What I Saw in Venice

The triumph of ‘Poor Things,’ a Roman Polanski train wreck, and much more

While things were certainly different at this year’s Venice International Film Festival (August 30 to September 9)–mainly due to the notable absence of SAG- and WGA-affiliated actors and directors–one thing that remained consistent was the festival’s broad-spanning lineup. This year, the Biennale’s roster had a mix of everything: hotly anticipated world premieres from acclaimed auteurs, a promising batch of small films representing the global landscape, and even several controversy-steeped productions. 

The festival’s first few days accurately captured this delicate balance. There were big premieres–new movies from Michael Mann, Yorgos Lanthimos and Bradley Cooper all hit the Sala Grande during the festival’s first weekend–and there were smaller films. Two of the festival’s most controversial films–the newest projects from Roman Polanski and Luc Besson–also screened. 

Like any film festival, there were some great movies, some fine ones, and some disastrous experiences. While I could only make it to the first half of the festival, managing to watch 20 movies in total, there’s more than enough to discuss.

The Must-Sees

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, Emma Stone (in a career-defining performance) plays Bella Baxter, a woman who has been re-animated by a Dr. Frankenstein-esque figure (Willem Dafoe) with no past memories or conception of life. With the world as her oyster, Bella travels around, meeting new people, experiencing new things, and learning more about herself. While the plot may seem straightforward and “normal” for Lanthimos’ standards, the director constantly takes stylistic and thematic risks to make the story overwhelming in all the best ways.

Tommaso Santambrogio’s debut feature, Oceans Are The Real Continents, is a staggeringly profound look at the connections that we make to our countries, regardless of how those places treat us back. The film, which he shot in crisp black-and-white, follows three sets of characters in Cuba who are connected to one another in minimal, nearly negligible ways. The film’s deliberately slow pacing and multi-layered storytelling works in its favor, allowing audiences to connect to the hopes, dreams and struggles of the central characters in ways that never feel underdeveloped or exploitative.

Good, But Not Great

Bradley Cooper’s second feature, Maestro, is a solid Leonard Bernstein biopic that transcends the conventions of the genre in some aspects, but falls flat in others. By far, the film is most successful when it focuses on the nuances of Bernstein’s relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre (interpreted by Carey Mulligan in an absolutely shattering performance). Because the story is so broad, attempting to capture their entire 25-year relationship, the film suffers from too many tonal and stylistic switches. In its second half, the film eventually settles into a smooth rhythm, but that may come too late for some viewers, given its 130-minute runtime.

Speaking of solid biopics, Michael Mann’s Ferrari is another festival hit. The film, which stars Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari, focuses primarily on Ferrari’s life in the late 1950s as he balances tumultuous relationships with his wife and mistress (played by Penélope Cruz and Shailene Woodley) and the financial failures of his company. While the story can feel underwhelming at times, due to its somewhat basic premise and several undeveloped ideas, sharp dialogue and thrilling racing scenes (barring some iffy visual effects) are enough to keep the film constantly entertaining.

The Promised Land tells the story of Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikklesen), a 18th century soldier with the dream of taming and cultivating the infertile pastures of the Jutland heath (in Denmark). His goal quickly pits him against the region’s powerhouse court judge, creating a conflict that leads to danger, violence and lawlessness on both sides. While the film borrows many conventions from the typical period piece, well-developed characters, a polished script and quick pacing are sure to keep audiences at the edge of their seats for the film’s entire 127-minute runtime. 

Human Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person might be one of the films best summarized by their titles. The Québécois film centers around Sasha (Sara Montpetit), a vampire too scared, and empathetic, to kill her victims. After she meets Paul (Félix-Antoine Bénard), a suicidal teenager, the two strike a deal for Sasha to kill him. While the film navigates sensitive subjects (not always effectively), its rapid-fire script and dark comedy works incredibly in its favor.

The late William Freidkin’s final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, is an effective adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1953 play. From practically start to finish, the film takes place in a courtroom where the trial for mutiny on a U.S. Naval Ship is underway. The single location setting, prolonged stationary shots, and lack of editing make the film especially feel playlike, but Friedkin’s dynamic script keeps the story moving at a lighting-fast, constantly engrossing speed.

The Disappointments

Comandante, the festival’s opening night film, is a World War II-set thriller/biopic that tells the story of Salvatore Todaro (Pierfrancesco Favino), a submarine captain who saved the members of a Belgian enemy ship and sacrificed his submarine’s space and food rations to haul them to safety. The film tries to be poetic, featuring a long, somewhat abstract prologue and constant moments of pensive voice-overs. With a basic premise and a lacking screenplay, though, the film is missing the pensiveness necessary to differentiate it from other World War II biopics.

Luc Besson’s DogMan is a boring addition to the director’s overall slate of average action films. The film follows Doug (Caleb Landry-Jones), a man who only loves his dogs. Using a framing device, Doug recounts his story to a court-ordained psychiatrist, tracking how his childhood abuse led to the type of adult he is today, and how dogs have constantly saved his life. The film’s forced action sequences and an undeveloped script make the experience deeply uninteresting and unfulfilling, with next-to-nothing to take away; not even a clear sense of visual style.

To be fair, I had a feeling I wouldn’t like Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft, an 80-minute film shot entirely in infrared. While the story technically follows an assassin attempting to kill a crime lord, the film’s abstract dialogue and nauseating visuals instead make it seem about nothing, as pieces of the story never truly come together. For a film that is meant to be immersive, shot like a video game rather than a film, it’s almost surprising how easy it is to doze off.

It would almost be unfair to the other films in this section to classify Roman Polanski’s The Palace as a “disappointment.” Because, in all honesty, the film is a trainwreck. The criminal’s first film in four years centers around the eccentric residents of a luxury Swiss hotel on New Year’s Eve 1999. It’s clear that Polanski thinks he’s a lot funnier than he actually is, because this 100-minute film is a nearly-torturous experience, filled to the brim with stale humor, amateur screenwriting and genuinely exhausting performances. The clear lesson here: just because you can make a movie doesn’t mean you should make one.

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Kaveh Jalinous

Kaveh Jalinous is a New York City-based freelance journalist specializing in the world of film and television, as well as a working filmmaker and screenwriter. He is currently pursuing a degree in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University, and in his free time, he enjoys playing guitar.

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