Venice Film Festival, Venice

Where else could you see Jane Birkin walk a tightrope?

There was little competition for the oddest sight at the Venice Film Festival this year: the monumental colonnades of the Mussolini-era Casino draped with huge banners of Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy – a tribute to animator John Lasseter and his Pixar colleagues winning a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award.

At Cannes, such a sight would elicit much angst about the dangers of Hollywoodisation, but Venice has always had a penchant for US glitz, and no one worries about such things here.

In fact, this year's festival felt like a pretty healthy sprawl of world cinema. I haven't been to the Lido for 12 years – back then it seemed indecently sleepy – and last year's selection was generally considered thin pickings. But the mood among critics this year was positive, and, if heavily American, the festival wasn't too mainstream.

George Clooney, pictured right, and Matt Damon might have been the starriest guests, but as paparazzi magnets, they were outranked by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who came to support Oliver Stone's documentary South of the Border – fair enough, since the film was essentially an advert for Chavez and other politicos steering Latin America to the left. Stone's film wasn't exactly objective – he does like to be photographed playing football with the great and the good – but it was a necessary tilt at US media paranoia, and more informative than Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. A personal account of the economic crisis, Capitalism was bluff business-as-usual from Big Mike, if not exactly brimming with hard info about the sub-prime phenomenon. Both films, though, were watchable, feisty and timely polemics.

The other big US products were comedies. Matt Damon got to grandstand likeably as a corporate mole in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, but – as that exclamation mark tells you – the tone was teeth-gratingly flip.

Clooney and Jeff Bridges sent themselves up affably in Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats, inspired by Jon Ronson's book about wacko US psy-ops projects, but the satire was just that bit less side-splitting than it needed to be. (And, for my money, there just weren't enough goats.)

In competition, some auteurs were on top form: Claire Denis's White Material, with Isabelle Huppert as a coffee planter caught up in an African civil war, showed the director at her apocalyptic best. And old master Jacques Rivette turned in an uncharacteristically light (and short!) circus comedy, Around a Small Mountain: not everyone liked it, but it was a sweet philosophical miniature, not to mention a rare opportunity to see Jane Birkin walk a tightrope.

The biggest surprises came in not one but two features by Werner Herzog. A mystery slot in the programme turned out to be his new film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a wildly eccentric comedy-drama with Willem Dafoe investigating a suburban hostage situation: the Oresteia, pet flamingos and white-water rafting figure prominently in a film appropriately prefaced by the credit "David Lynch Presents". Stranger still, in a different way, was Herzog's first stab at American noir, the awkwardly titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. The connection with Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant was tenuous, but Nicolas Cage's corrupt, drug-addled cop was arguably even more damaged than Harvey Keitel in the original. Anyone who feared Cage was mellowing in middle age could take solace in his deranged and hugely enjoyable repertoire of tics, shrieks and freak-out moments. The film – which felt like a very sweaty, very sleazy Elmore Leonard adaptation – wasn't obviously Herzogian, except for the gratuitous cameos of several iguanas, which Herzog confessed he'd put in the film because "they just look so stupid".

Among contenders for the Golden Lion award, two lead the field along with White Material. One is Lebanon, an audaciously conceived Israeli war drama set entirely inside a tank, which manages to make combat look at once hellish and extremely claustrophobic. The other is Women Without Men, a first feature by Iranian video artist Shirin Neshat. The film follows the lives of several women during turmoil in early 1950s Tehran, and mixes political realism with a dream-like narrative, painstakingly complex mise-en-scène and the stark, stylised images of Iranian life that are Neshat's trademark. It's a haunting, ambitious film and as convincing a career adjustment as Steve McQueen's Hunger last year.

As for Italian cinema, there was a lot of it, but the only film that really bowled people over – and arguably the fest's real find – was Io Sono l'Amore (I Am Love), a somewhat operatic melodrama by Luca Guadagnino which managed to be at once austere and swooningly opulent.

Tilda Swinton, pictured left, is first elusive, then magnetic as a woman married into a hyper-wealthy Milan family, who falls ruinously for a young chef.

Boldly and exuberantly directed, the film is set to the music of John Adams, giving it an intensity that finally vaults into the realms of Greek tragedy. And the moment of great dramatic revelation is triggered by a bowl of soup: a first in film history, surely?

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?