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?

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