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British films prove a hit at Venice

Isaac Julien joins veterans Martin Scorsese and Catherine Deneuve on the Lido

The titans of cinema dominated the 67th Venice Film Festival yesterday, but they were looking over their shoulders at a phalanx of British film-making talent.

Venice has so far been dominated by Hollywood's big hitters – Sofia Coppola with Somewhere, Natalie Portman with Black Swan and Quentin Tarantino, who is leading the competition jury.

Yesterday it was the turn of old stagers. Martin Scorsese unveiled his documentary about Elia Kazan, one of the most influential and controversial directors in Hollywood history. The veteran French actor Gérard Depardieu showed there is at least one French actress he respects – the legendary Catherine Deneuve – following his bizarre attack on Juliette Binoche last week.

It is, however, also proving to be a good year for British film. The artist and film-maker Isaac Julien premiered his latest film, Better Life, starring Maggie Cheung, yester-day, while Patrick Keiller's faux documentary, Robinson in Ruins, starring Vanessa Redgrave, also received a first airing.

Redgrave also stars in Miral, one of the highlights of the festival, directed by the American Julian Schnabel. On Wednesday the latest film by the English/Ghanaian director John Akomfrah, called The Nine Muses, will be shown. The festival will close on Saturday with The Tempest, a version of Shakespeare's play starring Helen Mirren and Russell Brand.

Scorsese's A Letter to Elia paid homage to Kazan with the director of the modern classics Taxi Driver and GoodFellas crediting Kazan's films, including On the Waterfront and East of Eden, as inspiring his movie-making career.

Kazan, who died in 2003 aged 94, is an undoubted giant of cinematic history. He pioneered the Method School of acting with Lee Strasberg, and launched the careers of numerous Hollywood legends, including Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty. He damaged his reputation in 1952, however, when he revealed the names of his former Communist Party colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It was, however, Depardieu and Deneuve who wowed the Lido yesterday, as the old screen partners were reunited in what has proved the popular hit of the film festival. In François Ozon's comedy Potiche, Deneuve plays a factory owner's wife who takes over the business, only to tangle with an old flame – a communist MP, played by Depardieu.

Only Deneuve showed up to the screening, as Depardieu chose to attend the little-known Karot festival in Armenia. In his absence, Deneuve mounted his defence: "He has this need to work all the time; he's just restless. Luckily, he has the talent."

Also winning applause from the Italian press was the actor Fabrice Luchini, who plays the Deneuve character's boorish husband. "I like being offered characters who are mediocre, ignoble, creepy, reactionary. There's a bit of Berlusconi in there."