Life, love and death in Venice

Depardieu brings the house down with a feelgood farce and the violence of the Pinochet regime is unflinchingly reenacted at Italy's easygoing film festival

At the Venice Film Festival, critics don't actually saunter along the Lido in white suits like Dirk Bogarde. But if you were of a mind to do so, you could. Even at its busiest, Venice is a leisurely affair. You normally get two or three chances to see a film, so you're not gripped by the constant life-or-death panic that afflicts you in Cannes. And while Venice was once notorious for late screenings and irascible audiences, it now runs so smoothly that everyone is in an affable mood, even when faced with the occasional dud.

I arrived in town too late to catch Darren Aronofsky's ballet psychodrama Black Swan. The other US success was Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. Stephen Dorff plays a divorced Hollywood star who takes time out from his dissolute Chateau Marmont lifestyle to look after his 11-year-old daughter (a wise, non-cute performance by Elle Fanning). The film reprises aspects of Coppola's Lost in Translation, and does for Italian award ceremonies what that film did for Japanese whisky commercials. But Somewhere is even more melancholic and low-key. While plenty of films show the emptiness of the Hollywood lifestyle, few have done it with such downbeat, almost documentary realism. It's also very funny, in its dour, detached, way: the scene in which Dorff nods off in front of twin pole-dancers is beautifully, quietly excruciating.

Another treat was François Ozon's Potiche, reuniting sacred monsters Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, as a factory owner's wife and a communist mayor. Depardieu shows he can still be superb, but this is really Deneuve's film and she unexpectedly shows a mischievous wit as the matronly heroine. Based on a 1970s stage comedy, the film is shot in pitch-perfect retro mode: roughly the French equivalent of a Ray Cooney farce done in the visual style of Are You Being Served?: The Movie. Unashamedly feelgood, it brought the house down.

This was a vintage chop-socky Venice, with plentiful Asian escapism. Reign of Assassins, co-directed by action maestro John Woo, was a razzle-dazzle number involving Michelle Yeoh as a retired swordfighter, ancient Chinese cosmetic surgery and flying acupuncture needles a-go-go. Then there was the outrageously opulent Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame by Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark, about a detective investigating cases of spontaneous combustion in the Imperial Court. As whodunnits go, this was closer to Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes than Conan Doyle's: shape-shifters, incendiary beetles and kick-boxing deer confound the rules of rational detection, but Detective Dee was a blast.

By far the most challenging film was Post Mortem by Pablo Larraín, the Chilean director who made the very unsettling Tony Manero. The gauntly eerie Alfredo Castro – that film's deranged Travolta impersonator – plays a coroner's assistant who finds business alarmingly brisk following the Pinochet coup. The film, shot in deliberately nauseous faded colours, culminates with staircases and corridors filling with the bodies of slaughtered citizens – images of a truly disturbing matter-of-factness. Uncanny and stylised, Post Mortem is a perplexing film, and easily the most argued about in the festival.

The major disappointment was Miral, the latest from Julian Schnabel. The New York painter managed to turn himself into a superb film-maker in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but he seems to have forgotten everything he ever learned. Miral recounts the experiences of a young Palestinian woman raised in a Jerusalem orphanage, and it's creaky, melodramatic and didactic – "Some of you may have heard there will be an uprising," announces a teacher, "what they call an intifada." In the title role, Mumbai-born Freida Pinto is about as convincingly Palestinian as Sarah Silverman.

Otherwise, this was Year of the Weirdbeards. I'm Still Here is sold as a documentary about Joaquin Phoenix abandoning cinema to become a hirsute rapper. It is, of course, an elaborate put-on, a conceptual commentary on the pressures and seductions of fame. But more of that next week. At the press conference, director Casey Affleck wore a poker face; asked how he'd answer hoax accusations, he responded, "Elliptically."

The other weirdbeard in town was legend-in-his-own-mind Vincent Gallo, here as both actor and director. Gallo starred in Essential Killing by veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, as a prisoner in a Guantanamo-style internment camp who escapes while being rendered (renditioned?) to snowbound Europe. His character faces dogs, mantraps, starvation and icy temperatures in a stark drama about survival and the elements. It helps that Gallo doesn't open his mouth – except to groan – but he still manages to overdo it.

Then there was Gallo's new film as director – much awaited, for all the wrong reasons. His last feature, The Brown Bunny, notoriously earned ridicule in Cannes, and the follow-up was also booed at the end. The new film wasn't spectacularly inept, however, just numbingly dull and short on ideas. Emulating 1960s US underground cinema, the black-and-white drama stars Gallo as an apprentice funeral director having a vague non-relationship with a French woman. The screen only comes to life once – in a brief close-up of a caterpillar. The title is Promises Written in Water; most reviews were written in something stronger.

Also showing

Alamar (73 mins, U)

This beautiful Mexican film (the English title is To The Sea) follows a real-life father and his young son as they bond at the man's home in the Mexican Caribbean. Together they fish and swim, while the boy befriends an egret and learns to live in nature. The inevitable parting – the boy is on his way to live with his Italian mother in Rome – makes their time all the more essential, and the film all the move affecting. Written and directed by Pedro González-Rubio.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (93 mins, 15)

After the barking mad genius of Bad Lieutenant, Werner Herzog's new film is simply barking. Police – led by Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) – lay siege to the home of murderer Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon); little do they know the only hostage is a flamingo. Chloë Sevigny stars as Brad's girlfriend Ingrid and David Lynch is the movie's executive producer.

Going the Distance (103 mins, 15)

Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) play a professional couple whose attempt at a long-distance relationship between New York and San Francisco drains all joy out of their lives. It's a downer for us, too.

Demetrios Matheou

Next week

Documentary or hoax? Jonathan Romney unravels the mystery of Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here