Venice 2019

Venice, the most successful clip-joint in Europe, doesn’t like us anymore. Not the tourists who insist on debarking from their huge liners, which have now been banned. Not the day-trippers who silt up St. Marks Square and its environs (now forbidden from eating their expensive lunch sandwiches on the bridges). Not even those of us who pay through the nose for a coffee in the Square. You can’t entirely blame the locals. Things have reached a pretty pass when you have to push through packed crowds on your way to work and back, and the boats sway dangerously with their loads all day and half the night. But the annual film festival, this time in its 76th edItion on the Lido, is a different matter. The more crowds the better to make sure it’s second only to Cannes in the burgeoning festival calendar. Last year the event made Cannes rue the day it forbade Netflix and co by giving its Golden Lion to Roma and also exhibiting The Favourite, Sunset and a posthumous Orson Welles feature.

This year couldn’t equal such riches. But it gave its Golden Lion to Todd Phillips The Joker, which had Joaquin Phoenix in the role made famous by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Phoenix, as compulsively watchable as ever, gave the part of the failed stand-up comedian, driven insane by the woes of the world, gave everything he’s got, which is quite a lot, to the part, making sure that Batman’s nemesis made the film a paean of praise to a view of the world any anarchist would savour. There was a right storm on Twitter about this incendiary aspect of the film. But it is certainly not your ordinary Hollywood blockbuster. And it’s bleakness made a good change from superhero escapism.

Oscar nominations certainly await. I was surprised, however, that it beat Marriage Story for the top prize in Venice. Noah Baumbach’s tenth feature, about a seemingly well-matched LA couple, who go for an amicable divorce but which gets very nasty largely because of the couples lawyers, is excellently written and pretty convincingly acted by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, with Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as their attorneys stealing a good few scenes. The film is an apt comment on certain aspects of American life, and particularly on the way Californians can make a good life horrible just by looking sideways at it.

The other ‘big’ film was The King, a curious admixture of Game of Thrones and Shakespeare’s Henry V which had much visual splendour, a tenable screenplay and a very good Dauphin in Robert Pattinson but a young Harry in Timothee Chalamet who seemed unduly solemn and a Falstaff in Joel Egerton who completely missed the old man’s comeuppance at the end and played him as tough military strategist rather than a fat drunk. The whole thing is something to see, and even to think about. But it’s more Hollywood than Globe Theatre and sometimes seemed a bit silly. Not as daft as James Gray’s Ad Astra, which encases Brad Pitt in a spacesuit and sends him off into the blue yonder in search of his missing father ( a grizzled Tommy Lee Jones). He seems to discover the meaning of life at the end, which is more than I did. But then space epics invariably send me to sleep unless made by Tarkovsky or Kubrick. Earth has enough problems.

The Festival’s second-best Lion was justly accorded to Roman Polanski’s An Officer and A Spy, which is an excellently mounted and well-researched story of the 1890s Dreyfus case. Some thought that Polanski was deliberately making a movie about an unjust accusation. But that’s by the way. His film is very well made in a sort of lush television style and Jean Dujardin is excellent as the intelligence officer who unravelled the real truth together with the writer Emil Zola. Certainly, Polanski has fun with the whiskered French army officers who condemned Dreyfus, largely for daring to be a Jew. But the film is the product of a first-class director all the same and should be praised a such.

We were all looking forward to Haifaa al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate after this spirited Saudi director’s first feature which was admired around the world. This time, however, there was some disappointment since the story of a woman who dares to stand as a local candidate in the most patriarchal society on earth is a bit academically made and lacking in real drama. It seems as if the director, having dared to make a film at all with her first feature, was unwilling to press her luck too far in her second.

Another disappointment was Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, an ironic comedy about the Panama Papers tax evasion scandal, with Meryl Streep as a woman from Alabama who determinedly tangles with the co-founders of the Fonseca law firm, which broke every rule in the book. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are the villains of the piece and I must say, Oldman, so recently Oscared as Churchill has never given a wetter performance, with his fake accent all over the place. Soderbergh’s deadly serious intentions were totally ruined by his determination to make us smile as well and the film looked more like the first feature of a not very good director rather than the umpteenth effort of an experienced one. Even Streep, who tries very hard, couldn’t save it.

Documentaries were in full view too. There was Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker, which featured none other than Emelda Marcos, widow of the ghastly dictator, handing out money to the populace as her car progressed through the streets and complaining bitterly that her late husband’s Picassos were nowhere to be found. She is now in her eighties and still a Congresswoman. Worse still, her son Bong Bong is Vice President under Duarte. HORROR OF HORRORS! The other notable doc I saw was Alex Gibney’s Citizen K, which told the awful story of Putin versus Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned Russian oligarch who refused to do his bidding and now lives in exile in Switzerland. If ever a film showed Putin for the corrupt and venal leader he is, this well-researched one achieves its aim in spades.

The actual opener for the Festival was from Hirokazu Kore-Eda, one of the East’s foremost humanist directors. Unfortunately, he had been persuaded to leave his natural domain of Japan for France for his first film, not in his native language. The result, despite good performances from Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as an actress mother and screenwriter daughter in constant opposition to each other, isn’t a patch on 
Shoplifters, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. He is a marvellously sympathetic film-maker, but his touch deserted him a little here.

Finally, a film I liked as much as anything else in the programme–Robert Guédiguian’s Gloria Mundi. Guédiguian, sometimes dubbed the Ken Loach of Marseilles, and an avowed Socialist, who makes all his films there and always gives his actress wife a part in them, tells the sad tale of a middle-aged man who comes out of prison after serving a murder rap and finds his entire family in some sort of trouble. Mostly the trouble is caused by lack of money, poor working conditions and uncaring bureaucracy. In the end, violence breaks out and he nobly takes the blame. Going back to prison he feels freedom had severe disadvantages. Beautifully, if simply made, the film shows It is not only the UK that suffers from chronic and over-extended austerity. Marseilles is said to be the most violent city in France. Gloria Mundi quietly tells us why. And what of the director’s wife, playing a cleaner who refuses to go on strike because her wages are vital for the family? Well, she won the Best Actress Lion, a fitting award for all her subtle performances in her husband’s movies.

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