The Venice Film festival just about lived up to expectations this year, but it must raise its game quickly

A debut feature that showed plenty of riotous energy was  ‘The Goob’, a low-budget drama about  a teen in the fenlands

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The Independent Culture

The signs of decay and fading grandeur remain very evident at the Venice Film Festival.

Inertia seems to have gripped the event too as its rival, Toronto International Film Festival, continues to grow at its expense. Hollywood no longer regards the Lido as the place to launch its big autumn movies.

The Grand Hotel Des Bains, previously one of Venice’s main hubs, remains boarded up, just as it was last year. Although its biggest venue has finally been refurbished, there is still a huge hole in the ground on the site of what would have been a new festival palace (long since abandoned after asbestos was discovered in the foundations).

This year, there has been no George Clooney either. The paparazzi looking for shots of stars arriving by water-taxi have had to make do with Jude Law (appearing in a short called The Gentleman’s Wager) and Al Pacino, which is not the same thing at all. Clooney has been such a regular attendee that he has often seemed like the festival’s unofficial mascot and ambassador.

Against the odds, Venice managed to put together a strong competition. It was a major coup for festival director Alberto Barbera to secure Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) as opening film. This was a tour de force, a film about a fading Hollywood star (Michael Keaton) trying to make it big on Broadway that was put together with tremendous ingenuity and wit. It would be a surprise if either Inarritu or Keaton isn’t recognised by the Venice jury this weekend. Like last year’s Venice opener Gravity, the film is also likely to become a leading Oscar contender.

Birdman was one of three new films in Venice with stories about actors working on fraught productions of Broadway plays. Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way and Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, starring Al Pacino, were also backstage yarns. The Humbling and Birdman feature very similar scenes of thespian humiliation in which the star is locked out of his own theatre and has to beg entrance from suspicious box-office staff at the main entrance. No one could explain this new-found obsession of film-makers with theatreland.

Festival-goers also gave an ecstatic reception to Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the reclusive Swedish maestro’s long-gestating new feature which led critics to call him a “slapstick Ingmar Bergman.” Any major festival would have loved to have programmed it – and the fact it landed in Venice first suggests the event still has some pulling power.

The strangest film in Venice this year, screening out of competition, was surely Ulrich Seidl’s Im Keller, a documentary about what Austrians get up to in their cellars. Men in lederhosen drink toasts to Adolf Hitler. Pot-bellied hunting enthusiasts show off their collection of baboons and impalas. Sado-masochists discuss their fetishes in matter-of-fact way. Im Keller is deadpan, funny but ultimately very disturbing. Although he isn’t mentioned by name, the malign spirit of the notorious Josef Fritzl, who kept a woman hostage for more than 20 years, hangs over it.

 

British films were in short supply. One debut feature that showed plenty of riotous energy was Guy Myhill’s promising The Goob, a low-budget drama about a teenager in the fenlands spending a difficult summer after leaving school. Goob (Liam Walpole) is a dreamy, mischievous lad who gets up to all sorts of pranks to try to allay the boredom. It doesn’t help that his mother (Sienna Guillory) has begun a relationship with a weasel-faced psychopath called Gene (Sean Harris), who is violent, lecherous and dim-witted and whose only aptitude is for driving stock cars. The storyline soon runs into a dead end but Myhill shows plenty of humour and visual flair.

American documentary maker Joshua Oppenheimer won plaudits and provoked fierce controversy with his 2012 film The Act of Killing, which invited Indonesian gangsters behind mass murder following the military coup of 1965 to re-enact their crimes as scenes from Hollywood movies. Oppenheimer was in Venice’s competition with a follow-up documentary, The Look of Silence. This was an immensely moving film that addressed the same events as The Act of Killing but from the victims’ point of view. Adi, a man in his early forties, tracks down some of the killers behind the death of his brother, Ramli. With patience, tact and considerable courage, he asks these now elderly men how and why they committed such misdeeds. What is most unsettling is their lack of guilt over the fact that, half a century before, they slaughtered innocent people on the pretext that they were communists and threw their corpses in Snake River. The documentary is the perfect riposte to the critics of The Act of Killing who accused Oppenheimer of allowing his subjects to wallow in their crimes.

Genocide was also the subject of Fatih Akin’s brave but flawed new film The Cut. This is a drama set during the Armenian genocide in 1915. Tahar Rahim plays Nazareth Manoogian, a blacksmith who somehow survives the slaughter and embarks on an epic journey in pursuit of his missing daughters. Akin clearly felt that a dark and polemical drama about the genocide (still not acknowledged by Turkey) would not find an audience. Instead, he has made an epic drama which plays like a melodramatic TV mini-series in which one man’s quest to reunite his family is foregrounded.

French hopes in Venice’s competition rested with Benoît Jacquot’s 3 Coeurs, a stylish but overwrought melodrama with a hint of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin that seemed to some like a parody of a typical French art-house film. Benoît Poelvoorde plays a tax inspector who meets the beautiful Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) by chance one night after missing his last train home. They plan a rendezvous in Paris but he isn’t able to make it and has no way to contact her again. Time passes and he marries another woman (Chiara Mastroianni) without realising she is Sylvie’s sister. The romantic complications and domestic strife follow in just the way you would predict.

 Poelvoorde also starred in Xavier Beauvois’s new comedy drama The Price of Fame, based on the true story of two petty thieves who “kidnapped” Charlie Chaplin’s corpse and tried to hold it to ransom. This is like an Ealing comedy done Gallic style but Beauvois is far more confident with the pathos in the story than with the humour, which is all but strained out by the laborious storytelling style.

Venice is still able to attract the best in new European and Asian cinema, one or two Hollywood studio films and its share of American indie fare. It is the oldest festival in the world and has a carnival-esque charm that Cannes and Berlin simply can’t match. What’s worrying is how fast its influence is diminishing. It is now seen by many as a stopover en route to Toronto rather than a destination in its own right – a perception Venice must surely fight to change before its relevance disappears altogether.

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