Jonathan Romney’s Venice film fes­ti­val round-up

With westerns from the Coens and Au­di­ard, 18th-cen­tury drama from Yorgos Lanthimos and a vis­ceral cop thriller star­ring Mel Gib­son, this year’s Venice jury has its work cut out

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The Venice film fes­ti­val is nor­mally the most re­lax­ing A-list event on the Euro­pean film scene. Leisurely walks to the Palazzo del Cin­ema, pasta lunches un­der the trees, plenty of films you don’t re­ally need to catch in a hurry… But not this year. Three months after a low-key Cannes, the 75th Mos­tra grabbed the high ground with a sparkling se­lec­tion filled with A-list ti­tles that you couldn’t miss – from the cal­i­bre of the Coens, Mike Leigh, Al­fonso Cuarón, Paul Green­grass and even, from beyond the grave, Or­son Welles. Not only that, there were sev­eral films well over the two-hour mark, some nudg­ing or even over three hours. That makes a lot less time for slurp­ing Cam­paris.

You should al­ways pre­pare for dis­ap­point­ments when fes­ti­vals of­fer a high con­cen­tra­tion of star names, but Venice this year pro­duced re­mark­ably fewer duds and a whole crop of en­gag­ing and au­da­cious films that will give Guillermo del Toro’s com­pe­ti­tion jury plenty to chew over – and en­cour­age the se­lec­tors at Cannes and Ber­lin to raise their ri­val­rous game.

Venice had the ad­van­tage of ben­e­fit­ing from this year’s spat be­tween Cannes and Net­flix, so that some ti­tles ex­pected to play on the Croisette turned up on the Lido in­stead. The six Net­flix films pre­miered here in­cluded Cuarón’s Roma, Green­grass’s 22 July and the Coen brothers’ The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs. The lat­ter, one of two westerns in com­pe­ti­tion, was a cheer­ful but dark port­man­teau of tales, but the Coens’ per­fec­tion­ist way with pas­tiche can be a lit­tle air­less to be re­ally plea­sur­able. More or­ganic was Jacques Au­di­ard’s The Sis­ters Brothers, which played Patrick De­Witt’s novel sur­pris­ingly straight, fea­tur­ing John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as trav­el­ling as­sas­sins: a plea­sur­able ride, not ex­actly pro­found but evinc­ing the French direc­tor’s gen­uine love of the western genre.

Other com­pe­ti­tion high­lights in­cluded The Favourite, by The Lob­ster direc­tor Yorgos Lanthimos, a brit­tle early-18th-cen­tury tale of po­lit­i­cal and sex­ual in­trigue at the court of Queen Anne. In ef­fect, a Restora­tion All About Eve, it could have emerged as a bril­liantly scripted, by-the-book English cos­tume piece, but the ec­cen­tric­ity of its wit is teased out by Lanthimos’s stylised di­rec­tion. There’s a fine tri­fecta of per­for­mances by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and a full-tilt Emma Stone, show­ing her­self to have an in­tense edge you might never have sus­pected. As a tale of fe­male ri­valry, it was strangely par­al­leled by Luca Guadagnino’s beyond-crazy hor­ror re­make Sus­piria, with Dakota John­son em­broiled in witch­craft at a dance school run by Tilda Swin­ton: pure delir­ium, but at times in­fu­ri­at­ingly silly.

Way ahead of any­thing in terms of for­mal au­dac­ity was Sun­set, from Hun­gar­ian prodigy Lás­zló Nemes – his fol­low-up to the con­tro­ver­sial Holo­caust drama

Son of Saul. Set in Bu­dapest in the 1910s, this was a break­neck, border­line-im­pen­e­tra­ble story of a young woman try­ing to solve a fam­ily mys­tery while tan­gling with cloak-and-dag­ger im­pe­rial in­trigue be­hind the scenes at an up­mar­ket milliner’s. Juli Jakab, in a role de­fined by a pierc­ing, un­blink­ing stare, plays the sleuthing lead, while a cast of thou­sands rushes by, of­ten blurred, in the back­ground. It was the fes­ti­val’s prime head-scratcher, and a grandiose feat of flam­boy­ant ex­per­i­ment. No less au­da­cious was Vox Lux, star­ring Natalie Port­man as a me­dia-savvy, very Gaga-es­que pop star. Brady Cor­bet’s film is a bold, unashamedly cere­bral cog­i­ta­tion on the zeit­geist and par­al­lels be­tween ter­ror­ism and the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. It’s as stylish as it is con­tentious, and Port­man’s spiky, neu­rotic per­for­mance was mes­meris­ing – way out­do­ing Lady Gaga her­self, who was com­mend­able but down­beat in Bradley Cooper’s luke­warm A Star Is Born re­make.

Although it won much praise, I couldn’t re­ally warm to Mike Leigh’s Peter­loo, the story of the massacre of po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tors in Manch­ester in 1819. Laden with (no doubt scrupu­lously au­then­ti­cated) speech-mak­ing, the film of­ten re­lies on broad strokes, es­pe­cially when rep­re­sent­ing the cor­rupt in­dul­gences of the English pow­ers that be. It’s a story that needed to be told, but the weight of the topic seems to have blunted Leigh’s usu­ally gim­let acu­ity when it comes to char­ac­ter.

Also tack­ling a chal­leng­ing topic was Paul Green­grass’s 22 July, the sec­ond film this year to re­con­struct the killings per­pe­trated in Nor­way by ex­treme-right fa­natic An­ders Breivik. While the other, Erik Poppe’s U – July 22, con­cen­trated on a real-time re­con­struc­tion of the events on Utøya is­land, Green­grass’s film takes us right up to Breivik’s trial, and fea­tures a mes­meris­ing

Did Venice give us any masterpieces? Yes, re­sound­ingly – a proper old­school one

per­for­mance by An­ders Danielsen Lie as Breivik, a chilling por­trait of de­luded in­hu­man­ity.

One thing that took the sheen off this year’s all-star se­lec­tion was the fact that there was only one woman direc­tor in com­pe­ti­tion – Aus­tralian writer-direc­tor Jennifer Kent, who made the hugely orig­i­nal chiller

The Babadook. Her fol­low-up, The Nightin­gale, is a pe­riod ad­ven­ture story, fired by fem­i­nist rage and anti-colo­nial protest. Set in 19th-cen­tury Tas­ma­nia, it’s about a young Ir­ish woman (Ais­ling Fran­ciosi) out to avenge an atroc­ity per­pe­trated by English soldiers. She’s aided by a young abo­rig­i­nal tracker, played with brio and dry wit by new­comer Baykali Ganam­barr, and their quest takes them through dense for­est and a mael­strom of blood-let­ting. The film is over-long and suf­fers badly from rep­e­ti­tion and hy­per­bole, but some­where in here is a po­lit­i­cally charged B-movie with real fire.

An un­ex­pected genre treat was Dragged Across Con­crete – a taut, com­plex thriller from S Craig Zahler, with a real Michael Mann touch. It stars Mel Gib­son and Vince Vaughn as cops get­ting out of their depth as they try and cash in on a bank rob­bery: laden with pos­i­tively baroque tough-guy ban­ter, the film plays clev­erly if cyn­i­cally with Gib­son’s own tar­nished rep­u­ta­tion, and the ex­e­cu­tion is down­right steely. The vi­o­lence is jaw-drop­ping, though. En­trails in a heist movie? Surely a first.

It’s too early to de­liver a judg­ment on Or­son Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind – after all, it’s only 48 years since he started shoot­ing it. His leg­endary fi­nal film has at last been com­pleted, with Net­flix back­ing, and it’s a rum ’un in­deed, cov­er­ing the fi­nal night in the life of a Welle­sian film direc­tor, played by an­other Hol­ly­wood pa­tri­arch, John Hus­ton.

Much of the film is a dizzy­ing party se­quence, with a young Peter Bog­danovich essen­tially play­ing him­self as the direc­tor’s protege. Nested within this black and white film are colour ex­cerpts from a par­o­dic arty num­ber in which Welles’s muse and co-writer Oja Ko­dar strides, mainly naked, through highly ex­pres­sion­is­tic scenes that sug­gest Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni in charge of a 1970s Pent­house shoot. It’s some­times em­bar­rass­ing, some­times im­pen­e­tra­ble, some­times daz­zling – and, above all, a tes­ti­mony to the late Gary Graver, who shot the film piece­meal over many years.

So, fi­nally, did Venice give us any masterpieces? Yes, re­sound­ingly – a proper old-school one. It’s Roma by Al­fonso Cuarón, the vir­tu­oso direc­tor of Grav­ity and Chil­dren of Men. Drop­ping the spec­ta­cle, and pho­tograph­ing the film him­self in sheened, metal­lic black and white, Cuarón has pro­duced a riv­et­ing film in­spired by his own child­hood in Mex­ico City. Roma is set in a mid­dle­class home where ev­ery­day life ticks along against the back­ground of po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence. The ac­tion is seen through the eyes of a young house­maid, Cleo, played by non-pro­fes­sional lead Yal­itza Apari­cio – in real life, a re­cently qual­i­fied teacher – whose can­did, beau­ti­fully mod­i­fied per­for­mance was one of the out­stand­ing hu­man fac­tors of this fes­ti­val. It might be com­pro­mis­ing for a jury headed by Guillermo del Toro to award a Mex­i­can film the Golden Lion, but Roma is a film ab­so­lutely in the great Ital­ian ne­o­re­al­ist tra­di­tion, so Venice would be just the place to hon­our it.

Pho­to­graph by Vit­to­rio Zunino Celotto/Getty Im­ages

LEFTLuca Guadagnino, sec­ond right, on the Venice red car­pet with the stars of his ‘in­fu­ri­at­ingly silly’ hor­ror Sus­piria: (l-r) Chloë Grace Moretz, Bradley J Fis­cher, Tilda Swin­ton, Jes­sica Harper, Mal­go­rzata Bela and Mia Goth. Olivia Colman ar­rives for the screen­ing of The Favourite. Franco Origlia/ Getty Im­ages

BE­LOW The ‘riv­et­ing’ Roma, di­rected and filmed by Al­fonso Cuarón.

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