VENICE: Arrivederci, and notes on the winners

Posted by · 7:16 am · September 12th, 2010

(Updated list of Venice award winners here.)

If you were on the Lido to the bitter end of the festival — and closing with “The Tempest” made it a very bitter end indeed — last night’s Golden Lion win for Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” didn’t come as the shock it did to everyone else. In the closing days of the festival, a Chinese-whispers style rumor started circulating that Quentin Tarantino and many of his fellow jurors were besotted with the film from the get-go; at Friday night’s party for Tom Tykwer’s “Drei,” word that Coppola had been asked to stay in town for the awards ceremony spread fast. (I tweeted as much — don’t say I left you out of the loop.)

But even if some of us got wind of it earlier than others, the news was still surprising when it landed. On the one hand, Venice has long been more receptive to more mainstream arthouse names than Cannes or Berlin — recent winners of the top prize include Darren Aronofsky, Ang Lee (twice) and Mike Leigh. On the other, “Somewhere,” which screened on the festival’s third day, didn’t seem to have much staying power in the critical mindset: I appreciated the film more than most, but the general consensus was that it was a likeable marking-time effort that seemed more likely to be recognized for Stephen Dorff’s breakout performance than the filmmaking itself.

I’m content with its victory — festival juries can be so wilful that a good, if not necessarily great, film winning is generally enough to placate me — but if I were in Tarantino’s shoes, I’d have a hard time justifying the decision amid an especially strong Competition lineup: films like “Post Mortem,” “Black Swan” and “Meek’s Cutoff” all took bolder formal risks, with harder emotional impact, than “Somewhere,” and at least one of them deserved to be recognized for the effort. (Darren Aronofsky and Kelly Reichardt’s films will be fine, of course, but the jury’s shutout of “Post Mortem” is pretty crushing for a critically beloved but hard-sell Chilean title that could have used the profile boost an award would bring.)

But I’m not Tarantino, and in case that wasn’t obvious enough already, some of the jury’s frankly ludicrous choices in other categories sure underline the point. Part of the reason I’m happy with “Somewhere” as our champ is that the rest of the awards suggest we were perilously close to a truly horrific outcome: the unusual (and unnecessary) awarding of both Best Director and Best Screenplay to Alex de la Iglesia’s astonishingly inept killer-clown saga “A Sad Trumpet Ballad” — hands down the worst thing I saw on the Lido this year — suggests the film had feisty support within the jury.

It’s a misconception, by the way, that the reported “unanimous” selection of Coppola’s film necessarily means it was every juror’s first choice: as I recall from reading critic Alexander Walker’s account of his Cannes jury experience that “unanimous” can often translate as “without protest.” My guess is that the one-two of major awards for the Iglesias film points to a split of sorts. Whatever the reasoning, the result is something I’d prefer to forget as quickly as possible: while I can see how Iglesias’s assaultive rag-bag approach might strike some as distinctive direction, Best Screenplay is a particularly perverse prize to hand a film that dispenses with any connecting tissue between its set pieces in the second act. (In case you think it’s just me, Jay Weissberg’s Variety pan nails the film’s failings far more specifically than I had the energy to manage.)

“A Sad Trumpet Ballad” wasn’t the only film to impress Team Tarantino enough to warrant a pair of awards: Jerzy Skolimowski’s vapid but technically impressive political thriller “Essential Killing” clearly had some impassioned advocates on the jury too, taking not only the bronze-equivalent Special Jury Prize but also Best Actor for Vincent Gallo’s wordless stunt performance. The latter award is one I predicted (not with any great enthusiasm, mind) the moment the credits started rolling on the film: as well as it being the kind of showily “brave” work that festival juries often fall for, it always seemed likely Gallo would get some kind of pat on the back for bringing two features (plus a short) to Venice this year.

Even if I didn’t find the two multi-awarded films so negligible, the jury’s reluctance to spread the wealth would be¬† irksome, creating as it does the impression of a shallow pool of options in a year that could hardly have been richer. Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls” was arguably the most agreed-upon critical favourite of the fest (it duly nabbed the FIPRESCI Award), but had to be content with a technical prize for its admittedly staggering lensing — perhaps the jury’s soundest call.

I’m also delighted with their off-the-radar Best Actress pick: internet commenters whining about Natalie Portman’s loss (newsflash: non-stars can act too) might change their tune if they saw first-time actress Ariane Labed’s terse, moving performance in Greek entry “Attenberg,” a close runner-up to Catherine Deneuve in my personal awards list.

I don’t think anyone would have bet on Mila Kunis emerging as the lone awardee for “Black Swan,” but her Best Young Actor win was perhaps yesterday’s most pleasant surprise: as I suggested in my review, her sly is-she-or-isn’t-she antagonist turn might be the film’s smartest, and it’s nice to see the conversation expanding beyond Natalie Portman’s justly acclaimed work in the lead. (Those trying to paint this result as some kind of slight on Portman are ill-informed: the Marcello Mastroianni Award is one specifically for new or breakout performers. Incidentally, two years ago, the same award went to a young lady named Jennifer Lawrence. I wonder what became of her?)

It should be said, however, that when you’re on the ground at a festival, awards really come as an afterthought: I’ve had such a terrific 11 days, during which time I’ve been impressed and affected by so many films, that it’s hard to see the jury’s choices as a reflection of anything other than another person’s subjective festival experience. My favourite film of 2009, Claire Denis’s “White Material,” came away empty-handed from the Lido 12 months ago, but hasn’t suffered¬† for it; similarly, no lack of trophies is going to dislodge a title like “Meek’s Cutoff” from critics’ (and my) affections.

The discussion at this point will probably center of whether “Somewhere”‘s unexpected coup can propel it into the awards race on the other side of the ocean — but it’s wise to bear in mind that for every “Brokeback Mountain” that rides its Golden Lion all the way to Oscar night, there’s a “Michael Collins” that never quite takes flight. That doesn’t make the prize any less meaningful, and in the light of some of the more unkind jabs at her in recent years, it’s nice to see Sofia Coppola validated as the serious filmmaker she is. As with most things in Venice, it’s best not to think about the specifics too much — but to have another glass of Prosecco and enjoy the view. It’s been a lovely one.

[Photo: AFP]

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15 responses so far

  • 1 9-12-2010 at 7:25 am

    Moises said...

    A Sad Trumpet Ballad have great reviews in Spain and other europeans countries. Is a tale about the history of Spain, but is incomprehensible for the american market.

  • 2 9-12-2010 at 7:36 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Trust me, I got the historical metaphor — it’s hammered home pretty hard.

  • 3 9-12-2010 at 7:47 am

    Nick Davis said...

    That’s interesting, Moises. I’m tempted to think that great art should be able to circulate outside a home audience and be penetrable to people who lack specialized knowledge, but at the same time, it’s a relief to see culturally specific work that isn’t homogenized for the whole world from the get-go. What, then, do you make of the Variety review that Guy links here? The writer draws out the allegory of Spanish history that he perceives in the piece but seems to find that allegory reductive and obvious, a kind of weak excuse for the filmmaker’s lurid stylistic approach. Do you think he’s still missing more of the subtleties in the construction that a Spanish viewer would catch? What are those?

  • 4 9-12-2010 at 9:54 am

    interstellar said...

    what you deserve if you choose tarantino as president of the jury

  • 5 9-12-2010 at 10:52 am

    red_wine said...

    Guy that was again a stellar coverage of a festival that yielded a richer slate of titles than Cannes this year. I must say based on your coverage and other people’s views I thoroughly expected Silent Souls to win. Somewhere seemed the kind of film that could be thrown a bone like Best Screenplay. It seems like that this is bound to end up a very controversial win. I doubt it’ll make much head-away in the American awards season.

    And I agree that festival juries should take care to award movies that might find it difficult to secure distribution otherwise.

    Looking forward to your coverage of London next. I wonder what will be the competition line-up in the sophomore year of the prize.

  • 6 9-12-2010 at 10:56 am

    Cari said...

    People are acting like the attention given to Portman is taking away from Kunis with all this “finally recognition” for Kunis talk. If she deserves it, she desrves it. There will be and have been many films where one actor is singled out but when it comes to Portman people are only too quick to change focus. Let the backlash begin.

  • 7 9-12-2010 at 11:15 am

    Jim T said...

    Maybe White Material didn’t suffer but had it won, it might have already come to Greece and i would have seen it so maybe I suffered.

    Guy, you’ve become quite boring in your festival coverage. Always great. Not a single surprise. Disappoint us for a change next time ;)

    Are you seeing Never Let Me Go at the BFI festival next month? I’m also curious about Special Treatment.

  • 8 9-12-2010 at 11:32 am

    Cal said...

    You can’t beat a good dose of prosecco….

    Anyway, despite not seeing “A Sad Trumpet Ballad” I was really unimpressed with the set of winners. It was less spread-the-wealth than usual, which is surprising given the consensus that this line-up was a vast and interesting one.

    I don’t think that Vincent Gallo is bad in “Essential Killing” (in fact I actually think he’s quite good), but it’s very obviously a nod to his overall participation this year. Thank god they didn’t give anything to “Promises Written In Water” is all I can say.

  • 9 9-12-2010 at 11:37 am

    Anna said...

    How is Mila Kunis a newcomer?

  • 10 9-12-2010 at 12:16 pm

    antinook said...

    Is it this strange that maybe Tarantino really liked “A Sad Trumpet Ballad”? Here in Spain Alex de la Iglesia is considerd a spanish Tarantino, filming stories of western meeting gore meeting burlesque meeting…

  • 11 9-12-2010 at 1:13 pm

    m1 said...

    6- Well said.

  • 12 9-12-2010 at 2:21 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Anna: Sorry, “newcomer” was totally the wrong word. I meant a young actor who is still on the rise.

    Cari: I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I was simply correcting the inaccurate “Kunis beat Portman” interpretation that some commenters have taken from the win.

    Jim: Yes, I’ll definitely be seeing Never Let Me Go then.

  • 13 9-12-2010 at 9:49 pm

    Glenn said...

    Excellent coverage, Guy! Some of the best reviews I’ve read in years tbh (Meeks, Swan, Somewhere especially).

  • 14 9-22-2010 at 4:50 pm

    S. Braun said...

    About Gallo, found some great information about the Gallo film at the official site here:

    it seems many reviews neglecting to mention the details. I cannot wait to see a trailer for this film.

    There’s also more work the director is presenting as well as the other short taken to festival: