The heat wave that crippled Europe for the past few weeks broke just in time for the Venice Film Festival, the world's oldest, and in some respects, still the most glamorous continuing film festival (in an old world kind of way - where else do festival goers have the opportunity to arrive via the canals or visit palaces?). Now celebrating its 60th incarnation, this is first blow in the fall cinema season's one-two festival punch of Venice/Toronto, still the smaller, more elegant of the two, the granddaddy spiffed up in his finery next to the off-and-running new generation Toronto, which can't seem to expand fast enough to keep up with its reach. And with the disappointing line-up at Cannes this year, all eyes are on Venice to recapture its former glory, when it was the third leg of the international triple crown (along with Cannes and Berlin).
One of the most anticipated features of the festival wasn't in competition. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers is about being young and in love with cinema during the heady days of May 1968. It begins with the impassioned youth of Parisian cinema society protesting the government's ousting of Cinémathèque Française curator and, for all intents and purposes, creator, Henri Langlois, which by the end of that fateful summer felt like the first shots in a revolution that brought students and workers into the streets.
The "dreamers" of the title refer to many things, from the love of cinema (dreams projected on a screen and shared by an audience in a darkened theater) to the politically charged possibilities of genuine change, but it may best describe how the odd little ménage à trois that sets up housekeeping are all talk and little action.
American in Paris Matthew (Michael Pitt) falls in with a brother and sister duo (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) who seem to share his love with equal
passion. When they invite him to share in other ways, they cut off the rest of the world and hole up in their Paris apartment. It is, among other things, Bertolucci's tribute to the French New Wave, and his film dances in film clips (cut in with that anything-goes vigor of the 60s) and references (Jean-Pierre Léaud appears both in person and in clips from his May 1968 manifestos), but this is hardly a Jules and Jim, or even Band à part. Think of it as Bertolucci's first tango in Paris, only this cinema-mad American falls in with siblings so intimate it becomes unsettling. The bohemian spirit is all over the film as he loses his clothes along with his inhibitions (hard to imagine this getting a release in its current form, even though the nudity is honest, not exploitative). Unlike his Stealing Beauty, old man Bertolucci no longer feels obsessed with the beauty of youth as much as he wistfully remembers it: the good, the bad, and the impetuous.
Takeshi Kitano enters the official competition with his latest. Zatoichi is filled with scarlet sprays of blood we've come to expect
from Japan's deadpan auteur of violent cop dramas and brutal yakuza thrillers, but this time the fountains spring from the lightning swipes of a sword wielded by a blind masseur. It's not merely his first period piece but also his first remake, and of a beloved institution no less - the original Zatoichi series spawned over 20 sequels. This is more reinvention than remake, with Takeshi taking the role himself, his hair bleached ivory white, waddling through the picture with his head nodding, his face twitching, and a smile spread
across his face as if he were enjoying a private joke.
It also marks a new style for Takeshi. Where in the past his camera would stand and shoot, as stock still as his characters, this camera glides, and his staccato editing has the graphic style of a manga. "It's way more exaggerated than in real life," he explained in an interview. "I wanted a cartoonish look, a video game look." It works on that level, a purely entertaining picture with explosions of action interspersed with comic relief - and concluding on a tap dance finale! Takeshi was still sporting his blonde bleach job when he appeared with the film. "My Japanese publicist ordered me to keep my hair white until the Japanese premiere," he laughed.
Roundly booed at its press screening, Christopher Hampton's Imagining
Argentina is the biggest disappointment of the festival to date, a decidedly unimaginative look at the horrors of the military dictatorship and the plight of "the disappeared" and the loved ones who marched in protest. At the crux of the film is a children's theater director (Antonio Banderas) who, after his wife is kidnapped, suddenly has the psychic power to see their fates. Speaking in defense of the film at the press conference, Christopher Hampton maintains that his adaptation of Lawrence Thornton's metaphorical novel "is a poem. We are writers. This is how we approach it." He may be a writer, but as a director he is blunt, clumsy, and has a troubling way of using the physical torture of women as a psychic assault on our hero, the film's living martyr. The references to the Holocaust are less insulting than
misguided, but ultimately, his message, "never forget," gets lost in the metaphors.
Someone please save us from European artistes who try to find the primal impulses of the human animal in the desert landscape of the American southwest. Bruno Dumont has tackled the tough terrain of human violence and sexual need with empathy in the past, but it's nowhere to be felt in Twentynine Palms, his Southern California road trip to the edge of humanity in the company of two barely socially functional examples of crippled modern man. The contrivances that get these two fighting and making up again in animalistic bouts of grunting, screaming sex - the chants of triumph and
gurgling hollers of orgasm offer no hint of happiness or, God forbid, shared pleasure - become too absurd to take seriously. Dumont's previous films, set in the French countryside, worked the social into the individual, creating desperation and isolation and jealousy to drive his characters. Here, they are
simply abstractions in an abstract landscape, driving themselves on pure sensation (they are less in love than addicted to sex) and awaiting punishment from a malevolent God in the form of blunt and brutal violence that springs out of nowhere - a climax that becomes an act of auteur masturbation.
The Controcorrente (Upstream) competition was created with the intention of exploring, in the the words of the festival program, film with "innovational intent, creative originality and alternative cinematographic qualities." It's become the program with some of the most interesting films at the festival.
Silence Between Two Thoughts by Babek Payami, a previous Venice award-winner (Secret Ballot earned him a Silver Lion for Best Director in 2001), was almost merely silence. "The negatives of my film have been confiscated by the authorities," writes Payami in his introductory notes, which explains the projected video of a film constructed from video work prints (some with time codes stamped on the lower part of the frame). It didn't diminish his vision of fundamentalism turned into fascism, where a tribal warlord takes power as a religious leader with gun-toting apostles as his enforcers. His loyal follower, an executioner, fulfills his duty with no ferocity or malevolence under those bushy brows and black beard, but merely with simplicity and subservience - until he is ordered to marry a young woman sentenced to death because "criminals must go to hell, but an executed virgin will go to heaven." Think of him as Luca Brasi to a fundamentalist Godfather whose word is law (and possibly a death sentence), no explanation given, no questions asked, just blind obedience demanded. Set in the dry, drought-stricken desert, the empty landscape and the haunting sound of the wind dominates, giving it an abstract quality as well as a searing specificity, even as much of the "drama" is offscreen. Payami insists that the film is not an attack on Islamic fundamentalism as much as a critique of how religion has been used to manipulate the population, and the compassion with which he follows the odyssey of his obedient apostle confirms his intentions.
Chilean cinema prankster Raoul Ruiz toiled in near obscurity for decades while making some of the most ingenious cinematic puzzles and labyrinthine movies on absurdly minuscule budgets. Only in 1996, when his deliciously playful Three Lives and Only Death grabbed audiences' attention and critics' fancies around the world did he finally break into films with larger budgets and casts. Une place parmi les vivants (playing out of competition) shares the self-contained irony of his earlier films. The story of an author without anything to say (Christian Vadim) and a serial killer in dire need of a Boswell (birdfaced Thierry Gibault, looking like he stepped out of the rogues gallery of a Hitchcock classic), this playful little lark is all about stories and storytelling, a tale that loops back on itself and twists authorship around until it becomes clear that no one is as they seem: they're simply creations of their own desires. "It was a game between liars and I was intrigued," he explained at his press conference, but insisted, "There is no philosophy behind it, no metaphysics." Take his protestations as you will. Still, it all seems a little slight for the master, whose imagination has previously reached the heights and depths of Time Regained.