Vera Drake

September 1–11, 2004

Despite fears that Marco Müller’s overt wooing of Hollywood glamour would undercut the artistic mission of the 2004 Venice Film Festival, there were enough auteurist names and festival darlings to make critics breathe easier. Sure, the paparazzi were there to blind Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman (not together, of course), Will Smith and Johnny Depp, but it was easy to avoid the demi-invasion from L.A. and hunker down with works by Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mike Leigh, Takashi Miike and Manoel de Oliveira. This year’s edition ranked neither highest nor lowest in artistic success when compared to earlier installments, but just as talked about as the films was the disorganisation that had attendees gob-smacked by chronic tardiness, not to mention a switched reel during the projection of Eros that highlighted the feel of general mismanagement.

But first, the films in competition. Pace Italian audiences who felt slighted that the home team didn’t win for Gianni Amelio’s worthy Le chiavi di casa (2004), most critics agreed with the awarding of best film to Mike Leigh’s intimate drama Vera Drake (2004), and few argued that Imelda Staunton’s deeply felt performance as an average 1950s London working-class housewife who happens to be a backstreet abortionist deserved the best actress prize. Another highlight of the competition was Kim Ki-duk’s delightful last minute inclusion 3-Iron (Binjip) (2004), which represented a sea change from 2003’s Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…Spring, and yet under its veneer of playfulness managed to say a lot (with barely any dialogue) about contemporary feelings of disaffection and loneliness.

The Intruder

Picking up the best actor award was the always excellent Javier Bardem, and while his film The Sea Inside (2004), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, received much praise (and is being considered for a foreign film Oscar), this critic found it a little too self-conscious and doctrinaire, calling out for a more rigorous screenplay. I was certainly in the minority at Venice with my high praise of Claire Denis’ The Intruder (L’Intrus) (2004), a difficult but rewarding work which refuses to privilege reality over visionary states and therefore has been labelled obscurantist. Michel Subor quietly takes over as an anti-hero living in the woods who decides to recapture the life he once had in Polynesia, only to discover that paradise no longer exists. Initially inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s reflections on life after a heart transplant, Denis combines musings on a new lease on life with Robert Louis Stevenson’s In the South Seas and, crucially, Murnau’s Tabu (1931), in which escape from the modern world is shown to be a tragic impossibility.

Also acknowledging a debt to a past master (this time overtly) is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière, billed as a tribute to Ozu and borrowing elements of Tokyo Story (1953) to reinvestigate Hou’s usual themes of alienation and disconnection in a world cut loose from traditional moorings. As we’ve come to expect from Hou, this is a beautiful, meticulously shot work whose deceptive simplicity and seeming lack of action belies its thought-provoking nature. The final shot, of commuter trains crisscrossing a nondescript section of contemporary Tokyo stripped of landmarks, is a perfect metaphor for a society blindly traversing the urban landscape without developing any attachment to its environment and, critically, to other people.

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to see Jia Zhangke’s The World (2004), so I cannot comment on what looks like a fascinating work. Low points among the competition this year go to Michele Placido’s risible piece of pseudo-Camus existentialism Ovunque sei (2004), much commented on for its gratuitous full frontal shots of Stefano Accorsi and Placido’s daughter Violante, but far more noteworthy for the chortles of derision, followed by boos, at the press screening. Amos Gitaï’s impossibly murky Promised Land (2004) should have received equally derisive titters when Hannah Schygulla’s turbaned Madame enters the scene like a parody of Jeanne Moreau in La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990), but most of the audience seemed to desperately want to give their respect to a film that, while well-meaning in its treatment of the white slave trade of East European women in Israel, completely fell apart after the first 15 minutes and never managed to pull itself together again.

Similarly well-intentioned but equally flawed is Wim Wenders’ unbearably simple-minded and earnest look at post 9/11 America, Land of Plenty (2004). Not at all the anti-American tract some have labelled it, the film instead views the anti-Arab nutters as confused individuals twisted by their experiences in Vietnam, while an impossibly pure and naïve young woman (played by Michelle Williams) devotes herself to Los Angeles’ homeless and the cause of universal brotherhood.

The Out of Competition section contained many Hollywood titles, including the tedious opening choice, Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004). Perhaps Müller and company thought that flying the director with the biggest name recognition to Venice, together with Tom Hanks (why is he so often compared to Jimmy Stewart?), would put the press in a tizzy, but the film was greeted with the same cold shoulder it was accorded in the States. Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) is certainly a better film, and one of the few major Hollywood releases of recent years giving equal measure to black and white characters. Finding Neverland‘s (Marc Forster, 2004) screening at Venice is now best remembered for the volcanic shit fit Harvey Weinstein, the king of shit fits, threw after delays pushed kick off time to something like 3am. The film itself is too sweet by far, but somehow still manages to tug at the heartstrings, mostly thanks to Johnny Depp’s performance (truth be told, I’d watch Depp if he were starring in an actor’s version of Warhol’s Empire) and a restrained Kate Winslet.

Deeply problematic is Michael Radford’s adaptation of The Merchant of Venice (2004), currently receiving accolades in various corners but monumentally flawed in its handling of Shakespeare’s tricky play. Basically, there are ways of handling the inherent anti-Semitism so that it’s toned down, but Radford, despite opening titles elaborating the institutionalisation of anti-Jewish prejudice in Renaissance Venice, then does everything he can to present Shylock as a character worthy of every psychological lash he receives. And why does Al Pacino play Shylock with a pseudo-Yiddish accent? Historical note: the highly cultured Jews in the Venetian Republic did not speak like Galician peddlers from the 19th century. I have no problem with the presentation of Antonio (Jeremy Irons) as the former lover of Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) still pining for his mate, but by foregrounding the reasons for his sad cast, Radford places all sympathy at the admitted anti-Semite’s feet, leaving Shylock with his “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech and little more to make him acceptable.

The Hand

A decidedly mixed bag is Eros (2004), an omnibus film in three sections directed by Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. Wong’s film, The Hand, is not only the best of the three but a ravishing, intimate look at desire, taking his fetishisation of 1950s Hong Kong couture to a new level. Chang Chen is terrific as the inexperienced (in every way) tailor enthralled by a perfect Gong Li as a high-class call girl on a slippery slope down. A more focused work than his current 2046, it’s also more erotic, and deeply satisfying. The same cannot be said for Il filo pericoloso delle cose, Antonioni’s mess of a piece, and seemingly filmed for no other reason than to get nubile women in sheer blouses to cavort in front of him. An utter waste, and a sad ending (if it is the end) to one of the masters of post-War cinema.

Soderbergh’s section Equilibrium is amusing and pleasant enough, but the real surprise during the Venice screening came when the projectionist stuck on a reel from Noam Gonick’s raucous Stryker in the middle of the Soderbergh film. Had this been the only cock-up in the festival, or if someone actually admitted responsibility for the chronic mishaps, then Müller would have found a forgiving press, but as blame was studiously tossed away like a game of hot potato (he had the chutzpah to call a press conference about the ubiquitous delays and then pointedly refuse to accept any responsibility), the reel gaffe, at one of the top festivals in the world, helped to further empurple an already black eye.

Other sections in the festival were a decidedly mixed bag. A highlight of the Horizons choices was Pirjo Honkasalo’s The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (2004), a slow, quiet meditation on the war in Chechnya and its scarring effect on children (by a strange coincidence the horrific siege at Beslan ended less than a week before the screening). Well received was Darrell James Roodt’s Yesterday (2004), about a young mother in a South African township who discovers she’s been infected with AIDS. Despite d.p. Michael Brierley’s beautiful camerawork and excellent performances all round, its simple and overly pedantic nature made me think it more suited to public service screenings in every small village around Africa (and everywhere else AIDS is still hushed up and stigmatised) rather than on festival screens.

Billed as a “Horizons Special Event”, British director Antonia Bird’s fictionalised account of the 9/11 hijackers, The Hamburg Cell (2004), remained far too superficial and cookie-cutter smooth in its attempt to humanise men whose names we know but whose qualities as human beings the White House propaganda machine wants equated solely with Satan himself. Bird’s attempt to find the men inside the fanatics is an admirable one, for until the powers that be recognise that human beings and not evil demons crashed those planes into the Towers, there will be no understanding of the causes for such mass slaughter. Unfortunately, the screenplay keeps everyone fairly bland, without delving into believable motivations, let alone relationships.

There was little in the Digital section I found interesting, except for Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part III: From Sark to Finish (2004), which officially ended the cinematic portion of the Luper series, but in no way signals an end to the theme as manifested in the web sites, art exhibitions, lavishly illustrated (and expensive) books, and DVDs. I make no apologies in identifying myself as a Greenaway fan, but Part III is certainly the weakest film in the series. The first two sparkled with a sly humour reminiscent of his earliest works, yet here the wit felt forced, and I couldn’t help but feel that Greenaway himself had tired of the formula and was looking forward to getting on with Luper in other media. Most troubling was the cold harshness of the DV, rendering anemic the Old Masters glow that suffuses most of his other works.

To Take a Wife

The unquestioned stand-out in this year’s International Critics’ Week was Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s heart-wrenching To Take a Wife (2004), received with a standing ovation at the press screening. The brother and sister team made their directing bow with this chamber piece of devastating power, focusing on a psychologically scarred marriage in 1960s Haifa. Ronit, doing double-duty as star and co-director, again proves herself to be one of the most exciting actors in the cinema today (she received much-deserved accolades at Cannes for her role in Or (My Treasure) [Keren Yedaya, 2004]), and while the film is driven by her powerhouse performance, the directing team tackle the difficult subject with absolutely the right amount of objective camerawork, interspersed with scenes of exhausting freneticism.

The new section entitled Venice Days, based on Cannes’ Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, has yet to develop a distinct profile, although entries worth singling out for praise were Anders Rønnow-Klarlund’s delightful puppet feature Strings (2004), Stefano Pasetto’s melancholy Tartarughe sul dorso (2004), and Hubert Sauper’s stark Darwin’s Nightmare (2004). Barely worth mentioning is the retrospective, this year devoted to the so-called Italian Kings of the Bs. Inspired by, and possibly the brain-child of, Quentin Tarantino, the festival organisers delightedly declared this to be the best attended retrospective in recent memory. Alas, no doubt the same could be said had they decided to screen all of Ed Wood’s late soft-core porn films, but that still would not make them worthy of celebration.

Finally, a few words about the much-discussed press conference for Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004) – I have yet to see the film itself, but I was at the press conference, and I’d like to set the record straight. Lauren Bacall has been doing this sort of thing for exactly 60 years, and consequently she’s no longer willing to play the rather tedious game demanded by so many entertainment reporters. Frankly, kudos for her, but obviously a number of journalists were pissed off by her justifiably dismissive attitude. When someone asked the panel who they would like to be reincarnated as, Bacall, in an exasperated voice, bellowed “Fred Astaire”. She followed that by telling the reporter that it wasn’t a fascinating question. Too true, but obviously some took offense, including the BBC reporter who labelled the conference “frosty”. And of course Bacall was correct a little earlier: Nicole Kidman (who was a model of generosity and graciousness) is too young to be called a legend. Let’s leave that moniker to Bacall, with the full expectation that Kidman, undoubtedly one of the best and brightest, will grow into the title.