Venice Film Festival 2012: Movie Love on the Lido
On a seven mile sandbank to the south-east of a sinking city, a festival of cinema has taken place for seven decades. Venice’s Mostra del Cinema may be the Pepsi to Cannes’ Coca-Cola, but to my palate the movies in this year’s competition tasted just a sweet – some of them at least.
Eighteen titles vied for the Leone d'Oro (Golden Lion) at this year's event, each trying to dazzle Michael Mann's star studded jury, as well as the Lido's crowds and critics. None shone brighter than The Master (*****), the sixth feature from Paul Thomas Anderson, which bulldozed its way through Venice en route to Toronto, hoovering up press coverage like a celluloid Galactus, plunging the less shiny titles from around the globe into shadow. It deserved every column inch of hype. Set primarily in the early 50s, it follows Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix, last seen having a crack at a hip hop career in mockumentary I’m Still Here), a former marine who’s now frazzled by WWII fallout. He spends his post-war funk picking fights with strangers and pickling himself in homemade booze until he stumbles into the life of Lancaster Dodd (an avuncular Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s flogging his own form of moonshine, a quasi-religion called The Cause, which promises to cure cancer and bring about world peace.
Before The Skinny gets sued, I should note that any similarities to Scientology are entirely intentional, but almost incidental. The origins of L. Ron Hubbard’s litigious cult serves as a juicy canvas on which to play out a heady – somewhat homoerotic – mentor/protégé relationship between Freddie, a feral man-child looking for a moment of grace, and Dodd, a man so arrogant that he believes his phoney religion can provide it. As fans of Anderson know, daddy issues are this talented director’s favourite subject and with The Master he combines this theme with the epic grandeur of There Will Be Blood, the magic-realism of Magnolia and the fragile humanity of his best film, Boogie Nights. The results are often dazzling – at times transcendent. Reportedly Mann's jury adored it, but rather than naming it the master of Venice it received kudos for its direction (the Leone d'Argento/Silver Lion went to Anderson) and acting (the Coppa Volpi/Volpi Cup was split between Hoffman and Phoenix). Something tells me these aren't the last awards to be handed out to these boys this season.
There was one other great American movie worthy of the Golden Lion, but it didn’t come from Terrence Malick or Brian De Palma, the New Hollywood veterans with films in competition. Malick’s To The Wonder (**) feels like the afterbirth left over from last year’s Palme d’Or-winning Tree of Life. It's formed from the same DNA of glancing looks at bodies in balletic motion scored to orchestral music and whispered voices, but has none of its predecessor’s vitality. It was a drag, quite frankly, and the film’s biggest crime is that two weeks since seeing it I can barely remember a single image. De Palma’s Passion (***) is also a minor work. On paper this is the English language remake of French thriller Love Crime (the late Alain Corneau’s swan song), but in the hands of this old perv it becomes a sapphic euro-pudding reinterpretation of Working Girl, with Rachel McAdams delicious as a Machiavellian ad agency exec with the hots for her underling, Noomi Rapace, from whom she’s stealing ideas. Towards its demented dénouement Passion delivers on De Palma’s trademark thrills, but it takes such a long time for the feverish fun to kick in that only De Palma-diehards like myself bothered to sit through the melodramatic first half.
It was left to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (****) to keep the US end up. This candy coloured delirium opens with a wet and wild montage of well endowed young women gyrating in slow motion as Neanderthal jocks cascade cheap lager over their naked breasts. Knowing this information you may struggle with the next statement, but I’m deadly serious: Korine’s film is the smartest, most daring and aesthetically gorgeous deconstruction of narrative cinema you’ll see all year. The plot has more U-turns than a George Osborne budget. Just when it looks like you’re in a Larry Clark-like teenage wasteland you’ll suddenly find yourself in Deliverance country, but wait – now we’re in a Tony Scott movie. Often these story-180 degrees happen within a single scene; you’ve got to keep your wits about you or the film will give you whiplash.
Spring Breakers reaches an ecstatic and comedic crescendo with James Franco, as Alien, a gold-toothed gangsta rapper, sitting by a swimming pool playing a white baby grand piano and crooning a Britney Spears ballad to three blond air-heads, played by former Disney child stars. The WTF factor is compounded by the fact the girls are wearing pink, unicorn embroidered balaclavas and brandishing semi-automatic submachine guns. If Michael Mann was to take a lot of hallucinogenics and shoot a Girls Gone Wild video, it might look something like this.
Talking of Mann and narcotics, one can only assume the Miami Vice director was under the influence of something illegal when he watched Pietà (**), the film that pipped The Master to the Golden Lion. Its director, Kim Ki-duk, is a fine filmmaker: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring can stand shoulder to shoulder with Memories of Murder and Oldboy as the pinnacle of South Korean cinema’s mid-aughts purple patch. But Pietà, a shrill exercise in torture-porn disguised as a morality tale, isn’t representative of his talents. The film centres on a vicious debt collector whose soulless existence is interrupted when a crazed middle-aged woman claiming to be his estranged mother forces her way into his solitary life. Limbs are hacked off using rusty metalwork paraphernalia; misogyny, rape and incest are on show; and life is depicted as a squalid cycle of misery fuelled by greed and exploitation. The only thing remotely shocking about the film, however, is that the jury thought it worthy of Venice's top prize.
If you’re looking for an Asian film that details life’s hardships and also gives you scenes which have to be watched through your fingers, look no further than Thy Womb (****), from Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. The opening image is of the crown of a baby’s head bursting forth into the world in all its gory beauty, and life, of both the young and old, spills from the screen throughout. Delivering the baby is Shaleha (Nora Aunor), a greying midwife/fisherwoman who can’t have children of her own, but lives vicariously through the kids she helps bring into the world. Shaleha is nothing if not practical, however, and such is her desire to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet ring out through her tiny shack that she proposes to her likable hubby (Bembol Rocco) that they get a dowry together to buy him a younger wife with whom he can have a child.
The genius of Mendoza’s film is that no sooner has he drawn us into the couple's simple life on the beautiful island of Tawi-Tawi than he unsettles this paradise with cinematic eruptions. Filmed like mini-action scenes, with cinematographer Odyssey Flores’ camera switching to handheld hi-def, these street dramas are sometimes charming (a boat transporting a nervous calf capsizes), but more often terrifying (pirates with machine guns hold up a fishing boat; a wedding ritual is scored by military gunfire). These moments quicken the pulse and keep us alive to the possibility of danger. They’re like espresso shots peppered throughout the leisurely humanist love story, adding adrenaline to the heartbreak.
The Fifth Season (****) is one of those films that borrows from everyone – there are shades of Bergman, Tarkovsky, von Trier, and a generous sprinkling of The Wicker Man – but has a style all its own. A curse befalls a Flemish township: spring never arrives and the community is plunged into an endless winter. As a Glaswegian, I had sympathy for their plight. There’s a brilliant shorthand to the images from co-directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth: the opening five minutes is a thing of beauty, with the town’s folks introduced with the clear-eyed precision of a Wes Anderson prologue. We like these people – a puce-faced farmer with a disobedient rooster, two young lovers who share an erotic kiss in the frozen woodland, a lanky beekeeper and his wheelchair-bound son – and watching them face the coming apocalypse is a moving experience. File with The Turin Horse and Melancholia as one of the great end of the world movies of the 2010s.
Some bookmakers were offering odds on the Golden Lion winner, and for much of the festival Marco Bellocchio's euthanasia drama Dormant Beauty (*) was the big favourite. I was tempted to have a flutter. That was, until I saw the film. It’s based on a real-life case of Eluana Englaro, a young woman who was in a coma for two decades and whose family appealed to the Italian government for permission to end her suffering. Toni Servillo plays a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s party required to vote on this contentious issue. This air of authenticity adds steel to the scenes dealing with the build up to the ballot, and a wily shrink whose client lists includes half of parliament adds some pithy satire, but the pitiful stories that satellite this main strand drag the film down to the level of daytime soap opera. Assisted suicide is a delicate issue, but when it comes to putting Bellocchino’s turgid drama out of its misery, I’m adopting the attitude of Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Locals did have one homegrown movie to cheer about: A Special Day (****), a romantic two-hander from Francesca Comencini. Set over 24 hours, it calls to mind the tentative push/pull courtship from Before Sunset, but with some added grit that’s absent from Richard Linklater’s feather-light fairytale. The film opens in a working class Roman suburb with Gina (Giulia Valentini), a 19-year-old aspiring actor, being dolled up by her mother for a mysterious appointment with a local politician. A handsome young limo driver, Marco (Filippo Schiccitano), picks her up. The rest of the movie deals with their journey across town to the delayed meeting and the fizzing attraction between the pair. Comencini really lets the air in to this intimate romance: class tensions bristle along with sexual electricity and as we watch the couple kill time together their façades drop, revealing two youngsters lost at sea in a country that can’t offer them the security their parents enjoyed at their age – a sentiment that will surely resonate with any UK youth currently scrambling for employment.
The Master was the 69th Venezia’s diamond, but for my taste it’s slightly too hard to the touch to adore. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to embrace Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (*****). Set in 1971, it’s the French filmmaker’s ebullient tribute to the kids who had to follow in the footsteps of the student firebrands who help bring his country to a standstill in the summer of 1968. In centres on Gilles (Clément Métayer), a mop-haired high school kid who wants to change the world but doesn’t quite know how. He distributes left-wing literature at school, charges into riots with Parisian cops with only his tie-dye t-shirt and helmet of hair for protection, and creates abstract art that’s as radical and messy as his politics – essentially he’s the kind of gloriously pretentious Frenchman that would send knees quivering if he turned up at your school on a cross-channel exchange.
Gilles is clearly a thinly veiled version of Assayas, who also missed out on the generation-defining strikes of ‘68 (he would have been thirteen at the time), and the authentic autobiographical detail is what makes Something in the Air sing. Politics with a big P can often drown cinema, but in Assayas’ sure hands the moving image wins out. By the film's end individual expression has trumped political collectivism and his onscreen stand-in has channelled his political ardour into personal filmmaking rather than agit-prop. Something in the Air is the film I’d have been fighting for if I had been on the jury. Mann et al. got something righs at least – Assayas walked away with the prize for best screenplay.