In the weeks leading up to the 75th Venice film festival, buzz around the festival had less to do with its stellar lineup (arguably the most promising in recent years) and more to do with the festival’s ability (or lack thereof) to respond to the momentous changes in the industry.
The statistics are staggering: for the second year in a row, of all the entries selected in the official competition (21 in both years), only one was directed by a woman (Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White in 2017; Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale in 2018). Artistic Director Alberto Barbera addressed the issue during the press conference that unveiled the festival’s program, arguing against the imposition of gender quotas and announcing a new Biennale-sponsored study on accessing moving-making. Yet the allegations of gender bias continued to shape the discourse around the edition – arguably to an unprecedented extent.
Controversies abounded before and during the festival. If you’re reading this piece, chances are you are somewhat acquainted with news and dispatches from the festival world, and if you are, then you’re probably aware of the infamous incident that took place during The Nightingale’s world premiere (if you’re not, read on, there’ll be plenty about it below).
But for all the mess that surrounded this year’s edition, the 75th edition did meet the expectations stirred up by its auteur-studded official lineup. Among Westerns, emerging and fading stars, period pieces, old and new auteurs, here’s some of the most interesting offerings from this year’s edition.
Stars are (re)born: A Star is Born and Vox Lux
Capping off months of Oscar-buzz and rumours, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born premiered in the festival’s early days – albeit in an Out of Competition slot. The fourth installment in the franchise (preceded by William A. Wellman’s 1937 original starring Janet Gaynor opposite Fredric March; John Cukor’s 1954 remake with James Mason and Judy Garland; and Frank Pierson’s 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), Cooper’s A Star is Born marks the actor’s directorial debut, but also – and arguably more excitingly – pop megastar Lady Gaga’s first major film role.
Eighty-one years after Wellman’s original, the story is faithful to the classic rags to riches parable: fading country music star Jackson Maine (Cooper) discovers promising singer Ally (Gaga), helps her ascend to planetary fame, falls in love with her in the process, but ultimately succumbs to a booze and drugs addiction. A star is born, another burns out. The myth of celebrity as a zero-sum game, where one’s rise necessarily implies another one’s decline, is as old as Hollywood itself, which is why the freshness the duo Cooper/Gaga bring to the story is all the more remarkable.
Admittedly, credit for it may be less to Cooper’s judicious directing than to his fellow superstar’s acting bravado. Gaga is spell-binding as Ally, offering a number of breathtaking performances – all recorded live – of songs she composed with Cooper and a handful of hit-makers (among them country legend Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas). But aside from shimmering with jaw-dropping singing talent, Gaga’s Ally also turns out to be a far more empathic and complex character than her 1976 predecessor ever could be.
Arguably the most ironic component of the entire A Star Is Born saga is that the actresses who embodied the titular starlets had been born – read: blossomed – long before they joined their respective casts. And making a Cinderella-like take credible is particularly problematic when the Cinderella in question happens to be played by people who – like Gaynor, Garland and Streisand – had long been household icons. Yet Gaga succeeds where Streisand failed. While Pierson’s version had glossed over Esther’s (the name of the singer in the three previous versions) past altogether, Cooper’s latest installment (penned by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper himself) provides Ally a background story grounded in hard-work, sacrifice and humiliation. A waitress by day and singer at a drag bar by night, Ally’s stoic determination measures up to the discipline and willpower Gaynor and Garland had put into their own Esther, and while Garland’s words “I can’t quite be called an overnight sensation” may not apply in a hyper-connected, social media-propelled society (where Ally’s career skyrockets thanks to Jackson’s help as much as through social media platforms), Gaga’s struggles come across as far more authentic than Streisand’s.
The goosebumps-inducing feeling as she musters all her courage to join Cooper and sing before a sold-out stadium owes as much to her riveting performance as to the potent stage chemistry with her stage partner. Yes, A Star is Born may not offer many twists and turns to a story that’s largely stayed intact since the 1930s, but it remains a heartfelt, assured rendition, with an eponymous star who never ceases to amaze.
Venice had already welcomed child prodigy Brady Corbet’s directorial debut in 2015, when the actor (of Funny Games and Melancholia fame) premiered The Childhood of a Leader, a sombre adaptation of a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre chronicling the coming of age of a fascist dictator. Three years later – still only 30 – Corbet returned to the Lido with Vox Lux, another genesis story whose final title card touts it as a “twenty-first century portrait” of a singer’s ascent to planetary stardom. Watching Corbet’s take on celebrity after Cooper’s own, Vox Lux struck me as A Star is Born’s darker cousin, a merciless autopsy of a society incapable of processing neither success nor horror.
The star at the centre of Vox Lux is Celeste (played as a teenager by Raffey Cassidy, and as a thirty-something by Natalie Portman, in a career-high performance). Neatly scaffolded into a prelude, two acts, and a finale, the first encounter with young Celeste coincides with Vox Lux’s most horrific moment. A student in a Staten Island school, Celeste nearly dies when a classmate opens fire on his peers. A bullet cuts through her neck, and also, in a grim and ironic twist, ends up skyrocketing her artistic career. Asked to speak at a vigil, several cameras recording the ceremony, Celeste decides not to give a speech but to sing a song she composed with her older sister Ellie instead, a heart-wrenching message of hope that becomes (in Willem Dafoe’s rusty voiceover), “the anthem of a whole nation.” Plucked from her deathbed and thrown in the spotlight as America’s new beloved wonderchild, Celeste ascends to the high echelons of the music firmament, followed by her caustic manager (Jude Law), whose parental warnings soon fade out in the face of the obligatory cocktails of drugs, booze and other star-worthy excesses Celeste indulges in from a very young age.
Fast forward several years later: now 31, Celeste is at a career’s zenith. Her anger-packed pop music (courtesy of Sia, who composed the original songs and also served as executive producer next to Portman and Law) is well-received by the public, but the singer’s past continues to haunt her. A history of substance abuse precedes her, a teenage pregnancy has left her with teenage daughter Albertine (played again by Cassidy), and when news breaks out that a group of terrorists have killed tourists at a Croatian beach resort wearing the same masks Celeste had used in one of her videos, the unresolved trauma finally catches up with her.
As Celeste’s PTSD and paranoia spiral out of control amid a series of cringe-worthy remarks to the press (“I have more hits than a 30-round AK 47 magazine,” remains one of my Venezia75 favorite lines), Corbet’s critique reaches its most explicit point. Vox Lux is far less interested in understanding the root causes of the barbaric acts of terror that premise Celeste’s ascent (not since Gus Van Sant’s Elephant have scenes of unspeakable violence been filmed with such an unsettling, matter-of-fact vividness) than in dissecting how such horror is digested by a society high on short-lived thrills and averted to memory – of which Faustian and deluded superstar Celeste offers a worthy sublimation.
Watching her warn Albertine against lingering on memories (“the past reeks too much of ugly people and death,” she tells her daughter), while displaying an utter lack of empathy for a tragedy that should ring tragically close to her (“so what, there’s been a shooting?” she snaps at Law after hearing about the massacre in Croatia), my mind jolted back to the preoccupations of Hannah Arendt and Martha Nussbaum over the need to nurse political emotions to fight a collective numbness to evil. A numbness Celeste embodies to a tragic extent.
Far more divisive among Venice audiences than A Star is Born, Vox Lux is a defiant second feature, gorgeously shot in 35mm by Lol Crawley, the palette adjusting to Celeste’s bombastic ascent with a shift from rusty blues, grays and browns to brighter hues. A worthy follow-up to his directorial debut, it crystallises Corbet as one of the most original and audacious young filmmaking voices around.
¡Qué viva México! Our Time and Roma
After nabbing last year’s Golden Lion with The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro returned to the Lido to helm this year’s official competition jury (fellow jurors included Sylvia Chang, Trine Dyrholm, Nicole Garcia, Paolo Genovese, Małgorzata Szumowska, Taika Waititi, Christoph Waltz and Naomi Watts). He was not the only Mexican auteur to grace the Lido. Carlos Reygadas and Alfonso Cuarón were announced in the official competition, and both Reygadas’ Nuestro Tiempo (Our Time) and Cuarón’s Roma arrived with considerable hype around them. Curiously, both had been billed as somewhat autobiographical and meta-fictional features; Roma a black-and-white memoir of Cuarón’s childhood in the eponymous neighbourhood of Mexico City, Our Time a follow up to the paranoia present in Post Tenebras Lux, only this time his auto-fiction is taken to a whole new level, as the director, his real-life spouse and children star in the film themselves.
Anchoring Reygadas’ latest is a cuckolding game (by now a leitmotif in the Mexican iconoclast’s oeuvre) between renowned poet Juan (Reygadas himself), his wife Esther (Reygadas’ real life spouse Natalia López) and a horse whisperer who works in their hacienda in Mexico’s state of Tlaxcala, Phil (American comedy performer Phil Burgers). Esther falls for Phil, and though the affair infuriates Juan (notwithstanding the fact that their marriage had previously contemplated and even encouraged extramarital liaisons of such kind), the poet must reluctantly allow for their relationship to blossom, lest his own with Esther should crumble.
Despite some vague hints at Juan’s artistic stature, we never actually see him write (or hear any of his work read out loud), and the family’s greatest source of income seems to be the bulls Juan and Esther breed in the hacienda, which symbolically echo Juan’s cuckolding plight (the Spanish for cuckolded, cornudo, is also the same word for horned).
The problem with Our Time is that its individual parts work a lot better than the whole. Despite some breathtaking visuals of Malickian wonder (courtesy of cinematographer Diego García, whose widescreens work impeccably whether capturing the sprawling immensity of the Mexican countryside or the country’s buzzing capital city), the end result is patience-tester, a self-referential game that loses steam long before the end of its whopping 173 minutes. Which is a real pity, all the more so considering the number of visual gems nestled inside it. In a visceral scene, as Esther drives home from a rendezvous with Phil, the sunset light swelling the car into something warm and nostalgic, the camera moves into the vehicle’s engine, focusing on the microcosm of valves and pistols pumping energy all around her. In another, well into the toxic love triangle, Reygadas offers a bird’s-eye view of Mexico City, the camera fixed on a plane’s landing gear: lulled by Esther’s voiceover as she reads a letter addressed to Juan, we watch the city glitter from above, until the plane turns and lands on the runway. Our Time may be a patchy, narcissistic ride, but moments like these make it somewhat easier to endure.
Having explored the vastness of outer space five years ago in Gravity, Cuarón returned to the Earth (and the Lido) with an achingly nostalgic and deeply autobiographical childhood tale. Roma chronicles the life of a bourgeois family living in the eponymous Mexico City neighbourhood. Affectionate Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her four children may well be at the portrait’s centre, but all the family’s vicissitudes – from affairs to petty quarrels, from fights to break-ups – are observed from the perspective of the family’s in-house maid, Cleo (riveting newcomer Yaritza Aparicio).
The shift allows Roma to harken back to the social critique Cuarón had first elaborated in Y Tu Mamá También – and takes it to a whole new level. No longer privileged observants à la Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, watching a country undergoing tumultuous changes from the safety of their car, aware of those transformations, but fundamentally untouched by them – violence affects Cuarón’s stand-in family to a far greater extent, culminating in the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre of student protesters in 1971, of which Cleo and Sofia’s mother are eye-witnesses.
And while the crumbling bourgeois family is used as a synecdoche for a whole country on the brink of collapse, Cuarón’s humanist eye celebrates the unsung struggles of those historically relegated to the elite’s margins. Yet the film never gives in to an awkwardly apologetic tone. We watch Cleo work as much as enjoying her – admittedly, scarce – free time, and although the maid may well speak Spanish to the family she works for, it is native Mixtec she uses to communicate with fellow maids – the choice to respect the linguistic idiosyncrasies further underscoring Cuarón’s deferential eye.
Billed by the director as an effort to come to terms with “the women, family and country that forged me,” Roma’s episodic narrative hardly squares with an archetypal three-act structure, and instead unfurls as a 128-minute long recollection, alternating precious, sweet mementos (a Christmas party thrown at a large hacienda where the hosts and guests join in a conga dance, a large Ford Galaxie that hardly fits in the driveway) with other heart-wrenching segments, increasing in pathos as Cleo and Sofia’s lives intertwine.
Shot by Cuarón himself in a pellucid black and white palette, inquisitive panning and tracking shots immersed in long takes, Roma’s camerawork exudes a spasmodic need to take one more peek at one’s past before watching it all fade away. Roma’s 1970s cosmos may have been judiciously recreated from scratch by Cuarón (whom production company Netflix awarded a whopping 108 days to shoot), but the feeling here is to enter a world that’s been left untouched in years, a spirited place abandoned since childhood and revisited for one last, heart-quickening farewell. This is cinema at its most humane and harrowing heights.
Orson Welles’ belated comeback: The Other Side of the Wind
With the early Oscar-race buzz fixed on Cooper’s A Star is Born, the Out of Competition line up also included a gem that was aptly billed as the key event in recent film history: the exhumation of Orson Welles’ posthumous The Other Side of the Wind, a monumental 48 years in the making. In 1970, Welles began shooting what would turn out to be an eerily autobiographical, unfinished farewell opus. Featuring a cast of Hollywood icons (including Peter Bogdanovich, John Huston and Susan Strasberg), The Other Side of the Wind chronicles a night-long birthday party thrown by J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (Huston) at his Beverly Hills villa. Hannaford has just returned to Hollywood from a self-imposed exile in Europe and is ready for a comeback on his native turf. Fans and sycophants flock to his house: among them is Hannaford’s protégé, promising young director Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), as well as caustic film critic, Julie Rich (Strasberg). Drinks are consumed and fights break out, as the party spirals out of control while guests are offered snippets of Hannaford’s latest, a silent cat-and-mouse arthouse parody of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point starring Welles’ own partner at the time, Oja Kodar.
It’s a disorienting cacophony of sounds and images that springs drunkenly from an auto-fictional terrain: the father-son relationship between Otterlake and Hannaford echoes Bogdanovich and Welles’ own tumultuous real-life collaborations, fraught with jealousy and envy – while Julie Rich attacks the cloud of hosannas surrounding Hannaford’s genius with the same fervour Pauline Kael put into her 1971 infamous New Yorker take on Citizen Kane.
Yet nowhere does the auto-fictional terrain feel more fertile than in Hannaford’s own character, a wrecked director Welles forced Huston to play drunk in a sad parody of the uber-mensch machismo à la Hemingway, a maverick author who’d gone through a comeback of his own, and who lingers over the whole project as an invisible presence. It is no wonder Hannaford’s birthday party would be thrown on 2nd July (the day Hemingway shot himself, in 1961), nor that the whole project was once conceived of as the story of a legendary if fading director who flees the States to trail bullfighters in Spain (a piercing portrait of Welles’ initial dream was captured by Albert and David Maysles’ short film, Orson Welles in Spain).
But the project – even after the initial Spanish fugue had been scrapped – never took off. Welles struggled with funding, eventually finding a sponsor in an Iranian production company (Apostrophe) that was seized by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime after the 1979 revolution. Over a thousand reels languished in a Paris vault until 2017, when Netflix decided to finance the restoration spearheaded by Frank Marshall (Welles’ production manager at the time of the initial shooting) and producer Filip Jan Rymsza.
Never had the Netflix logo been welcomed by Venetian audiences with an applause as rapturous as the one it received on the night of 30th August 2018, when The Other Side of The Wind – nearly fifty years after the shooting began, and 33 after Welles’ death – had its long overdue world premiere at the Lido. For a dialogue-driven feature where much of the conversation had gone amiss, the script a convoluted bundle of notes, that The Other Side of the Wind’s structure still feels somewhat cohesive is a miracle courtesy of editor Bob Murawski (who toggled between 16mm, 35mm, black-and-white and colour) and sound editor Daniel Saxlid (who reconstructed dialogues from snippets of words, syllables, outtakes). And a miracle indeed it is: kaleidoscopic, labyrinthine and disorienting, The Other Side of the Wind is unmistakably Wellesian.
Guadagnino conjures up his own Suspiria
Adding to the list of much-anticipated titles, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria arrived in Venice wrapped in a cloud of hyperbole terms such as “bone-wrenching”, “shocking” and “sickening.” Saying it lived up to the hype is a gentle understatement. While comparisons with Dario Argento’s 1977 original have been at the cornerstone of many critical outputs since its Venice premiere, calling Guadagnino’s version a remake feels somewhat misguided. Far from restoring a timeless classic, Guadagnino conjures up his own cinematic bacchanalia, a riveting tour de force that shatters Argento’s template – both visually and structurally – standing out as an unsettling and magnetic departure.
To be sure, at its centre is still Susie (played with great bravado by Dakota Johnson), a preternaturally talented ballerina who lands a spot at the world famous Markos Dance Company, and soon discovers the place is engulfed with many dark secrets. Perceptively, in Guadagnino’s nightmarish vision (six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin), the company’s headquarters are located right opposite a stretch of the Wall. Susie lands in a capital city plagued with violence: the year is 1977, and echoes of the Baader-Meinhof Group’s terrorist attacks reverberate inside the ballrooms. The city Susie walks in is one of polarities, and the fractured people taking to the streets outside the austere Markos building finds an artistic sublimation in the signature dance, ominously titled Volk, choreographed by artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, in yet another performance for the ages).
Choreographed by Damien Jalet (of the Olivier-winning Babel(words) fame), the dances proceed like orgasmic outbursts of energy and fury, tying teachers and ballerinas in a telepathic game of macabre proportions. Shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Apichatpong Weeresethakul’s long time DOP, who also shot Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights and Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name), Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a far cry from the lurid and hyper-saturated looks of Argento’s set – with gray and cold-blue palettes echoing instead Fassbinder’s works, and a brutalist mise-en-scène that does away with the M. C. Escher-inspired trompe l’œils of Argento’s original, to retain the sombre vibe of the Cold War capital. Bodies twirl, blossom and break down, in a maddening foray into evil and compassion imbued with a hysterical beauty. Suspiria may well be the sickening and traumatising journey it had been billed as, but on-screen dancing has seldom felt this haunting.
Nomen Omen: Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite
For a festival mired in debates over gender bias among its selected titles, it was somewhat refreshing to see a handful of features working to debunk archetypal masculinities by the hand of female heroines graced with no-nonsense swagger, wit, and power. Nowhere did this feel more explicit than in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a zany take on early 18th-century English royalty.
Penned by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (the first time a Lanthimos feature does not credit the director as writer), The Favourite zeroes in on three real-life bluebloods: Queen Anne (played with majestic bravado Netflix’s future Queen Elizabeth II, Olivia Colman), and two women fighting against each other to ingratiate themselves with the monarch, Lady Sarah (a sumptuous Rachel Weisz) and her cousin Abigail (a terrific Emma Stone). “Once a lady, now a nothing,” Abigail arrives at the Queen’s palace hoping to land a job, and quickly rises up to the court’s highest echelons, threatening her cousin’s role as Queen Anne’s confidante, best friend and lover.
Just who the monarch’s favourite may be is the question that ricochets around the jaw-dropping interiors graciously designed by Fiona Crombie and shot by Robbie Ryan, who alternates camera spins and fisheye lenses to capture the palace in all its stupefying splendour and the distorted perspective of its solitary royal inhabitants. The nobility surrounding Queen Anne may know little about the kingdom’s ongoing war with France, but they certainly do know how to throw a party, and you get the feeling that Lanthimos and cast had plenty of fun organising duck races inside the palace, or staging breakdance-like routines like the one performed by Weisz and Abigail’s suitor, Masham (Joe Alwyn) – one of several moments that led Venice audiences to crack up.
Perceptively, in Queen Anne’s matriarchal universe men are relegated to the frame’s margins, disposable and heavily made-up ornaments. After all, it is the Queen who has the final word on all political decisions; her chronically fragile and indecisive character manipulated by Lady Sarah and Abigail, whether to restore one’s aristocratic roots (Abigail’s goal) or to influence the government’s policies (Lady Sarah’s). Endlessly quotable, The Favourite is striking for its ability to seesaw between irony and more delicate, poignant moments. By her thirties, the real-life Queen Anne had grown increasingly lame (despite 17 pregnancies by her husband Prince George of Denmark, none of her children would survive her) and in Lanthimos’ pantheon of human-animal metamorphoses, she mourns their untimely deaths by playing with 17 pet rabbits. I laughed along at the many jokes and glorious one-liners scattered throughout – but watching Colman as she nervously allows Abigail to play with her rabbits before opening up about her tragedies and finally introducing the furry pets as “my children” was a tear-jerking moment I shall treasure for a long while.
Three Westerns: The Sisters Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Nightingale
Amid fading and rising pop stars, auteurs’ remakes and auteurs’ comebacks, Venice also provided a fair amount of Westerns to chew on. French director Jacques Audiard marked his English-language debut with The Sisters Brothers, a star-studded hangout tale of comradery chronicling the adventures of Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly), hired guns roaming the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s in pursuit of their targets, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Warm is chemist who’s discovered a new formula to extract gold from rivers; detective Morris – originally recruited to help the Sisters brothers track down Warm – falls for the egalitarian society the scientist hopes to finance with his discovery, and ends up helping him escape the bounty hunters.
If not strictly revisionist, it is in Warm’s musings of a utopian community that the film – based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name, adapted by Thomas Bidegain and Audiard himself – hits its most fertile terrain, tapping into the suggestive and seldom-discussed trope of the Wild West as a place where an egalitarian society could thrive out of anarchy.
And while shootings and killings constellate around the Sisters’ path, Audiard’s work gradually zeroes in on Eli’s awkward struggles to coexist with a brother whose companionship he both longs for yet realises can only do more harm than good. Terrific individual performances as they may offer (Reilly’s arguably a few inches superior to the others’, his half-masked vulnerability and imploring gestures on par with the memorable cop he’d played in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia), the four work superbly when Audiard eventually groups them together.
Enemies become allies; the ententes are negotiated at gunpoint; tension between the four inflates and deflates amid doubts and veiled threats, until the men’s hubris leads to a predictably tragic finale. It’s a tale of masculinity that pivots on resilience more than heroism, on the need to stay alive more than the glorification of archetypal male might and strength. This is nothing new for Audiard, who had already dissected macho protagonists in his previous De Rouille et d’Os (Rust and Bone); what’s new is the genre in which such explorations take place. Yes, Audiard’s West is still a universe ruled by lawlessness – if you’ll forgive the oxymoron – but replete with unexpected glimpses of candour and humanity. Its epilogue, filled with a sense of home-sweet-home warmth, was among the best Venezia75 had to offer.
A few days earlier, on 31st August, late in the morning and early in a screening-packed day, I remember thinking the same of the first of the Coen brother’s six-chapters The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an episodic western anthology initially reported to be released as a mini-series and eventually stitched together as a 132-minute long feature.
A patchy ensemble alternating moments of rollicking comedy with several other patience-testing segments, the Coens’ latest opens with a bookend for the ages: infamous and eponymous Scruggs (an outstanding Tim Blake Nelson) is a formidable gunslinger-troubadour roaming the West with a reward on his head, a hot temper, and a passion for singing. Halfway through his rollicking impromptu serenades, I found myself thinking this was Hail, Caesar! on steroids, possibly the closest the Coens had come to an all-out bonkers tale of cult-potential since The Big Lebowski in 1998.
But the hype was short-lived. As a somewhat collateral consequence of the episodic format, some chapters stretch less than one would hope (the first being one of them), and others protract far longer than they should. There’s one that follows James Franco as bank robber plagued with bad luck and graced with a few great jokes; a delightful section featuring Tom Waits as a prospector looking for gold in a glorious-looking river valley (speaking of vistas, kudos to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose visuals of the sprawling Nebraska and New Mexico wilderness often make up for the Coens’ stammering pace); another with Liam Neeson riding a mutilated orator (Harry Melling) to perform before rapt village crowds; a tragic tale of a single woman (Zoe Kazan) facing all kinds of adversities along the Oregon trail; and an eerie finale where five travellers hop on a stagecoach engulfed with macabre secrets.
The epilogue ends on a frustratingly anticlimactic note, echoing the feeling that lingers through much of a pastiche, which – gracious in its period details, gorgeously shot, and brought to life by a pitch-perfect cast – remains a head-scratcher. If not a disappointment, a puzzling entry into canon replete with far superior works.
Which brings us to the third Western – and the festival’s only female-directed feature in the Official Competition – Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Set in a markedly different wilderness, the Tasmanian jungle of the early 19th-century, Kent’s follow-up to her 2014 Sundance hit The Babadook follows former convict and Irish twenty-something Clare (Aisling Franciosi) in her quest to avenge her husband and infant child, brutally murdered by English Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), and his army cronies.
A wrenching and timely struggle for justice, The Nightingale features some of the most atrocious on-screen violence in recent years. Rapes, homicides, acts of wanton cruelty and torture punctuate Kent’s storytelling – so vivid in their depiction it is impossible to sit through its 136 minutes without ever looking away – but nowhere does the horrific subtext turn into a spectacle, or an exercise in shock value. The violence Kent bravely depicts serves a fundamental purpose: that of dissecting the poisonous double matrix of racism and sexism that allowed its blossoming.
Clare may well be the entry point into The Nightingale’s rape and revenge tale, but her access into the forest she must roam in search for her family’s assassins is mediated by an ally who’s himself victim of a history of violence: Aboriginal tracker Billy (wonderful newcomer Baykali Ganambarr, a dancer and Galiwinku man), whose family the English massacred when he was still a child. Clare’s struggle to avenge her beloved ones becomes intertwined with Billy’s own trauma – the two of them pariahs in a colonial, patriarchal and hyper-violent society. Clare is an Irishwoman stranded in a land where the Irish are treated as scum, and women as property of men; Billy is a young Letteremairrener man struggling to survive a Black War, wending through paths paved with corpses of his own people the white colonials have left hanging from trees.
What’s surprising is not that the two will eventually join forces, but that Kent’s script does not rush their alliance, and even after the duo unites, it underlines just how markedly different Billy and Clare’s cosmogonies are. Shot by The Babadook’s director of photography Radek Ladczuk in Academy ratio, The Nightingale is far less interested in providing a travelogue of Tasmania’s wilderness than it is in zeroing in on the characters struggling inside it – and the boxy frame, combined with close ups, only amplifies the disturbing realism of the many acts of unspeakable violence, bridging the gap between the audience and the horror consumed onscreen.
I was among the overarching majority who on the night of 4th September, The Nightingale’s world premiere and press screening, saluted Kent’s achievement with a rapturous applause, when someone a few rows below me shouted a revolting insult at the director’s name. The only female-directed film in the Official Competition – and indeed, one of the lineup’s best entries – was victim of an obscene slur, all the more troubling considering its sexual undertones. Kent handled the matter gracefully during the next day’s press conference – while the Biennale proceeded to forever ban the young man responsible from future accreditation with the festival – but the fact remains that the patriarchy against which Clare fights in 1825 Tasmania is not a relic languishing in a period piece, but very much alive and kicking.
The first Netflix Lion, and the way ahead
“Do you genuinely think there’ll be a Venezia 76 next year?” a colleague half-jokingly asked as we sat in the press conference room, waiting for the awards to be handed out. The echoes of “The Nightin-gate” still lingering all around us, the obscenities shouted at Jennifer Kent – while obviously the barbaric misconduct of a single idiot, and nothing representative of the majority – may well have added pressure on the festival to address disparities in gender representation in its lineup.
Barbera may be right when he claims the job of an artistic director of an extravaganza as prestigious as Venice is to select the best among the best the year has to offer – but shouldn’t a festival try to change the industry, as opposed to simply serve as the receptacle of its end products? Festivals shape canons and tastes; if Venice is to continue thriving – as it has throughout Barbera’s tenure – more must be done to ensure the industry will open larger spaces for singular and original voices to blossom. Whether or not quotas are the solution to address the gender gap – the Biennale’s decision to join the ranks of Cannes and Locarno in signing a gender parity pledge (which commits the festival to transparency in its selection process and gender parity in the organisation’s top management) is definitely a step forward.
Still, this year’s edition will also be remembered as the first-ever Netflix Lion. The diatribes between the US streaming platform-cum-production company and Cannes are well known. French law requires a 36-month window after a theatrical launch for a film to be available on streaming services, which led Netflix to withdraw its titles from entering Cannes’ lineups earlier this year. With no required timeframe of such length, Italy is a much more fertile turf for Netflix to world premiere its offerings at the country’s largest – and the world’s oldest – extravaganza. Venice has so far been spared from Cannes’ conundrum. This year alone, three Netflix productions competed in the official lineup: Roma, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – not to mention Welles’ posthumous The Other Side of the Wind, slotted in the outside competition. Amazon Studios brought its own homegrown: Guadagnino’s Suspiria and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo.
Guillermo del Toro and his fellow jurors awarded the Special Jury Prize to Kent’s The Nightingale, whose Baykali Ganambarr was given the Mastroianni Award for best emerging actor; the Coppa Volpi for Best Actor went to Willem Dafoe for his performance in Schnabel’s Van Gogh’s biopic At Eternity’s Gate; Olivia Colman nabbed Best Actress for her Queen Anne in Lanthimos’ The Favourite (which also received the Grand Jury Prize); The Ballad of Buster Scruggs left the Lido with an award for best screenplay (much to this and several other critics’ surprise); Jacques Audiard received the Silver Lion for Best Directing; while the coveted Golden Lion went to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
It was the least surprising decision of the whole ceremony. Far superior than anything else Venice had to offer, Cuarón’s nostalgic memoir was an instant charmer, one likely to top several end of year’s lists. But the award, deserved and indisputable as it may have been (clearly not enough for the journalist who had the guts to ask whether Roma had won because of Cuarón’s friendship with Del Toro, prompting Christoph Waltz’s incinerating reply – “do you think other jury members weren’t there to watch it too?”), the Golden Lion stirred up a hornet’s nest among Italian distributors, who rallied behind the litany that “a film should be made available to all Italians, not just the subscribers of an American platform.”
It would be presumptuous to narrow down a debate so large and intricate to parochial quarrels, or to leave it in the cul-de-sac divide between movie theatre “purists” and streaming platforms aficionados. But if it is true that Venice – like fellow festivals of its magnitude – ought to be weary of the impact these tectonic shifts could bear on domestic movie theatres, the fact remains that today’s streaming companies have the resources necessary to finance projects other studios wouldn’t dare consider. After all, in Cuarón’s own words, “a film like [Roma], indigenous, in black and white… we know it with would have huge difficulty just finding space to be shown in theaters. And we have to be aware of the fact that this film exists.” Kudos to Netflix for believing in it, and to Venice for giving it a wondrous stage to premiere.
Venice Film Festival
29th August – 8th September 2018
Festival website: https://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/2018