By Zhuo-Ning Su.
The Venice Film Festival, the worldwide oldest festival celebrating cinema, ended its 71st run earlier this month (August 27- September 6). Traditionally ranked alongside Cannes and Berlin as one of the most important stops on the cinematic calendar, Venice has seen its profile in the festival world rise and fall in recent times. In the wake of Oscar’s schedule change in 2004, one could observe an upgrade of the glamour factor and corresponding media attention on the Lido, as more and more supposed Oscar contenders with major Hollywood actors chose to launch here, the new designated start of the fall award season. With competing festivals from Toronto and Telluride (or even New York) gaining clout and slowly establishing themselves as worthy alternatives to the prestigious but costly European platform, however, Venice has had a hard time securing those big, glitzy titles of late. For its 70th anniversary last year the fest managed to put together a properly impressive line-up, including such high-profile Oscar contenders/box office dynamite as Gravity and Philomena as well as arthouse gold from both English-language (Under the Skin) and international (Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm); 郊遊 (Stray Dogs)) auteurs that enjoyed a healthy subsequent run. This year, the program looked much lighter in buzz from the outset and proved even less exciting after the cat was out of the bag.
Sure enough there’s the highly anticipated title that also turned out to be the homerun everyone had suspected. In this case, it was the opening night film (incidentally also the best of all 28 films this author has seen at the fest this year) Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Wild, hypnotic, and metaphysical, the film tells the story of a washed-up actor, who used to be a household name playing a superhero, now trying to wage a comeback on Broadway by writing, directing and starring in his own play. The script, as fussily wordy as it sometimes is, weaves together a myriad of fascinating subjects like celebrity, authenticity, and perception versus reality, delivering an incisive, ruthlessly funny look inside show business and the essence of performance. Edited in a way as to invoke the impression that (almost) the whole movie is one single take (there are clearly separate, unrelated shots in the very beginning and near the end), it has a freewheeling, unpredictable rhythm to it that’s instantly irresistible. Swaying constantly between both sides of the curtain, the illusion of an unbroken narrative not just dazzles on an optical level but also reinforces a sense of unreliability, until the line between what’s real and what’s staged becomes almost too vague to distinguish.
Essential to the success of the film is the unsurprisingly astounding cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Racing down narrow corridors and staircases, zooming with soundless fluidity in and out of the characters’ faces, there’s an unstoppable energy to the camera. After witnessing his Oscar-winning work on last year’s opening night film Gravity, we get to experience his unquestionable mastery again, albeit within strictly earth-bound parameters here. And it’s no less breathtaking. The cast is also tremendous, led by a volcanic, wonderfully loose Michael Keaton, whose years as Batman no doubt feeds into the whole meta-aspect of the movie. But the performance is also strong on its own terms, fiery and always tinged with a hint of insanity, culminating in a scene later in the film that’s thunderous, inevitable, and almost scary to watch. Edward Norton is every bit as good as Keaton, bringing a pompous vanity and showmanship to the table that pushes his counterpart ever further towards the edge. Even those other actors in limited roles are mighty fine, starting with Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan, who, shining a respective sexy/maternal glow, pull the picture back to the ground when it threatens to float away on its own zaniness. Ultimately this film is the vision of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and what a vision this man has. By turns incredibly intimate—like the many discussions between fellow actors, between a performer and a critic, and between the different personas of one person—and outlandishly loud—like the handful of lavish effects shots featuring dragons and explosions—it’s a rich, varied dissection of a man’s psyche that’s not entirely plausible but fiercely riveting all the same.
Outside the high-flying opening night film, there’s scarcely another movie in the official competition that’s as remotely compelling. The eventual winner of the Golden Lion, En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence), which is not nearly as unanimously embraced by the critics as Birdman but certainly loved by some, also presents a unique vision, if a less substantiated one and one that, with its bloated eccentricity, feels much slighter than it thinks it is. Composed of vignettes short and long that are sometimes connected, the movie doesn’t have a plot as much as an overarching idea. And one would be hard-pressed even to explain what this idea is. Sure, it’s about the absurdity and transience of life, about how things never make sense and have never made sense, about this comical, sad, frustrating, strange thing called existence. But even as a story about pointlessness, this one is not as spectacularly realized as Swedish director Roy Andersson’s own previous two entries in the “trilogy about being a human being” (Sånger från andra våningen (Songs from the Second Floor) (2000) and Du levande (You, the Living) (2007)).
The numerous painstakingly designed and crafted sets do provide a visual feast and Andersson’s trademark taxidermic aesthetics are intact, but this time around they feel more limited in scope and imaginative reach. One could probably argue it symbolizes a more internalized continuation of his work, but without the grandeur, whether in style or narrative stroke, all that quirkiness does get old. That said, the film is pathologically pretty with acidly funny bits. A dying woman clinging on to her purse or a dance instructor openly caressing her student, for example, are simply conceived, carefully choreographed scenes that revel in their inappropriateness—in short, they’re a riot to watch. When all is said and done, this is a more than justifiable festival entry that should see a robust run in arthouse cinemas everywhere. It is just not as complete, as dynamic on a whole, as one would have hoped.
On the other side of the scale there are the bombs in the competition line-up, the percentage of which seems unusually high this year. Leading that list are, for this viewer at least, Italian director Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts and American helmer Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill. The former is a marital-drama-turned-thriller about a young couple who fights to fatal consequences over how to feed their new born son (not kidding). An inexplicable but absolute mistrust of the medical profession on the mother’s part is the central, and only conflict that drives the plot. The utter improbability of her extreme behavior, especially after being portrayed as a mild and personable character in the beginning, prevents you from ever relating or even caring. Add to that the loud, 80’s-Cinemaxx style direction that gives the movie its ludicrously over-the-top third act, and you have a stinker that’s not just dramatically tone-deaf but actively repellent. It’s a head-scratcher then that the competition jury chaired by Alexandre Desplat ended up bestowing two awards, namely the two acting prizes, upon this film. Even if a performance could be judged purely on its technical soundness independent of the quality of the written character, it’s a stretch to think those by Alba Rohrwacher and Adam Driver are the two worthiest choices. And that’s from someone who’s otherwise a major admirer of Rohrwacher’s work.
Equally poor in writing and directing is the war drama Good Kill, set against the background of military drones being increasingly employed to replace pilot jets in America’s anti-terrorist attacks. The lead character, played by a permanently zombie-faced Ethan Hawke, is on the one hand disillusioned that he doesn’t get to fly and kill anymore, but seems at the same time ever more consumed by the deaths he causes at the drone control. The script is fraught with not just contradictions but also clichés of every sort and is basically just hammering on the one age-old mantra of all anti-war movies: killing people is bad for you. It brings nothing new to the table except to exchange the conventional scenes of soldiers in battle with those of them sitting around pressing buttons, over and over again. Clunky in dialogue, rigid in direction and just breathtakingly dull, this movie has no business being at a film festival.
And then there are the other misfires that are not as all-out terrible but do nothing to raise the bar or rock the boat either, like David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn and Xavier Beauvois’ La rançon de la gloire (The Price of Fame). Both Green and Beauvois arrive after great critical success with their previous films (Prince Avalanche (2013) won Best Director at the Berlinale, Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men) (2010) won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes) so, on paper, their credentials would be solid enough for a placement in competition. But Manglehorn, a drama about a socially inept locksmith, turned out to be quite sappily written and, in its attempt at a meditative note, airless and uninteresting. Al Pacino mumbles and rants through the movie, overdoing the awkwardness of someone not used to intimacy and communication, while poor Holly Hunter is stuck in the thankless role of a lovesick bank teller, with her usual piercing alertness all but wasted.
The French comedy La rançon de la gloire (The Price of Fame) is adored by some, but did not register with this viewer. Depicting the theft of Charlie Chaplin’s coffin for ransom by two amateur criminals in 70s Switzerland, it’s uninspired in writing and broad in execution. The various mishaps never sound believable and the whole third-act addition of a circus subplot feels unnecessary if not downright desperate. The selection of these average-to-awful movies, none of which seems promising either in commercial prospects or critical reception, suggests an autopilot name-recognition on the part of the festival programmers that’s worrisome.
Falling somewhere in between the good and the bad are films like French relationship drama 3 coeurs (Three Hearts), Russian semi-documentary Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman’s White Nights)”, Japanese WWII gore-fest 野火 (Fires on the Plain), Italian biopic Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi), German/Turkish historical odyssey The Cut, and possibly the token queer cinema entry Pasolini from American provocateur Abel Ferrara. None of them sent the people on Lido wild but they got positive reaction to varying degrees.
Despised by some with vehemence, Benoît Jacquot’s 3 coeurs (Three Hearts) is an imperfectly conceived love triangle with a man inadvertently caught between two sisters. With a central conceit that doesn’t ring true and an overzealous, darkly droning score that tries to dictate the tone every step of the way, the movie is doomed from the start. But there’s plenty to like in the forceful direction that pushes the story forward with a muscular arm while always mindful of the subtlest emotional fluctuations in the group dynamics. Shot and edited with a rhythmic precision that’s almost erotic, the film has a palpable beat to match its adult, near-thriller sensibilities. And all three actors in the principal cast are outstanding, with Benoît Poelvoorde and Chiara Mastroianni holding up their end of the dance expertly against the dependably wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg. Looking at any given moment both rebellious and vulnerable, hers is a face so splendidly unreadable you don’t ever want to move your eyes away from it. Playing a woman trapped by pride, desire and guilt, it’s another effortlessly involving performance that mesmerizes and devastates.
Also dismissed by many is German auteur Fatih Akin’s The Cut, which follows an Armenian man persecuted under the Ottoman Empire on his journey out of enslavement in search of his daughters. Flatly descriptive and maddeningly linear, it’s definitely not an exciting or surprising narrative. But the technical achievements of this film are undeniable. Textured production and costume design evoke the flair of a bygone era and the sprawling vista strikingly photographed completes a visually sumptuous picture. The distinctly aggressive original score with a main theme largely based on electric guitar and bass is fantastic, pinning you to your seat with its sad, angry, dangerous melody.
The complaint of style over substance applies to Pasolini as well, a biopic chronicling the last days of famed Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life. The film is certainly a slight exercise, feeling with its 86-min running time limited in every way. And to have Willem Dafoe play the titular character delivering his lines predominantly in English is plainly ill-considered. That said, Ferrara is clearly having a blast sculpting this sleek, shiny plaything, and the somber but seductive campiness, facilitated through breezy camera work and silky smooth art direction, is infectious. How he jumps between reality and fiction in his storytelling is, if not the most original exercise, a nonetheless effective way to add formal complexity to this tricky little film.
The other biopic Il giovane favoloso (Leopardi) is anything but slight—in fact, it just might be a little too bulky for its own good. Densely written with lengthy quotes from the works of its title character at regular intervals, this movie about gifted, tormented 19th century Italian poet/philosopher Giacomo Leopardi is by virtue of its literariness probably much more accessible to an Italian-speaking audience. The words are doubtlessly beautiful, though, and with a dedicated, appropriately dreamy lead performance by Elio Germano, the beauty really spills over in a couple of memorable, quietly profound scenes.
Definitely not quiet is Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto’s horror flick 野火 (Fires on the Plain), a movie more suited for a Midnight Madness slot. Set around a group of abandoned soldiers fighting for survival towards the end of the Second World War, the film evinces slaughter and bloodshed from the get-go and only escalates from there. Evidenced by the mass walk-outs at the screening this author attended, the degree of violence portrayed here goes beyond what many would deem acceptable. Innards, brain matter, and limbs splash across the screen in extreme close-ups, often to be followed by cannibalistic acts. It’s truly a movie too sickening to defend. However, the feverish, hyper-lush cinematography and the perturbing, nightmarish hymn of an original score do pack a cinematic intensity that should mark the sort of work to be shown at a film festival.
In the end, the festival jury seemed to find more merit in the intensity of Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s Белые ночи почтальона Алексея Тряпицына (The Postman’s White Nights), as it was awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director. Shot almost like a documentary, the movie records more than portrays the life of villagers in a small lakeside settlement in rural Russia. There’s no plot to speak of and scenes are only very loosely connected through their shared players. Even the dialogue, mostly just chatter and complaints, sounds too relaxed to be scripted. Were it not for the arresting visuals, either the dazzling serenity of nature or the cozy storybook interiors, this film would be too inconspicuous to even register. But the worthy prizewinner does show touches of genius with the insertion of symbolic icons like the mysterious grey cat or an enigmatic rocket launch. While seeming paradoxical to the über-realistic approach he applies to the rest of the film, these cryptic sidenotes add a definitive, lyrical layer of mysticism that elevates the appeal of the picture exponentially.
Flawed each in its own way, the five movies cited above have merits that outweigh their faults, but none of them is really of a quality that would grab you by the throat or make your pulse quicken. In this regard, some entries in the less prominent sidebar sections at this year’s fest might actually be superior to what the competition slate has to offer. Orizzonti stunner Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy)” by Austrian directors Veronika Franz und Severin Fiala, about two twin boys who grow convinced that the woman returning home after a facial surgery isn’t their mother, is at first glance standard genre fare. Employing scares of the most unelaborate kind and unsparing in all their gory details, it’s not for the faint of heart and would strike many as trashy. The austere, compulsively tidy, subliminally repressive visual style, as part of the stern, relentless direction, however, does afford the film with a brute cinematic force that sends the blood pumping.
Equally arresting is the Chinese noir 殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)”, screened as part of the International Critics Week. Making his narrative feature debut here, writer/director Xin Yukun’s multi-perspective mystery about how greed, infidelity and simple survival instincts lead to the abandoned remains of an unknown person is pedestrian in look but expertly written, ensnaring you in a plot of calculations, accidents and unfortunate coincidences. At once darkly suspenseful and morbidly funny, it’s a script that’s so packed with surprises it hardly gives a break to catch your breath.
While the Berlinale is often seen as the fest of discoveries and Cannes the undisputed temple worshipping the Gods of cinema today, a sample of the official selection described above shows the Venice Film Festival caught in a somewhat awkward position in-between—not big enough to net an abundance of masterworks from top auteurs, nor quite ready yet to put its name behind relatively unknown up-and-comers wowing with raw talent. With its supply of red-carpet moments noticeably exceeding that of quality films this year, it might be time for the festival to rethink its place.
Zhuo-Ning Su is a PhD candidate in law at the Free University of Berlin. His writing on film has appeared in The Berlin Film Journal and EXBERLINER.