First Night: I'm Still Here, Venice film festival

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
3.00

Phoenix emerges from the flames – but is new film real?

You wouldn't want Casey Affleck as a brother-in-law. His directorial debut is a warts-and-all account of a year in the life of the troubled movie star turned hip-hop artist Joaquin Phoenix. The emphasis is firmly on the warts.

Affleck (who is married to Phoenix's sister) catches the most intimate moments in the bizarre day-to-day existence of his subject in the months after Phoenix shocked Hollywood by announcing his retirement from film acting. Anyone baffled by the career move will find few answers in a film that many believed to be an elaborate hoax. We see Phoenix vomiting. We see a friend he has just humiliated taking his revenge by defecating on the actor's head as he sleeps.

"Hate me or like me. Just don't misunderstand me," Phoenix pleads at one point. It's a forlorn request. Nobody understands Phoenix, least of all Phoenix himself. He has gone to seed, growing a bushy beard and putting on weight.

Early on, it is easy to be repelled by I'm Still Here but viewers' sympathies are likely to turn. In his own Quixotic way, Phoenix, who becomes a figure of ridicule during his transformation, is also a heroic figure. He is desperately trying to reinvent himself in the full glare of the media. You can't blame him for his disenchantment with the celebrity-obsessed culture that has made him so rich, famous and unhappy. Affleck is a disarming filmmaker. This seems like straight fly-on-the-wall reportage from the battle zone that is Phoenix's life. However, I'm Still Here is cleverly crafted and edited and often very funny indeed. If it is a hoax, Phoenix is giving one of the greatest method performances of all time.

By the same token, you can't believe that Affleck would expose his long-time friend to such humiliation unless the film had an ulterior motive. We have a fascination with celebrity crack-ups. This film gives us more access than the most inquisitive tabloid magazines into Phoenix's world. By doing so, it makes us question and even become a little ashamed about our own voyeurism.

At his press conference yesterday, Affleck was non-committal about the real story behind his film. He described it as being less about celebrity than about "friendship, ambition, dreams and the artist in general" but refused to say whether he had staged some of the more outrageous scenes.

Like its central character, the film is infuriating and provocative by turns. Phoenix undergoes a strange transformation from svelte movie star into Unabomber lookalike, giving disastrous rap performances. In doing so, he is breaking a taboo. You're not supposed to turn your back on your own success.

The ridicule that is heaped on him arguably reveals just as much about celebrity-obsessed popular culture as it does about Phoenix himself. The film ends on a mildly redemptive but still mysterious note.

We're no clearer at the end than at the beginning just what is driving Phoenix. Nor is it obvious what Affleck's intentions are. The movie is nothing if not inscrutable – and that's why it is bound to provoke far more ferocious debate than any conventional tale of a star's fall from grace ever would.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us