are all top class. Towards the last third the restrictions of the origin material begin to impinge, but on the whole the film will continue to elevate the status of a precocious and fascinating talent.
Watch a clip from Tom at the Farm:
Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas, 2013)
Greece continues to challenge Austria as the world leader in miserablist exploitation with Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence, an icily efficient and technically accomplished portrait of a dysfunctional family, which ultimately has nothing new to say. Themis Panou – who picked up the Best Actor award – plays the quietly spoken head of a family that comes under official scrutiny when Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) leaps from the balcony to her death halfway through her 11th birthday party. Her mother and grandfather insist it was an accident, and the family try to resume their normal life, but just what that normality consists of is slowly revealed to be horrific abuse and exploitation. Treading closely in the footprints of Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Cannes success Dogtooth, Avranas manipulates his audience with his slow reveals and black absurdist humour. The banality of evil has sadly become something of a cliché and Miss Violence, from its baffling title to its glib provocation and tonal incongruities, revelled too much in what it ostensibly sought to deplore.
Watch the trailer for Miss Violence:
Via Castellana Bandiera (Emma Dante, 2013)
Writer, director and actress Emma Dante based her feature-film debut, the Sicilian-based drama A Street in Palermo on her own partly autobiographical novel, and took one of the lead roles. Rosa (Dante) has returned to Palermo for a wedding with her lover Clara (Alba Rohrwacher). Driving on a narrow street they come face to face with Samira (Elena Cotta, who picked up the Best Actress award at the festival) and her family. Samira has a life touched by tragedy and has regressed into an almost catatonic state. Egged on by her ne’er-do-well son-in-law Saro (Renato Malfatti) she refuses to budge and the two women are locked into a battle of wills. The neighbourhood watch on with interest as bets are placed and plots are formed around the nucleus of epic female intransigence.
The strength of Dante’s film is its slippery evasion of the clichés that abound in Italian cinema and which the opening of the film seems ready to reinforce. However, there is an abiding sense of mischief here, as the women enjoy their battle – indulging in a literal pissing match at one point with Leone-esque close-ups of the twitching eyes – to the numb incomprehension of those around them. The abiding irony is that the women have much more in common with each other than they do with those who are supposed to be close to them. Dante’s background in the theatre can be seen in the in the ensemble acting and the occasional Brechtian flourishes, such as a chorus of women who briefly invade Rosa’s car to proffer advice.
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.
The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him.
The Police Officer’s Wife (Philip Gröning, 2013)
Told in a series of 59 short chapters, Philip Gröning’s domestic-abuse jigsaw puzzle The Police Officer’s Wife is a gruelling, but disconcertingly and powerfully intimate close-up portrait of a nuclear family gone Chernobyl. Uwe (David Zimmerschied) is the police officer and Christine (Alexandra Finder), the eponymous wife, who live in a redbrick terrace house with their young daughter Clara. Their lives seem to be cut off from the outside world, but the elliptical style of storytelling means that very little is certain and nothing is explicitly laid out. Indeed, the narrative gaps that fall between the title cards ‘end of chapter x’ and ‘beginning of chapter x’ could represent the unknowability of interiority, and the motivations that lead to not only violent abuse, but the decision to submit to it. Gröning’s reputation was built on his documentary work, in particular 2005’s Into the Silence, and he is very good at achieving a neutral non-style for his camera and rendering the textures of confined domestic space. However, not giving the audience information is just as manipulative as spoonfeeding them. The inclusion of 118 chapter cards is an unnecessarily arch gesture at high-mindedness and feels, along with the accumulative power of the violence, to be punitive. The manner of the documenting of the violence drains its victim of any agency, in the same way Uwe does, and even makes her culpable in her own oppression. It is a film that will linger and irk and worry long after you’ve watched it, though the watching it is in itself a trial.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature films after an almost decade-long absence, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van, searching for young men who will not be missed. Mixing arthouse visuals of mesmerizing abstraction with naturalistic (and occasionally incomprehensible) street scenes and occasional lurches into Lynchian horror, the film escapes the gravitational pull of its genre and the dubious slightness – and potential misogyny – of its storyline. As with Johansson’s victims, we are beguiled by the look of the film, its self-confessedly empty eroticism and its otherworldly perspective on mundane British life. Whereas the criminally underrated Birth riffed on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Under the Skin ditches the lightweight satire of the Michael Faber source novel to absorb the influence of Nic Roeg – The Woman Who Fell to Earth if you will – and create a disturbing trip into the other.
Watch the trailer for Under the Skin: