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

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence