No one could accuse the Venice Festival, one of the oldest in the world, of trying to ape Cannes. But if the French festival is still considered the best in the world, Venice is fast catching up. Year after year, its films get more Academy nominations than Cannes and, under Alberto Barbera, its director for several editions, it is becoming more fashionable by the year. Started off by Mussolini as a platform for Italian films, the festival has had a chequered career, collapsing entirely in the eighties and thereafter under the aegis of directors treading carefully among the thorny pitfalls of Italian politics.
At one stage you could listen to Mussolini’s grandson at the piano in the flashy Excelsior Hotel of an evening, and until it was sold as a block of flats the giant Hotel Des Bains, with the best pool in Venice, used to put up dozens of the most favoured critics. I remember having breakfast there when the shock of Princess Diana’s death came through.
I also remember being favoured by an interview from the great John Ford, who hated critics but had a retrospective at the festival curated by Peter Bogdanovich. He must have left it to his publicity people to accord the few interviews he did and it was in fear and trembling that I knocked on the door of his suite at the Excelsior at the appointed time. His wife opened the door and said that Jack (the name he used) was ill, having eaten some fish the night before which had poisoned him. She didn’t think he was capable of doing the interview. But before I could leave there came a stentorian voice from the general direction of the bathroom—“Come on in. I can deal with two shits at once!”
On another even more embarrassing occasion I had walked out of a new Fellini film to have a pee and, as I was standing relieving myself, I realised that a cloaked Fellini was in the stall next to me. Turning to him, I said how much I have enjoyed the film. What else could I say? But, alas, as I did so, I peed on his shoes.”If you do this to people whose films you like” he said, ” what do you do to people whose films you don’t like?” Despite this disaster, we eventually became friends and he sent me a magnificent book illustrating all his films, with his signature on the title page. Don’t urinate on it, he wrote…
These, however, are the good years despite money being tight and the Venice Lido, where the Festival is domiciled, being even more expensive than Cannes. And this year the Golden Lion was won by Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director, with Roma. Roma is not the Italian capital but a poor suburb of Mexico City where Cuaron was brought up, and the film has plenty of semi-autobiographical elements about it. Its central character is Cleo, the family servant, who gets pregnant by a ridiculously macho man and eventually almost dies in childbirth. The film shot beautifully in black and white, and clearly not as ambitious as Cuaron’s other movies, like his otiose Harry Potter film and Gravity. But so well is it modelled and played, and so sympathetic its view of the servant and the family she serves that the jury apparently unanimously gave it the top prize. Roma is certainly preferable to the grandiose movies that tend to get prizes these days. And though the head of the jury was Latin-American and thus probably favoured the film, there was no controversy whatsoever about the prize. Sometimes small is better than large.
Even so, the film I would have preferred to win was Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, a British costume drama by the eccentric but talented Greek director of Dogtooth and The Lobster. Set in the court of Queen Anne in the early 18th century, and superbly decked out in clothes and settings of the time, it not only looks a treat but is about as far as the usual historical epic as it is possible to be. Queen Anne, if you didn’t know, had terrible gout (she had to be carried to her coronation in a litter). She was also heavily influenced by the Duchess of Marlborough who possibly had a Lesbian affair with her. The third leading character in this extraordinarily spiteful, and probably truthful, film is Abigail, the young cousin of the Duchess who successfully inveigles her way up the greasy pole of Anne’s eccentric court.
The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is brilliantly sour but it is the acting that remains the film’s chief joy. Olivia Colman as the ageing wreck of a Queen is superb, suggesting a shrewdness without which the character could have simply become a parody, while Rachel Weisz as the scheming Duchess has never been better. Emma Stone as the young interloper is equally good. If one or other of this trio is not nominated for an Oscar I will eat my hat. But what I was really pleased about was the film’s probable accuracy to history. It seemed not to put a foot wrong, which is exceptional if you look at the rubbish albeit entertaining view of the past on television just now. Go see The Favourite, and marvel at Olivia Colman, who justly won the best actress here.
The Coen Brothers attempt at a kind of anthology of Westerns (six affectionate unconnected episodes) won the best screenplay award but was disappointingly uneven. Not a patch on something like Fargo and both over and under the top at the same time. It lasted 133 minutes and one of the weaker episodes could well be dispensed with. Then we might have sat back and enjoyed the result of their fondness for the genre, now practically dead on its feet but still worth remembering with affection.
Lastly, there were two biopics of artists and one updating of a horror movie on a packed programme. Willem Dafoe won the best actor Lion for a fine performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate and since Schnabel’s is a painter himself, the film looked good and tasted authentic. So did Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, an enormously long summation of Gerhard Richter’s chequered career. It lasted well over three hours and desperately needed an editor not quite as eccentric as the director. Words fail me after Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the seventies horror Suspiria. The story, set in the Germany of the seventies, has Tilda Swinton as the boss of a weird dance troupe (very good) whose punishing for sins takes place underground. It is all very stylish and well-directed. But Argenta was all the better for not being so bloody ambitious and pretentious in the earlier film.