A moment which summed up the 70th Venice Film Festival in its glory and absurdity occurred at last weekend's public screening of John Krokidas's Kill Your Darlings. The film's star (and erstwhile Harry Potter) Daniel Radcliffe was in attendance. The local press had been full of stories trumpeting the arrival of “Hogwarts on the Lido”. There was a hint of Beatlemania, too, at the response of countless teenage girls to Radcliffe's presence. Then, the film started. A bespectacled Radcliffe appeared on screen looking reassuringly like the character he played in the JK Rowling adaptations. He was even playing a student. However, the world of Kill Your Darlings (set in Columbia University in 1944) was a long way removed from that of Potter-land. The film is about the artistic and sexual awakening of American “Beat” poet Allen Ginsberg. The moment which stunned the Potter fans in Venice came when Radcliffe had a prolonged screen kiss with... another man, Dane DeHaan's Lucien Carr. You could hear the intake of teenage breath as celebrity culture and art-house cinema collided head-on.
If the fans were startled, they gave Radcliffe a warm response. So did the critics. Radcliffe may seem like strange casting as a gay Jewish American intellectual but his performance as Ginsberg was exceptional. The film, which also features the youthful William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), captures very effectively the arrogance and naiveté of the young writers searching for their own voice.
Venice has marked a strong festival for the Brits after their near invisibility in Cannes. The opening film Gravity may have been American but it was shot in Britain and its astonishing visual effects were contrived by British crews. The most warmly received film in the festival (and a front-runner for both the festival's main prize the Golden Lion and the Best Actress award) was Stephen Frears's Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
Also admired was Steven Knight's minimalist feature Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The film is set entirely during a fraught motorway car journey at night. The life of Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a Welsh building-site manager, begins to unravel as he drives. He is trying to supervise a huge job while also telling his wife (Ruth Wilson) that he has cheated on her. Hardy is sombre and intense – and he is also the only person we see in the entire film. The downside is that the film, shot over only eight nights, is intensely claustrophobic.
Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, the British visionary director's first film since Birth (2004), which also premiered in Venice, provoked an ecstatic response from some reviewers even as it deeply alienated others. Another British film in the festival was Still Life, directed by Uberto Pasolini (the producer and moving force behind The Full Monty). This stars Eddie Marsan as a shy, lonely council worker in London whose job is to find the next of kin of those who have died alone. Quiet and downbeat in tone, the film provoked a mixed response.
Away from the Brits, Nicolas Cage gives a barnstorming performance in David Gordon Green's full-blooded but very bleak competition entry, the Austin-set melodrama Joe. He plays an ex-con who runs a wood-cutting crew in an impoverished part of Texas.
He's a decent man but likes his alcohol and has a combustible temper and no respect for the law. Cage at his best – as he is here – is one of the few contemporary screen actors with the physical intensity and charisma of a Brando. He won an Oscar as an alcoholic in Mike Figgis's low-budget, independent Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and it would be no surprise if he repeats the feat with Joe.
Less striking was Kelly Reichardt's competition entry Night Moves, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as environmental activists who blow up a dam but then feel huge remorse about the unintended consequences of their actions. Reichardt's storytelling style is slow and reflective. She is very good at portraying just how the young eco-terrorists plot their bombing and she probes deeply into the psyches of her characters, idealists who end up with very dirty hands. However, as a thriller, Night Moves is on the laborious and introspective side.
Venice in its 70th year has been as chaotic as ever. The Festival has an old-world charm that more modern and far bigger pretenders like Toronto simply can't emulate.
One of the delights of this year's festival – which has had a far stronger programme than initially feared – has been the short archival films preceding competition screenings. In one snippet, we see knobbly-kneed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, attending the festival in the 1940s, in his trunks, waddling into the Venice lagoon for a swim as the commentator approvingly tells us that such a busy and important man deserves his recreation. A youthful looking Orson Welles is shown at a masked ball. Big-name directors like Renoir, Kazan and Bresson rub shoulders with voluptuous Italian actresses. Gina Lollobrigida is pictured on the canals and Diana Dors, Britain's “blonde bombshell”, smiles for the cameras at the airport.
The Venice Film Festival from years gone by is glamorous and carnival-esque – and seemingly just as disorganised as its modern-day equivalent. As Daniel Radcliffe's experiences on the Lido attest, Venice in 2013 is still a place where the obsession with film as art is only matched by an equally fervent fascination with celebrity in all its guises.