Venice 2007: War, Lust, Spies And Quaint Conceits

Film still for Venice 2007: War, Lust, Spies And Quaint Conceits

Venice 2007 US films of rare creativity and promise dominated the major film festivals this year, and a remarkable Venice was no exception. So what crumbs of world cinema are left, wonders Nick James

Even before Venice 2007 had started, ­commentators had already dubbed this year's 75th-anniversary competition line-up of 23 world premieres the best ever. And I would agree that, with Joe Wright's mostly excellent Atonement as the opening film and such satisfying US entries as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, In the Valley of Elah and I'm Not There, it lived up to its large promise as far as the mainstream is concerned. This has been a strong year for American cinema, but a weaker one for its alternatives. And if festival director Marco Müller's programme reflected that problem, it was so rich in star-encrusted excitements - most of them packed around the opening weekend to satisfy anyone departing for Toronto midweek - that we can already say that Venice has trounced its main rival, the nouveau riche Rome festival, in both the quality of the selection and the glamour it flaunted.

Müller looked sleekly confident throughout and his reward was to be regarded as favourite to continue in the job beyond his now elapsed three-year contract. This would be unprecedented since the Venice appointment is notoriously a political one-off. As I write, it's not even known whether Müller wishes to stay. He has certainly come a long way from his first edition, which was bedevilled by excessive screening delays, with this year's festival jam-packed, efficient and deftly programmed. Being marooned on the Lido, festivalgoers need a high turnover of absorbing films, and fortunately this year's unrelenting flow of fine titles made five films a day a necessity rather than an indulgence.

Two views of the Iraq war from different ends of the aesthetic spectrum competed for audience emotion. Brian De Palma's Redacted (the term means the blacking-out of words in official documents by government censors) employs the full range of what we might call casual digital imagery to stage a war-crimes drama. We see most of the action through a soldier's own handicam and other parts through CCTV security footage, webcam messages home, TV broadcasts and the professional camerawork of a fictional French documentary team. The subjects are a squad of US soldiers manning a checkpoint in the roiling heat day in day out, never knowing if they might be blown up. When their likeably bullish sergeant springs a booby trap and is killed, the squad go on a night mission to the home of supposed suspects but find no real evidence. Two of the soldiers have heinous designs on the household's teenage daughter, a schoolgirl who passes their checkpoint every day. So an off-duty revenge raid is planned, with appalling consequences.

The constant switching of moving-image modes aids De Palma - who won the Silver Lion for Best Director - in surprising and steamrollering us towards repulsion. Such amateur technological means give the film a gruelling intimacy as we watch the psyche of these hyped-up young men disintegrate towards barbarism. Some of the performances are pretty amateur too, but none of that diminishes the film's emotional power; rarely have I seen an audience so silent and groggy after a screening. The simple argument - that the US shouldn't be in Iraq - hits home and the final montage of real still images from the war, which climaxes with one horrific fictional image from the drama, is devastating. It's a pity, then, that De Palma was reportedly so aggressive in his interviews as to harm his cause.

By contrast, Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah takes a quietist approach. Elah is where David fought Goliath, so the sympathies of the two films obviously match. Here, though, we are back in the US with a veteran soldier. Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a former military policeman living in spartan retirement with his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon). When their son goes missing after he's due home from Iraq, Hank visits the police of the ordinary town where he was last seen, getting short shrift from Charlize Theron's Detective Sanders. When parts of the boy's body are found on open ground Sanders is one of the first on the scene, but the military claim jurisdiction because the body is on their land. What follows is the slow and brilliant unpicking by Hank and Sanders of what really happened, all unfolding in a mood of deep contemplative loss and superbly performed by Jones on Oscar-winning form and Theron scarcely less so. This is crafted film-making of a high order - and I say that as no fan of Haggis' overwrought Crash. Only when the film ends with a terrifically apt final image does Haggis lose control and let cheap sentiment mar things in the form of a hideously over-the-top Annie Lennox song. Take that out and you'd have a masterpiece thriller with resounding political overtones.

Six characters in search of Dylan

Brooding and wintry Westerns of an elegiac nature, such as Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, were rare enough in their 1970s heyday. Now they're almost unheard of. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, however, is the hand-stitched article, a profoundly ambiguous portrait of desperate men in modernising times.

Written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik (of Chopper fame) from Ron Hansen's richly descriptive novel, the film opens with a deft confrontation in the woods between Casey Affleck, playing the hero-worshipping Robert Ford, and Sam Shepard as Jesse's tough but weary elder brother Frank. Ford wants to be part of the James gang, but Frank can see his potential weakness and dismisses him with contempt. Then, with Ford still tagging along, we witness a beautifully staged train robbery and see Brad Pitt's Jesse in vivid and ruthless action - someone to capture the imagination of the newspapermen of the late 19th century as both a Robin Hood figure and an unpredictable psychopath. Pitt lends Jesse an air of cautious menace, etched in sombre formal clothes against backdrops of grey skies, snow or pale-green prairie and later quietly judging, with fearful accuracy, whether or not people are lying.

Pitt won Best Actor here and this could also be an Oscar-winning performance, while Casey Affleck, flitting between Harold Lloyd-like angelic clumsiness, David Byrne-like nervous excitement and a deadliness that seems to come out of nowhere, ought to be a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor. Only once does the film 'jump out of the frame', when Nick Cave appears as a bar singer after Jesse's assassination to taunt Ford with 'The Ballad of Jesse James'. Dominik and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins otherwise bring the eloquent screenplay dazzlingly to life, the latter producing some of the most evocative work of his career and defining forever what we might call the Victorianising of the West.

Negative word on Todd Haynes' tribute to Bob Dylan I'm Not There had done the rounds, but happily the screening banished all foreboding. Haynes' sidelong approach of picking six characters to represent aspects of Dylan while never pinning him down to a biopic story arc is fresh and poignant. There are palpable misses, but they're outnumbered by the hits. If Ben Whishaw, as the narrator figure 'Arthur' (as in Rimbaud), lacks presence as he reads out pithy quotes, and Heath Ledger seems too elusive as 'Robbie', a movie actor and insubstantial family man (opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg), the 11-year-old black actor Marcus Carl Franklin is charming precocity itself as 'Woody' (as in Guthrie), the train-hopping hobo whose guitar bears the legend "This Machine Kills Fascists". Christian Bale makes a sullenly intense 'Jack', the protest singer who'll turn preacher in later life, and Richard Gere evokes 'Billy' (as in Billy the Kid), the Western fantasy Dylan, with appropriate cool astonishment. But best of all is Cate Blanchett as 'Jude' (as in Judas, the betrayer of Folk Rock), the waspish strung-out Dylan seen touring Britain in 1966 in D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, playing electric rock with the Band to rousing condemnation. With much more than an uncanny and very funny impersonation, Blanchett encapsulates Dylan's apotheosis as a public figure being torn apart by his celebrity and the idiocy of the media. She much deserved her Best Actress prize.

At its most successful I'm Not There attains the symbolist poeticism that inspired Dylan's best lyrics. And Haynes earns further praise by deliberately avoiding matching the Dylan song to the biographical scene that putatively inspired it. Perhaps most thrilling are the flashes of visual humour, as when Haynes skits Richard Lester's Beatles films in a tiny sequence of sped-up action. He also stages the 'Billy' world so it evokes not only John Wesley Harding, Pat Garrett and the characters in The Basement Tapes, but also, perhaps unwittingly, the figures that populate Band member Robbie Robertson's imagination. How I'm Not There will play with people who don't know Dylan's work is hard to guess, but his fans will surely love it.

Wes Anderson's new feature The Darjeeling Limited garnered bad reviews from disappointed culturati, but to me many of his recent films have seemed merely pleasant diversions rather than the mordant witfests they're cracked up to be. Accompanying the feature here - and stealing the style laurels from it - was Anderson's 17-minute short Hotel Metropole. Jason Schwartzman is holed up in the eponymous French hotel where he's been vegging out, playing Peter Sarstedt's 'Where Do You Go To My Lovely' over and over. When girlfriend Natalie Portman says she's coming to see him in 30 minutes, he smartens up and allows his apathy to be temporarily lifted by her breezy erotic presence (there's one striking nude pose that has cyberspace agoggers frothing in anticipation).

It's a touching encounter, full of fabulously melancholic non-sequiturs, whereas the full-length feature, which pits together three estranged brothers - Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody - on a train trip through India in search of their distant mother, has all the aloofness of the Himalayas. Anderson's humour is always under strain, and given our sad knowledge of Wilson's recent suicide attempt it was hard to go with him as he deadpanned through this larky familial comedy while covered in bandages. Anderson's movies are all about the estrangement that riches bring, with obsessively detailed model scenes enhanced by a niftily chic soundtrack. For me he makes modern equivalents of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope Road to… comedies - enjoyably naff-cool, but disposable.

Locked-down Ang Lee

Amid all this creativity was one example of Hollywood at its most thoughtlessly arrogant: Richard Shepard's The Hunting Party. To make a drama about three American news reporters, including burnt-out former ace Richard Gere, exploring the Serb Republic to capture a fictional equivalent to Radovan Karadzic might have been callow and tasteless enough (even if it is based on a 'true story'), but to frame it as a crude spoof fishing for cheap laughs is almost shameful. The gallows humour of frontline reporters works only in a bar-room context, not as wider entertainment.

But if that was the low point, there were more highs to come. Written by producer and screenwriter James Schamus and produced by Focus Features, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution could have been regarded as another American triumph. But since it stars Chinese actors and is set in the Shanghai and Hong Kong of the late 1930s and early 1940s after China's invasion by the Japanese, it counts as Chinese. Based on a favourite Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) story, Lust, Caution follows the career of a fledgling Hong Kong actress (Tang Wei) who is recruited by a young ideologue to star in anti-Japanese propaganda plays. Soon, however, her recruiter-director (Wang Leehom) asks her to infiltrate the family of a notorious collaborator (Tony Leung) and become his lover. To do so she must sacrifice her virginity with one of the group - and it's not her handsome recruiter who volunteers but a boorish user of prostitutes. This sets in train a spy saga that spans mistakes, murder and a couple of years and ends up with our heroine entangled in a passionate tryst with her enemy.

For the Italian press Lust, Caution was a shock Golden Lion winner, a film of locked-down emotions not even thought to be in contention. Many of them preferred Kenneth Branagh's flashily theatrical reworking of Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth, which boasts a fine performance from Michael Caine as the cuckolded husband, if not from Jude Law as the hairdresser/lover come to negotiate. But where Sleuth is a shouted chess game of silly sexual menace, Lee's film has a wonderful light tension of suspense, of everything being held just beneath the surface of society's values, with sex scenes that have the intensity and sense of reality of Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses. Give Ang Lee a fresh genre and a short story to expand and once again he hands us something handsome and compelling.

Athletic sex turned up in other international films too. Help Me Eros, directed by Tsai Ming-Liang's regular actor Lee Kang-Sheng, concerns a brooding young man (played by Lee) who has lost all his money on the stock market. In this rather formless meditation on fate, the protagonist tries to offset his sense of doom with copious inhaling of weed and vigorous copulation with the scantily clad betel-nut sellers who line the street. It doesn't work (neither the cure nor the film). In Brazilian director Julio Bressane's Cleopatra the Egyptian queen's inverse employment of her alluring body is more successful in enslaving Mark Anthony. Actress Alessandra Negrini formidably incarnates the myth, even if the enactments of ritual sometimes stray into Up Pompeii territory.

Venice's East Asian selection was mildly disappointing. Korean director Jeon Soo-il's With the Girl of Black Soil takes the point of view of a cute infant girl to tell the familiar tale of a redundant miner who drinks himself into oblivion rather than face up to impending doom. Though the images are stark and melancholic, the story's mawkishness makes the film seem formulaic. Jia Zhangke has provided some of the most distinctive Chinese fiction films of recent years (Platform, The World) but his documentary Wu Yong (Useless) - about Chinese designer Ma Ke's eponymous anti-fashion label - is very ordinary. Johnny To's latest genre effort Mad Detective was Müller's 'surprise film'. When a former police detective is brought out of retirement to untangle the mystery of a disappeared cop, sharp and comic mayhem ensues in a way that should suit To's fans but is unlikely to widen his audience.

An alluring Spaghetti Western retrospective provided the background theme to the festival and inflected some of the selections, not least Miike Takashi's Sukiyaki Western Django. This is a spoof in which a mostly Japanese cast talk English deliberately badly and Quentin Tarantino has a very funny cameo for which he puts on a Japanese accent. But since the genre itself was formed from a deliberate elaboration of Western tropes it proves resistant to further exaggeration, and Sukiyaki Western Django, like too many of Miike's recent films, outstays its welcome after about 40 minutes. Which is more than you can say for Alex Cox's Searchers 2.0, in which a couple of former child actors turned Spaghetti Western bores go on a pilgrimage to Monument Valley. Sadly, this would-be light comedy is ponderous and unfunny, like someone insisting their in-joke is universal.

Who'd have thought that Woody Allen had a British kitchen-sink drama in him that competes with Ken Loach for best tacky wallpaper and grey soupy light? Allen's Cassandra's Dream imagines Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as London brothers persuaded by debts and dreams into murdering their rich uncle's enemy. If the dialogue is poor, and the direction inconsistent - as we've come to expect from a director who seems to insist on first or second take no matter what the quality of the performance - the film is at least gripping, a return to the moral dilemmas of Crimes and Misdemeanors if not to its quality. Loach's It's a Free World (see page 30), scripted by Paul Laverty, looks at Britain's exploitation of casual foreign labour through the eyes of a young woman entrepreneur. As always, the political issue is well pinned down, though the storytelling has become predictable. And I wonder why the villain in this resolutely black-and-white universe has to be an archetypal Essex girl (played brilliantly as she is by Kierston Wareing)? Aren't they demonised enough?

Rohmer's return

Venice would have been unpardonably Anglophone without the French. The standout entry here was Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain, a noisily realistic saga revolving around an extended Arab family's father figure, who acquires an old hulk of a ship with an eye to turning it into a restaurant serving his ex-wife's famous couscous. But his best intentions meet with many human failings, not least his new lover's displeasure. Also very impressive, with a shocking opening sequence of real bombs falling on Lebanon, was Philippe Aractingi's Under the Bombs. Shot during the ceasefire immediately after the recent conflict, it follows a mother who returns from Dubai to look for her son, who was staying with her sister. A taxi driver agrees to take her into the war zone but she finds her sister's house destroyed; through her ensuing quest for the boy and the bond she forms with the driver we get an intense portrait of a ruined country.

On the more sophisticated if superficial level of bourgeois comedy there was a strong Claude Chabrol social-sexual drama The Girl Cut in Two, Emmanuel Mouret's amusing erotic romance Shall We Kiss? and Eric Rohmer's symbolist costume drama The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. The Chabrol has Ludivine Sagnier as a young Lyons weather girl torn between François Berléand's careless older novelist, with whom she is in love, and Benoît Magimel's avid young socialite, who wants to marry her. The story is based on the events surrounding the 1906 murder of American architect Stanford White, which also inspired The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) and Ragtime (1981), but Chabrol, as ever, is more interested in the demi-mondes of his characters. Mouret's film is a potential love story that revolves around two best friends, a boy and a girl, who have always been each other's confidants. But when the boy loses his partner they experiment and find, to their horror, that they are attracted and compatible.

I've left Eric Rohmer until last - perhaps because some consider The Romance of Astrea and Celadon to be a summation of his work and because, given his age, there's the possibility it could be his final film. It's based on a 17th-century text by Honoré d'Urfé, which, Rohmer admits, is "loaded with anachronisms" that he decided to keep "to the letter". Thus it's a nymphs-and-shepherds costume drama set in an ideal natural landscape - and with its fey, semi-mythical, semi-erotic dressing of women and men and formal dialogue it's anything but fashionable. But it does provide a bizarre backdrop to the concerns that have run throughout Rohmer's oeuvre. It's a quaint conceit, but one I'd happily see again.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012