Festival report

Venice Film Festival

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Jonathan Romney gets excited by Herzog's new films on the Lido

I’m not equipped to say whether this is a vintage Venice. I’ve only been here once before, 12 years ago, and then, as a Cannes regular, I was shocked by just how leisurely the Lido seemed in comparison. But, given how unhappy critics were with last year’s programme, it looks as if the Mostra has got its act together in some style.

Sure, there have been some comical ructions about screenings starting late, in particular a show of Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime that was shouted down because its Italian subtitles were out of synch. But then it wouldn’t be Venice, so I’m told, without one or two such incidents.

The programme has been extremely good so far (four days into my visit) and tightly crammed, with a high proportion of must-sees. Surprises too: in fact, the first Surprise Film was a new feature by Werner Herzog, and it could hardly have been more surprising: especially given that he already had another feature announced in competition. His billed film was Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, reported in advance as a remake of Abel Ferrara’s crime-and-anguish classic. In fact Herzog’s film has little in common with the Ferrara apart from producer Ed Pressman and the cop-corruption-drugs theme. It was also utterly barmy – as you’d expect with Nicolas Cage in the lead, his performance possibly loopier than anything he’s done since his bug-eating turn in Vampire’s Kiss. The film’s a straight-down-the-line cop thriller, that could almost be a straight-to-DVD job if it wasn’t a) so wildly eccentric, b) so hugely entertaining. It also has iguanas in it, in a strictly seen-to-be-believed way: at the press conference, co-star Eva Mendes asked, “Werner, why the iguanas?” and the maestro replied, “Because they just look so stupid!”

But the loonier film yet was Herzog’s surprise My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. This starred Willem Dafoe and Michael Shannon, Hollywood’s current go-to guy for disturbed souls, as a troubled San Diego amateur actor who kills his mother. Based around rehearsals of the Oresteia, this weird blend was a David Lynch presentation, and it showed: like The Bad Lt, it didn’t remotely resemble a Herzog film, more like a Lynch-Jacques Rivette collaboration filmed by Wim Wenders in his LA mode. But it was hugely entertaining in a dark screwball way. Lead Shannon (from Bug and Revolutionary Road) is the current new American actor to watch, but maybe his skills are being overrated: according to Variety, some journalists were being asked to pay over $1500 to interview him – apparently an increasingly common practice to cover junket costs.

Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, incidentally, was one of a series of remakes, retakes and revisits, including, in a sense, Michael Moore’s solid, persuasive and unusually restrained Capitalism: a Love Story, which saw him returning to home town Flint, Michigan, godforsaken (and government-forsaken) scene of his Roger & Me; Claire Denis’s superb, apocalyptic White Material, her return to Africa, where she made her debut Chocolat. Todd Solondz made his best film in ages with Life During Wartime, a revisit to the characters (but not the cast) of his breakthrough Happiness (the big news: Solondz has learned to do compassion)... And veteran Japanese wild man Tsukamoto Shinya made a pointless English language retake of his greatest hit in Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (the most that-was-then film of the fest). It did, though, have my favourite line so far: “Is my Dad some kind of perverted freak? He had sex with an android!”

Best opening sentence of a piece in daily Variety here: “Tilda Swinton is on the Lido wearing two hats…” Well, if anyone is likely to, it’s her. Actually, it means she’s starring in and producing the Luca Guadagnino film Io sono l’amore (I Am Love), which is so far the best new discovery here.

Guadagnino’s previous films didn’t figure on the UK radar, but this is really something. Boasting sumptuous production values, it’s at once austere and extraordinarily opulent: a family saga cum melodrama about a fabulously wealthy Milanese clan, in which Swinton plays the Russian mother, who falls for her son’s chef friend. Swinton has described the film, pretty accurately, as “Visconti on acid”, although there’s some Antonioni in there too. Shot by Yorick Le Saux and scored by a massive swathe of the John Adams repertoire, it starts off as a detached, borderline-mainstream slow burner, then builds into a sombre melodrama of operatic proportions. It’s the most stylistically confident Italian film seen since Paolo Sorrentino, but baroque in a more sombre, less grotesque way.

Just in case you were wondering if the balmy weather was affecting my judgement, yes, there were some duds too. Desert Flower, by Sherry Horman, about the real-life travails of Somalian model Waris Dirie, featured a best-buddy performance by Sally Hawkins, who obviously felt that Mike Leigh required her to be too introverted in Happy-Go-Lucky. The film’s set in London – but apparently London, Mars, where mohican’ed punks and suspendered tarts lurk on every corner, and our Sal (who normally can do no wrong in my book) gives it the old gorblimey guvnor like there was no tomorrow. What I saw of the film was hard going – something like a cross between Ab Fab and a National Geographic doc. But to be honest, I, ahem, made my excuses and left.

I also ankled early from the unspeakable Pepperminta, by hip Swiss video/installation artist Pipilotti Rist (whose new-agey piece with floating feet and other body parts featured in the summer’s big Hayward Gallery show). Pepperminta is what they call a ‘child-like’ film: that is, a militantly ditzy neo-psychedelic fantasy about a heroine who just wants to turn the boring old straight world onto joy! love! colour! which she does with her best chums, all dressed up in zany Sgt Pepper costumes.

Menstrual blood is drunk, windscreens and doorbells are licked, and diners in a posh restaurant are encouraged to order what they really want, not boring old steaks: starfish and coffee, that sort of thing. You find yourself rooting for the Swiss burghers, who have a right to a quiet dinner without being harassed by acid-crazed Play School presenters. The whole thing is drenched in hideous lysergic day-glo. Did I mention that the heroines’ grandmother is a speaking eyeball? Imagine a live action episode of The Magic Roundabout, with a Swiss Björk impersonator as Florence. Baaad trip…

Read Venice Film Festival - part 2 - Jonathan Romney picks his hits of the festival

Last Updated: 13 Dec 2011