Final thoughts on the 69th Venice International Film Festival.
The phenomenon of booing a film—presumably while those connected to it are present in the audience—was something I had never witnessed before. Two films, however, received such energetic bouts of jeers, that it made me wonder whether I was among the only people to like them. In particular, it appeared some critics took great pleasure in simply being able to say that they had booed a Terrence Malick film, and admittedly his latest, To the Wonder, seemed like perfect fodder. After all, it didn’t bother to hide its spiritual longing, while its emphasis on mood rather than philosophical weight meant that if you weren’t with the film, you weren’t going to like it. It was, to be fair, brilliant.
To the Wonder conveyed everything that The Tree of Life attempted to—spiritual discontentment, anomie, a cry about a world that is being destroyed, bittersweet relationships—but in a concise and measured way. Marina (Olga Kuylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) divide their relationship between Paris and small town USA, leading to their inevitable estrangement. Simple enough—but Malick weaves in Neil’s own crises at work (environmental catastrophes), a priest’s (Javier Bardem) questioning of his faith, and an alternate relationship for Neil (with a character played by Rachel McAdams), suggesting perhaps the corrosive effect of memory. If The Tree of Life was clunky in its construction—its beautiful moments ruined by its excesses, to the point that someone who wasn’t connected to Malick needed to edit it considerably—To the Wonder simply swoons. Seen through its incredibly restless camerawork (almost always from down to up), the film’s narrative offers no easily discernible path, and flows through time and space like a languid dream.
Even so, To the Wonder is arguably Malick’s most accessible film (along with The New World) in his “second coming” (i.e. post 1997’s The Thin Red Line). His imagery and use of architecture and movement is frequently breathtaking, and given that this is the most ‘urban’ of Malick’s films (at least since Badlands), it makes you wish he had shot contemporary landscapes more often. The film also has a profound sense of yearning; drawn in, it was hard to feel cynical about. Malick’s films aren’t particularly deep, they’re more sensory than that—a cinema of feeling, if you will—and To the Wonder was an absolute success on that front.
The second bout of booing wasn’t surprising, and if Rachel McAdams was hiding incognito at the festival, then she might have been nervous about her film choices. Brian De Palma’s latest, Passion, was a little silly, but was also typical of his checkered if not underrated career. Full of narrative twists, femme fatales, double identities, and an absurd lack of subtlety, it’s yet another homage to Hitchcock, in a career full of homage. The performances veered eerily close to parody (McAdams as the horrible boss almost fails to convince in her excesses, while Noomi Rapace plays it straight almost to the point of falling asleep), the setting was grand and sneeringly superficial, and the continual narrative contrivances drew laboured groans of agony from some critics. All of this said, it was all rather fun.
Paying homage to Brian De Palma was Harmony Korine with Spring Breakers—so much so, that the amoral Alien (James Franco), a Florida drugs dealer, plays Scarface on loop. Spring Breakers came to the festival with a lot of baggage: it was apparently deemed “shocking” for featuring a bunch of tween stars on drugs baring their breasts. The story follows four girls (including Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) who escape boredom at college to party in Florida over spring break, straying into drugs, sex—and James Franco. Promoted as “Disney stars gone wild!”, if anything it was far too tame. It’s hard to believe that a filmmaking nation with a tradition established by legends such as John Waters and Russ Meyer would get excited over something as varnished as this. Part of Spring Breakers’ problem was its lack of direction: was it a social commentary, or simply content to wallow in its own amorality? Either would have been fine, but the film lacked the drive to do either. The characters were too one-dimensional to have any resonance thematically, and there wasn’t anywhere near enough wallowing for an audience to have fun. As a result, Korine’s film felt curiously subdued, notwithstanding Douglas Crise’s brilliant editing (it felt like a Malick film in that respect), as well as a game performance by Franco. But shocking or even fun, it certainly wasn’t.
A filmmaker with a long history of shocking audiences was cult Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu. His latest in an eclectic career was the fairly straightforward fable, The Millennial Rapture. Structured around a midwife’s deathbed recollections of an infamous family and the repercussions caused in a small Japanese village, the film felt rushed, lopsided, and oddly incomplete. Wakamatsu’s imagery was a little flat and uninspiring, and the acting rather weak. The male leads—all of whom were meant to be irresistible to women to everyone’s detriment—weren’t nearly attractive enough, which didn’t help.
A far more successful product from Japan was the excellent Kiyoshi Kurosawa mini-series Penance (Shokuzai). Cut down for theatrical release (but still four and a half hours long), Kurosawa’s film managed to draw some of the best elements from iconic TV shows—Twin Peaks and The Killing immediately came to mind—to create a dark and moody depiction of contemporary Japan. Centred on a horrific child murder in a small town Japanese school, it follows the victim’s four friends who all witnessed the killer, but in the immediate aftermath of the death, forgot who he was. The victim’s mother (wonderfully played by Kyoko Koizumi) forces the girls either to remember or act out a penance of their choice when they grow up. Years later, the girls struggle to escape the effects of the incident.
Penance only trips up in its final hour when it veers towards melodrama and, finally, a contrived ending—a difficult thing for a viewer to overcome when one has invested so much time already. It’s hard not to view the film, however, as offering teasing allegorical interpretations of Japan then and now: collective amnesia, sexual fetishising, neotenising of females, over-reliance on discipline and authority—all of which stem from a horrific event in the past. And while, in terms of narrative at least, the final episode is clunky, its thematic resonance is strong, suggesting that in order to determine the cause of the horrific event, one needs to go back even further in history. Furthermore, guilt and penance might need to be performed by all, not simply those caught up in the event.
A more restrained piece of filmmaking (in terms of action and character study) was Yesim Ustaoglu’s Somewhere in Between (Araf). An observation of small town ennui in rural Turkey (in fairness, smal -town ennui has well and truly become a genre on its own), the film follows Zehra (a fine performance by Neslihan Ataguul) as she yearns for escape from a dead-end job and limited career prospects. Unlike Spring Breakers, the escape isn’t particularly exciting. The film features one of the most grueling scenes in recent memory (a brutal child birth), and its leisurely pace seems to have defeated a few critics already. Its ending was a little weak, a little too pat, and little too quick to accept the status quo given it had been so critical of the social environment up until that point. Visually, however, Somewhere in Between is stunning, and allows for much more richness than the script arguably deserves. Ustaoglu’s clever use of interior/exterior spaces within her framing (the final scene is tellingly situated in both) suggests at once entrapment and the tantalising prospect of escape, and the winter landscapes provide a fairly depressing yet beautiful accompaniment to the characters’ lives.
Also concerned with boredom and winter was the icy Russian film Betrayal (Izmena), directed by Kirill Serebrennikov. Two nameless characters (great performances by Dejan Lilic and Franziska Petri) discover their spouses are having an affair, leading to a charged series of interactions between them almost in recompense. The film proceeded brilliantly until its extended and unnecessary coda ruined the compelling and enigmatic mood. If it had ended 20 minutes earlier, I might well have been proclaiming it a masterpiece. That said, its performances and visual intelligence (including a stunning one-shot take highlighting the fragility of the characters’ lives) assures us that Serebrennikov is a director to watch.
Another flawed, but fascinating film was Brillante Mendoza’s Sinapupanan. Mendoza has had the unfortunate tendency in the past of hammering his audience with obvious symbolism, but with Sinapupunan, he tones it down to an almost lyrical simplicity. Perhaps he needed to get away from Catholicism for this purpose. His protagonists are a hard-working fishing couple in Tawi Tawi, on the Muslim-dominated outer reaches of the Philippines. Shaleha (Nora Aunor) cannot have children, and she goes to great lengths to her own detriment to find a new wife for her husband Bangas-an (Bembol Roco). Viewed through an ethnographic lens—small traditional details and community spirit are given absolute prominence, along with a subtly hinted repression from the government—Mendoza is clearly enamoured and respectful of his characters and their traditions, and it’s hard not to feel moved and entranced by the islanders’ rituals and rhythms. Less successful is the relationship itself—priorities, I guess—which appeared a little too depressing to truly empathize with. Still, a distinctive film nonetheless, suggesting that Mendoza is most successful when he tries not to say too much at all.
As noted in an earlier dispatch, the Venice International Film Festival was my first experience of a major film festival; it left me feeling at once disorientated and impressed. Invariably, many of the experienced pros moaned about the drag of covering a big festival, and there was a common feeling that the simple pleasure of watching a film was of secondary importance to everything else. After all, there aren’t many places where a well-heeled socialite can stand wistfully on the red carpet and tell off a scruffy film reviewer who was chowing down a piece of pizza nearby in order to make a dinner-time screening of a 1950 Filipino film: “Do you really think you should be eating here? You should be more respectful.” The festival supposedly lacked big names (as far as stars showing up), but in terms of the seductive, grand setting that is Venice, and of course the great array of films, there was plenty to savour. It certainly will enjoy the coup of premiering Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (the best film in competition) for years to come, along with To the Wonder (which, as mentioned, was far from a ‘lesser’ Malick). My other highlights included Penance, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, Spike Lee’s Bad 25, and Valeria Sarmiento’s Linhas de Wellington. The only major disappointment was the winner—Kim Ki-duk’s dreadful Pieta—but then that’s a minor annoyance in what was an altogether enjoyable show.