Buona sera, dear readers! With the awards doled out and festivities winding down, it’s time to look back at another top-notch year at the Venice Film Festival.
Boasting a stacked programme of mouth-watering premieres, the festival’s 80th edition wasn’t without a couple of bumps along the way. For one, the ongoing SAG strike threw a spanner in the works, rendering one of the movie industry’s most glamorous red carpets eerily quiet. Gone were the good ol’ days of #spitgate and The Timothée Chalamet Fashion Appreciation Society. News then came that Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, which was meant to open the Festival, had been pulled — MGM and Warner Bros. no doubt deeming a premiere without the support of its high-profile actors to be less than ideal.
Many thought Challengers would be the first of many cancellations. Thankfully, though, this wasn’t the case, and through interim agreement waivers with SAG-AFTRA for independent projects, few actors were able to participate in events at Venice. One such Hollywood attraction was Adam Driver. Although movie fans were happy to see the Ferrari star grace the red carpet, his film, Michael Mann’s long-gestating Enzo Ferrari biopic, failed to rev up excitement among critics.
The other shadow looming over this year’s event was the festival’s inclusion of films by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Luc Bresson. Polanski, who admitted to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and is still a fugitive from U.S. justice, did not attend Venice. The other directors, however, were in town for the premiere of their films – Allen, for his 50th effort, Coup de Chance; and Bresson, for his Caleb Landry Jones-led Dogman. First, banners appeared across the Lido (the island on which the festival takes place), reading “Island of rapists,” “No Golden Lion for predators,” “Sexist cinema/ feminist response.” Then, on the premiere of Coup de Chance, scuffles broke out as protestors shouted “no rape culture” before being led away by festival security. While the films of Polanski and Bresson were widely panned, interestingly – though I can’t say I’m among its admirers – Allen’s new picture has been hailed as his best in a decade.
Allora, enough with the gossip – let’s talk about the movies.
Good news! Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things is wholly delightful — so delightful, in fact, it was awarded the festival’s top prize! This steampunk romp, adapted from Alasdair Gray’s cult novel and co-produced by Dublin’s Element Pictures, stars a never-been-better Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a young woman brought back to life who runs off on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Mark Ruffalo, too, is in fine form, playing the desperate and dastardly Duncan Wedderburn, stealing scenes at will. Perhaps most eye-catching, though, are the film’s gorgeous sets and fabulous production design. Lanthimos is certainly flexing his world-building muscles here like never before; the level of detail is astounding.
While it may not be among Lanthimos’ best, it’s enjoyably charming and cheeky throughout, and features some hilarious lines of dialogue that are sure to stay in my head for a long time. Ireland’s best cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, works his usual magic behind the camera, making use of those fish-eye lenses last seen in The Favourite.
In the lead up to its world premiere, Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. The actor-cum-filmmaker, looking to build on the success of his directorial debut, A Star is Born, found himself caught backlash for wearing a large prosthetic nose to portray the iconic composer/conductor. The controversy then kicked off the latest twitter discourse about “Jewface” and Hollywood’s inauthentic portrayal of Jewish people.
Truth be told, Cooper’s nose is the least of Maestro’s problems. It’s not all bad, of course: the first act fizzes with ambition. But, sadly, the film quickly settles into a bog-standard biographical drama that barely scratches the surface of what made Bernstein so special. Sure, its heart is in the right place, but you can’t help but feel a different angle was needed. Cooper does a fine job playing Bernstein — even under all the remarkable makeup — all the mannerisms are there, even if at times the performance veers into a well-studied impression. Carey Mulligan does all she can with the dull part of Felicia Montealegre, Bernstien’s put-upon wife. It ticks the Oscar boxes, but will leave audiences wanting more.
Fincher fans can breathe easy, The Killer marks not only a return to form for Michael Fassbender — making his return to the silver screen since X-Men: Dark Phoenix — but David Fincher’s best film since Gone Girl. The Killer, adapted from Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon’s graphic novel series of the same name, follows a meticulous hitman who prides himself on his professionalism; that is, until a kill goes sideways and our Mr.Perfect finds himself in a world of shit. He’ll have to bend his own rules if he wants to survive.
I found Fincher’s previous film, 2020’s Mank, to be rather tedious. And while The Killer doesn’t rank alongside the director’s best work, its stripped-back form and sardonic tone make it an enjoyable throwback to the Fincher we know and love. Frequent collaborators, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have joined up once again, though audiences will be too preoccupied with the film’s love of The Smiths to give the pair much attention.
Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Presley biopic was one of the most-anticipated films at this year’s festival. Based on Presley’s memoir, the film charts the ups and downs of her marriage to Elvis. Filled with fairy tales and textures, Priscilla has all the silky, dreamy qualities one would expect from a Coppola picture, evoking The Virgin Suicides as well as Marie Antoinette.
Cailee Spaeny took home the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for her performance as Presley. The twenty-five-year-old, who’s notable credits till now include Bad Times at the El Royale and On the Basis of Sex, plays the part with the quiet confidence of a girl out of her depth but determined to swim. Jacob Elordi, however, has the tough task of following up Austin Butler’s BAFTA-winning portrayal of Elvis. Elordi does fine, but his Elvis takes up too much screen time for my liking.
I like the ideas Coppola hints towards — full of gothic potential — but the film never fully explores these with much depth, and just when things get interesting, the film rushes towards the finish line. Just give me Jeanne Dielman with Priscilla Presley, is that too much to ask for!?
50 years old and still as mischievous as ever, Harmony Korine took his goofy and experimental feature to the Festival’s midnight slot. Aggro Dr1ft‘s “plot” follows an assassin on a mission to kill a demonic crime lord; but more strikingly, it’s the first feature film shot entirely in infrared, which means it’s interesting to look at for about 10 minutes. The problem is you have 70 more minutes to go. Thankfully, Korine has packed this with plenty of humour, which, considering this same mind that gave us Trash Humpers, might test people’s patience further. As for me, I found it a well-needed break from the festival’s usual programme of “serious” and ‘important” pieces of cinema.
Aggro Dr1ft feels like having your brain tie-dyed, while answering the question on everyone’s lips: What if Hotline Miami and a heat seeking missile collided. The result: an enjoyably daffy oddity that I won’t be re-watching anytime soon. But hey, sometimes you just wanna see something different.
Following up his 2022 film Coma, Bertrand Bonello provided what might prove to be the festival’s most divisive film. Set In the near future where emotions have become a threat, La Bête (The Beast) follows Gabrielle (a terrific Léa Seydoux) who decides to purify her DNA in a machine that will immerse her in her past lives and rid her of any strong feelings. But then she meets Louis (George Mackay), and although he seems dangerous, she feels a powerful connection to him as if she has known him forever.
This had me worried early on — stiff and overreaching — but it eventually finds its groove, and when it does, it’s totally bewitching. Understandably, many people are trotting out Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Cloud Atlas comparisons; though, at its best, I found La Bête to have more in common with David Lynch’s Lost Highway – perhaps not in its content, but certainly in its form, full of twisty logic and underlying threat.
Evil Does Not Exist
And so we save the best till last. Topping Drive My Car — which earned the Japanese director an Oscar back in 2022 — seemed an impossible task, but with Evil Does Not Exist ,Ryusuke Hamaguchi gives us an environmental drama so humane and stunning, it’s no surprise it earned him the Festival’s Silver Lion award.
It’s a film so precisely made, so quiet and confident – the opening shots alone sent me into a happy daze. Hamaguchi tackles the frustrations of modern life with such elegance and empathy, and — to the best of my knowledge — no one does it better.
Sadly I wasn’t able to see everything on offer at Venice this year. Some notable misses include Richard Linklater’s well-reviewed Hit Man and Michel Franco’s Memory, starring Jessica Chastain and Best Actor Winner Peter Sarsgaard. Other winners on awards night included veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who had to settle for the Special Jury Prize for Green Border, a portrait of a Syrian family fleeing ISIS for Belarus, which many presumed was Lanthimos’s main competition for the Golden Lion.
So concludes my Venetian adventure: 6 days, 29 movies, 2 mosquito bites and countless layers of sunscreen. Even without the usual glitz and glam, this year’s festival managed to pull off another terrific event. Attention now turns to Toronto, whose own festival (Sept 7-17) is set to host several highly anticipated world premieres, including American Fiction with Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown, Moritz Mohr’s feature film debut Boy Kills World with Bill Skarsgård, and Director Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario co-produced by Ari Aster and starring Nicolas Cage.