VENICE: ‘Potiche,’ ‘A Letter to Elia,’ ‘Robinson in Ruins’

Posted by · 10:59 am · September 5th, 2010

Hey, did you miss me yesterday? Don’t answer that. Sorry for the radio silence, but Saturday proved to be both my busiest and most rewarding day at Venice, serving up five films — none of them stinkers, and one of them perhaps my favourite of the fest so far.

After capping the day’s viewing with a delightful pasta dinner in the company of two of Variety’s finest, I took the water-bus back to my San Marco hotel room in a pleasant fog of good feeling and red wine, only to find the wi-fi in my hotel room had taken the night off.

As it turned out, it was just as well: today’s festival schedule being a lean and mostly unappetizing one, I rewarded myself with my first lie-in of the week (sorry, Tsui Hark) and began afresh in the morning. Late-night reviewing is fraught with hazard, anyway, as I’d learned the night before when I nodded off in the middle of writing up “The Sleeping Beauty.” (Before you say, “How apt,” let me remind you that there is no beauty in waking up at 5 a.m. with keyboard-face.)

Anyway, after that night, a soft start was needed to the day, and “A Letter to Elia” (***) obligingly provided that. Directed by Martin Scorsese and film critic/archivist Kent Jones, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: a heartfelt, comforting if mostly unrevelatory valentine to Elia Kazan and his work that extends Scorsese’s night job as everyone’s most benevolent film studies professor. He narrates both on and off screen, sharing personal reflections and reminiscences in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who saw “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” of which this may as well be another chapter; Jones’s contribution, on the other hand, is rather less visible.

Clocking in at precisely one hour, the film is clearly designed for a PBS-style TV airing, though the brevity is inevitably constricting when taking on a life and career as rich as Kazan’s. His filmography is rather selectively picked at (I suspect clip rights were an issue — no “A Streetcar Named Desire?”) and while you wouldn’t Kazan’s controversial testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee to be particularly incisively examined by a friend like Scorsese, it rates more discussion than it gets here. Analysis of the films themselves is limited to obvious emotional responses when it’d be nice to hear Scorsese wax a little more technical, but any excuse to wallow in footage from “On the Waterfront” or “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” again is a good one.

Isn’t Catherine Deneuve great? Doesn’t she still look amazing? Wouldn’t it be awesome if she ran the world? That’s pretty much the full docket of questions asked by François Ozon’s fizzy, silly, pop-brite comedy “Potiche” (***) — the title is French for “trophy wife” — and every one of them is rhetorical.

Set in the late 1970s (for little reason, apparently, other than to let the production designers have a ball with geometric wallpaper and velveteen-covered phones), the film charts the decades-late, but otherwise swift, self-actualization of Deneuve’s bored, pampered housewife, unhappily married to an openly unfaithful industrial magnate and still doting on her now-grown children. When, through sitcom reasoning, she takes over as the figurehead boss of her husband’s factory to appease striking laborers, she finds that she rather enjoys working for the first time in her life — and sets her sights on higher power ladders.

If that makes it sound like some kind of feminist fable, rest assured that the film is less concerned with women than with one particular woman: that’d be Deneuve, who enters the film jogging in an incongruous Sue Sylvester tracksuit, leaves it lustily belting a triumphant chanson, and is given free rein in between to indulge her under-used comic gifts. Game supporting players like Gérard Depardieu wisely cede the spotlight to this knowing diva turn.

Ozon, his mood switching almost psychotically from one film to the next these days, is back in the campy, high-key drawing-room mode of “8 Women”; as in that film, his stylistic commitment to the cause in “Potiche” is both impressive and faintly exhausting, but with Deneuve having such contagious fun at the center of it, one is loath (not to mention a little scared) to complain.

If the day offered no bad films, it nonetheless offered the first title on my most-anticipated list to disappoint: avant-garde British documentarian Patrick Keiller’s “Robinson in Ruins” (**1/2) follows much the same formula as its wonderful predecessors “London” (1994) and “Robinson in Space” (1997), continuing Keiller’s archly academic diary of the fictitious Robinson’s British travels, but skimping on the tongue-in-cheek wit that once energized the project’s simple presentation. (Those who haven’t seen at least one of Keiller’s other features will likely be utterly bewildered by this one.)

Part of that absence cannot be helped: the late Paul Scofield’s narration was the star of the previous instalments, and Vanessa Redgrave, while a distinguished vocal presence, can’t quite recapture the magic. Addressing as it does matters of economic downturn and decay in modern Britain, it’s understandable that Keiller should take on a more somber tone this time around, but while the observations remain as acute as ever, this is the first of his films to feel more like a lecture than a conversation.

Later: Thoughts on two more Competition titles, Pablo Larrain’s “Post Mortem” and Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Essential Killing.” Tomorrow’s attractions, meanwhile, include Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here” and the surprise film — which I thought I had nailed, but am now hearing conflicting rumors about.

(This post is dedicated to my older brother Kim, whose 30th birthday it is today, and who probably wouldn’t like any of these movies enough to make this dedication particularly fitting.)

[Photo: Mandarin Cinema]

→ 10 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

10 responses so far

  • 1 9-05-2010 at 12:26 pm

    Michael said...

    Thanks for the update Guy! I have been keeping up with your thoughts through twitter but I much prefer your longer write-ups to get more of an impression. From this batch, I am mostly excited about Potiche b/c I love Catherine Deneuve and the thought of her in campy over the top comedy sounds exactly perfect. I must admit that I am really perplexed by Francois Ozon – I just can’t really get a grasp on his work b/c his films are so inconsistent and go from one stylistic direction to another so quickly that I can’t tell if has his own unique style or is just rehashing others over and over. I much prefer his earlier work that was much more exuberantly fun such as Sitcom, Criminal Lovers, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, See the Sea, and 8 Women. It sounds like this film is more in tune with those films than his more dour films like Under the Sand, 5×2, Time to Leave, etc.

    Can’t wait for your thoughts on Essential Killing – from what I have read elsewhere it doesn’t sound like a particularly fun film to sit through.

    p.s. – Happy Birthday to your brother Kim on the big 3-0!

  • 2 9-05-2010 at 2:26 pm

    Brian Whisenant said...

    Happy birthday to your brother! And a great thanks to you for your coverage. Makes not being there tolerable. Ha ha.

    Excited to watch “Robinson in Space” when I get back to NYC.

    Has anyone seen “I’m Still Here” yet? The whole idea of it just irritates me…not sure why.

  • 3 9-05-2010 at 3:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Glad you caught Letter to Elia because I missed it here yesterday.

    And indeed, Happy Birthday to Kim.

  • 4 9-05-2010 at 4:38 pm

    Squirrelman said...

    Guy: Is there anything else on your to-see list for Venice?

    P.S. Happy birthday to Kim.

  • 5 9-05-2010 at 6:30 pm

    Bertolt Brecht said...

    Guy, I realise you were quite negative towards Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, but can I ask if you’re familiar with his work at all? I wouldn’t blame anyone finding Skolimowski’s work perplexing or difficult or (anything else) after seeing just one or two films, because his work is so personal, so distinctive yet so broad… and there’s a common thematic thread to be found in most of his films, so on an auteur level they’re usually more satisfying if you understand where he’s coming from.

    And from what I hear about Essential Killing, it’s also morally objectionable on more than one account. I’m sure I’ll find this film absolutely incredible.

  • 6 9-06-2010 at 12:53 am

    HAL said...

    I just want to echo what BB said. Skolimowski is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers through all his phases. True he’s not the most accessible. From what I’ve been able to suss out from whats on-line, this looks to be my personal stand out favorite from Venice. (Black Swan looks really good though seems such a conventional choice at the moment – admittedly I’m speaking without having seen any of these.) Looks like people are latching on o the breast feeding scene right away and, as I read it, it sounds in context and not exploitative or gratuitous. I sort of expect those that will be most upset by it will be the ones that don’t actually see it. These early reviews only furthered my interest:
    As to morally objectionable, it sounds like it doesn’t really advocate or condemn. I’m really curious to see how Skolimowski handles this as he seems so adept at the inner lives of morally or expressively convoluted characters.
    I look forward to reading your take on it.

  • 7 9-06-2010 at 3:47 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m familiar with Skolimowski, yes. And actually, it’s about as simple and accessible as any film he’s made. More soon.

  • 8 9-06-2010 at 4:25 am

    Bertolt Brecht said...

    Thanks for posting the link to the totalfilm review, HAL, I missed that one searching the net for more takes.

    The breastfeeding scene seems to me (someone who hasn’t seen the film) as the inevitable next step forward with themes Skolimowski has had from the beginning. From Andrzej to Mike to Leon, there’s always been a struggle within his characters against maturing, against responsibility, and each of his characters seem to drift in a blur between infancy, adolescence and maturity. Breastfeeding is almost like the perfect symbol for it all, and I’m almost surprised this is the first one of his films where such imagery is featured, because it makes complete sense in the context of his filmography. And not to mention the lack-of-dialogue, which also suggests the equivalent.

  • 9 9-06-2010 at 4:45 am

    HAL said...

    @Bertolt Brecht: very good observation. I think most people will see it as part of a continuum with Gallo given all too well known Brown Bunny background but I suspect you are much closer and that it fits Skolimowki perfectly.

    another one:
    Any comparison to “Come and See” is arresting, if hard to match.

    @Guy: I figured you wouldn’t be a stranger to Skolimowski’s work. Interested to hear your take and where it didn’t live up to its possibilities, if that was your experience. Thanks for the reporting on the entire festival!

  • 10 9-06-2010 at 7:16 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Why is Catherine Deneuve dressed like Sue Sylvester?! Perhaps she’s auditioning for the role of Jane Lynch’s older sister….All that Glee episode will need are some multi-colored umbrellas. Awesome.