Festival report

Venice Film Festival - part 2



Jonathan Romney picks his hits of the festival

There's a handful of major films left to come in the Festival (notably from Tom Ford and Fatih Akin), and it's beginning to feel safe to make predictions about what could be the Golden Lion. Early in the week, Jessica Hausner's Lourdes was the first strong contender, with the Austrian director making her first French film, about a group of pilgrims looking to cure their physical and spiritual ailments. It's a remarkable work - cool, detached, extremely ambivalent, and featuring a terrific lead performance from Sylvie Testud (although she's almost upstaged by a startling and very unsettling surprise comeback by former Hal Hartley muse Elina Lowensohn).

But now, possibly shooting into the lead is Women Without Men, the first feature by Iranian video artist Shirin Neshat. Set in Tehran against the background of the CIA-backed coup d'état, the film focuses on the lives of four women in different social positions, and mixes political realism with a dream-like magic-realist flavour (the dead coming to life, the haven of an idyllic timeless garden/forest). The film is very much in the mode of Neshat's extraordinary video pieces, with similar crowd choreography and references to Islamic rite and myth. The film doesn't entirely succeed in fusing its various strands, but it certainly doesn't come across as a video artist's dabbling in narrative long form (unlike Pippilotti Rist's attempt earlier in the week). With echoes of historical dramas by the likes of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Angelopoulos, Women Without Men is one of the most ambitious and densely-conceived works on show here, and - along with Luca Guadagnino's Io sono l'Amore, which should have been in competition - is one of the Venice films that are bound to sink deep into your consciousness.

Another competition find: Lebanon, a war film by Israeli director Samuel Maoz. A cri de coeur and then some, it's based on Maoz's own experiences as part of an Israeli tank corps in Lebanon in 1982 - and if you were wondering why all those Israeli soldiers in Waltz With Bashir were traumatised into amnesia, here's further evidence. The film is set entirely inside a tank - a dark, wet, claustrophobic metal cell - with outside events seen through the crosshairs of the tank's viewfinder, which cranks heavily and noisily from spot to spot. The deliberately abrasive formal audacity is as extreme as, and in many ways more successful than Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void, but the device of limited vision is so pointedly highlighted throughout that the film, finally, doesn't quite put you as far through the emotional mill as it seeks to. But this audacious, intensely confrontational piece is a major addition to the darker ranks of war films.

This year's Venice has been a pretty serious festival - that is, at its best when being serious rather than flippant (and the misbegotten Lumières tribute of the fest ident is the worst case of that). The two crowd-pleasing US comedies on show were just trying too hard. Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! (yes, that exclamation mark really is part of the title) was his most egregiously wacky film since his little-seen Schizopolis. This satire about boardroom skullduggery has Matt Damon as a company man turned CIA mole, whose own secrets thicken by the minute.

Damon, moustachioed and bulked-up as a boy-scoutish suburbanite, is engaging but the film's busily goofy retro tone (gold-steeped photography, a self-consciously zany Marvin Hamlisch score) is a case of trying too damn hard, and the film ends up horribly grating. Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats is much funnier, and would have been funnier still if Heslov had had a less functional directing touch: as it is, the film depends on George Clooney and Jeff Bridges doing their patented goofy shtick. I laughed aloud once or twice, though: the film's best joke is a running gag about psy-ops warriors being termed 'Jedi Knights'. "What does that mean?" asks the bewildered reporter hero - Ewan ('Obi Wan') McGregor.

Otherwise the most persuasive comedy has been Jacques Rivette's 36 Vues du Pic St-Loup (less memorably translated as Around a Small Mountain). It's Rivette's lightest (and shortest) film in a while - a sweet, pensive story about a circus, starring Jane Birkin, who at once point walks a tight rope (not something you see every day, although it's only just above the ground). Support actors Jacques Bonnaffé and André Marcon do a running clown act throughout - not so much Billy Smart, and only a little bit Beckett, but all in all rather Shakespearean. Among the annals of late miniatures by great directors, this is way up there.

Genre hits so far: 1) Accident, a Hong Kong thtiller produced by Johnnie To and directed by Soi Cheang. It's an ingenious piece about a hitman who covers his tracks by making his killings look like accidents. At a guess, the makers saw the Final Destination series and said, "We'll have some of that" - then shaded it into Mission Impossible and finally The Conversation for the paranoid final stretch. This is HK genre cinema at its most contemplative and cerebral - but when the Hollywood remake comes (as it surely will), let's hope that the twisty plot and final revelation are just a bit easier to untangle.

As for genre hit 2), George Romero's Survival of the Dead, suffice to say that this franchise no more runs out of steam than do its lumbering creations (and they do still lumber: none of this new-fangled zombie sprinting for Romero). In a direct lead-on from the superb Diary of the Dead, the corrupt militia spotted in that film get entangled in an island war between two warring Irish patriarchs. At once horror film, satire and (wait for it) Western, the film features all Romero's wit, social insight and narrative brilliance, and he still hasn't run out of ingenious new ways to make the screen run red.

Read Venice Film Festival - part 1 - Jonathan Romney gets excited by Herzog's new films on the Lido

Last Updated: 13 Dec 2011