Venice film festival 2019 roundup: shocks, horrors and dark jokers

Source: The Guardian

European politics isn’t predictable, so why should the film festival circuit be? This time last year, Venice pulled out a corker of a programme – RomaThe FavouriteSunset, a posthumous Orson Welles feature – and we all said that Cannes would have to raise its game accordingly. Well, this year Cannes did raise its game, while Venice discreetly returned to being solid but less than indispensable. The 76th festival had its gems, but was short on real excitement – although, as befits our age, the real buzz came less from the films than from the social media that amassed around them.

Arguably the biggest controversy this year, providing ripples that extended beyond the Lido, came from a mainstream Hollywood production, but an unusually dark one – Todd Phillips’s Joker, a sombre, arguably nihilistic spin on the Batman villain. It was a tour de force for Joaquin Phoenix, and a flamboyantly knowing tip of the hat to certain Martin Scorsese movies. The film itself was all but eclipsed by the Twitter storm it provoked – was it really a message of empowerment to incels and other embittered social outsiders? – but it is certainly one of the boldest Hollywood productions for some time.

Among the dominant flavours of Venice 2019 were despair and damnation, making this year at times quite indigestibly apocalyptic. If Joker’s unalloyed bleakness was the very antithesis of superhero escapism, it was easily outdone for sheer moral and visual horror by Czech director Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, a near three-hour adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s now largely forgotten 1965 bestseller, which followed a young boy on his travels through a second world war landscape resembling a medieval hell. From the word go, there was no imaginable atrocity that was not inflicted on the boy, assorted other adults and animals and, indeed, the audience (and that includes the dubbing of Harvey Keitel and Julian Sands). The film is painstakingly executed, magnificently photographed in black and white, and was much admired by some; for me, it was a grisly parody of the more authentic darkness of the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, to whom its aesthetic owes a lot.

Differently ordeal-like was Oliver Hermanus’s Moffie, which evoked the brutality faced by white South African army conscripts in the 1980s, especially if they were gay (the title is an Afrikaans homophobic slur). A sort of sub-equatorial Full Metal Jacket, this was in no way pleasurable, but it had the ring of brutal authenticity and some terrific performances from a young cast who boldly submit to its boot camp rigours.

But for bleakness with a leavening touch of gallows humour, there was respite in About Endlessness from Roy Andersson, the Swedish auteur who won Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, in 2014 with his snappily titled A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Andersson is the most deadpan and consistent of jokers. About Endlessness is his fourth film in which the human condition is enacted in a series of elaborately staged vignettes, acted out by performers made up to resemble whey-faced extras in a zombie movie.

Largely set in Andersson’s own version of Stockholm, it also features a Chagall-like couple flying over a ruined city, a defeated army marching off to Siberia, and a glimpse of Hitler’s bunker, where his weary generals can barely muster a “Sieg Heil!”. If you’re willing to tune in to Andersson’s unique, visionary brand of anti-cinema, it’s one of the best things here, albeit no departure.

There were some significant big-name disappointments in and out of competition, and the true-life dramas weren’t remotely as incisive as Venice’s best documentaries – notably Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker, a terrifying portrait of Imelda Marcos and the legacy of a power broker who simply will not let go of dynastic influence. In the docudrama realm, Olivier Assayas offered a sprawling story of Cuban-American espionage, Wasp Network, with a cast including Penélope Cruz and Gael García Bernal, but without the nail-biting focus of the director’s previous true-espionage epic Carlos.

Then there was Benedict Andrews’s Seberg, about the latter days of film star Jean Seberg, persecuted by the CIA for her involvement with black power activists; a lifeless dud, it featured that barely imaginable rarity, a listless Kristen Stewart performance. Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat was an episodic, smart-arsed account of international financial chicanery, as exposed in the Panama Papers, with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, winking to camera in the finance for dummies style of The Big Short. It’s a horribly self-satisfied film, the absolute tooth-grater of the festival.

The Laundromat was one of three Netflix films here; the others were Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (see below) and a laborious, revisionist take on the Henry V story, David Michôd’s The King, with a solemn Timothée Chalamet as Hal, rising to the challenge of wearing the crown. The battle scenes, when they came, were great – hardly the glorious Agincourt of the Laurence Olivier version – but the film is distinguished mainly by a nicely downbeat turn from Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote a verbally rich script and plays Falstaff as a canny, no-nonsense military strategist, rather like a pragmatic second-division football manager.

Other established names did better at the start of the week. James Gray offered an enjoyable, all-out loopy space adventure, Ad Astra, with Brad Pitt heading to the ends of the universe in search of the meaning of it all, and in search of his dad (an inimitably grouchy Tommy Lee Jones). Roman Polanski, whose personal reputation meant that many were unhappy about him being in competition at all, actually came up trumps with An Officer and a Spy, about the 1890s Dreyfus case. For some, Polanski making a film about a case of unjust accusation was downright cheek, but this was a more than solid historical drama – a little academic, but gripping and cogent, with sometime joker Jean Dujardin (The Artist) excelling in all seriousness as the intelligence officer who unravels the true facts.

And then, triumphantly, there was Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s acidic dramedy about a theatrical couple (Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver) splitting up, the divide between LA and New York cultures paralleling their emotional schism. Both leads are dazzling, as are Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as their attorneys; by the time Driver sings a solo version of Sondheim’s Being Alive, this profound, pitiless film hadn’t left a dry eye in the house.

Another Venice controversy came before the festival when the programme was announced, and it was revealed that there were only two films by women in competition – scant improvement on last year’s meagre one. One of the two felt like a good-intentions inclusion: The Perfect Candidate, by Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour. About a young woman doctor attempting to buck the Saudi patriarchy by standing as a local councillor, it was a passionate and very necessary drama, but lukewarm as cinema. But something else again was Australian first feature Babyteeth by Shannon Murphy, who immediately put her wayward stamp on this tragicomedy adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her own play. It’s about a suburban teenager with cancer (Eliza Scanlen), who takes up with a local bad boy, to the horror of her very dysfunctional parents (Ben Mendelsohn; The Babadook’s superb Essie Davis). With dazzling colour choices, off-key wit and a wild sense of mischief, this was the freshest discovery here.

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