Venice 2010: Final round-up

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This year’s Venice Film Festival saw lauded directors, such as Sofia Coppola and Julian Schnabel trading on past glories. But thank goodness for the visions of Kelly Reichardt and Jan Svankmajer, says David Jenkins

Critics tend to gravitate towards the work of ‘name’ directors at the big international film festivals like Venice and Cannes, partly so their coverage will be more appealing to readers, but partly because it’s a critic’s job to decide whether the work of a well-known fimmaker meets with the weight of expectation. But most of the ‘names’ this year, from Sofia Coppola and Julian Schnabel to Catherine Breillat and Vincent Gallo, were leaning towards repetition, offering films that replicated ideas rather than developing them.

First out of the traps was Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, a supremely assured and histrionic slab of B-movie trash that was, by some margin, the most exhilarating title in competition for the Golden Lion. Natalie Portman atones for past sins (like her kooky fireside jig in ‘Garden State’) with a supercharged turn as a novice New York ballerina who goes off the rails when nudged into the limelight. If the film has a fault, it’s that its trajectory feels too similar to Aronofsky’s 2008 Golden Lion winner, ‘The Wrestler’.

The trailer for Sofia Coppola’s surprise Golden Lion winner, ‘Somewhere’, suggested she was sticking to her ‘Lost in Translation’ comfort zone with this dryly comic tale of a jaded Hollywood megastar (nicely played by Stephen Dorff) whose alienation is tempered by time spent with his estranged daughter (a film-stealing Elle Fanning). Seeing the film only confirmed these niggles. It’s a consummately crafted but callow and unadventurous work that functions better as a series of arch sketches than a cohesive whole.

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Animosity was widespread towards Julian Schnabel’s unfocused ‘Miral’, a simplistic potted history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The seriousness and complexity of the material is done no favours by Schnabel’s flippant, high-style treatment, carried over from 2007’s ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ and not suited to this story.

French provocatrice Catherine Breillat offered another risqué take on a Charles Perrault fairy tale following her recent gem, ‘Bluebeard’. But ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is more wantonly abstract, a difficult, personal spin on the classic story that foregrounds the dreams of the title character, which involve albino princes, lesbian gypsies and some very kitsch special effects.

Pablo Larraín, the Chilean director whose ironic serial-killer movie ‘Tony Manero’ came out recently in the UK, was prematurely catapulted to the festival A-list by having his underachieving ‘Post-Mortem’ playing in competition. Many UK critics took a shine to this film, which reteams the director with his ‘Manero’ leading man, Alfredo Castro, this time as a monomaniacal mortician’s scribe with obsessive designs on his anorexic neighbour. As with that first film, the technique was admirable, but this felt like an example of a director at a loss for new ideas.

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The best competition film was Kelly Reichardt’s intense and mysterious neo-western, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’, in which the director of minimalist classics like ‘Wendy and Lucy’ and ‘Old Joy’ delivers an inventive and rewarding spin on her atmospheric filmmaking style. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are among the members of a wagon train on the lookout for pastures new beyond the arid planes of Oregon circa 1845. Yet they’re lost, and their capture of a lone native provokes the question, will he butcher them, or will he save them? It’s a colder, tougher and braver film than she’s made before, one that demands the viewer make their own sense of the film’s enigmatic intentions. I can’t wait to see it again.

François Ozon’s ’70s-set, gender-relations Demy pastiche, ‘Potiche’, was light and undemanding but also thoroughly winning, riding on an hilarious central turn by Catherine Deneuve as a progressive housewife put in charge of the family umbrella factory, displacing her ultra-right-wing husband when he suffers a heart attack.

Vincent Gallo cropped up twice this year, firstly in Polish veteran Jerzy Skolimowski’s savage Taliban fugitive movie ‘Essential Killing’ (for which he won the Best Actor prize), and his avant-garde directorial project ‘Promises Written in Water’ which the Venice audience took great pleasure in booing and jeering when it was screened: one single-take scene has Gallo in close-up wandering around a funeral home, before climaxing with the actor lying down and giving a big sigh. ‘Promises…’ is very much in the mould of his derided ‘The Brown Bunny’, but it’s also shorter, tighter and sweeter than that notorious folly.

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I loved Vietnamese director Tran Ahn Hung’s ambient, linear take on Haruki Murakami’s novel ‘Norwegian Wood’, which makes a series of deeply affecting observations on the mental burdens of teenage love and sex. But my personal favourite was ‘Surviving Life’, the new ‘psychoanalytical comedy’ from 77-year-old Czech maestro Jan Svankmajer. Mixing live action and paper cut-out animation, this was the wackiest yet most cogent film about dreams and their meaning that I’ve ever seen. Catch it at the London Film Festival in October.

Author: David Jenkins



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