VENICE: Follow the Lido — a festival preview

Posted by · 9:14 am · August 30th, 2011

“Why Venice and not Toronto?” a colleague asked when I mentioned I was heading to the Lido for the world’s oldest film festival for the third straight year. Given the North American bent of this site, it was a fair question, but also one I found easy to answer — and not just for the dully practical reason of relative airfare expense.

Toronto may have become the bigger and, depending on your field of interest, more influential festival (certainly so if you’re in the Oscar-watching business). But with its abundance of pre-premiered films and no juried competition, it’ll never have the grandeur or ever-so-slightly scuffed glamor of the Venice event, with its beachside location, soaring marble delegate halls and saturated aroma of overpriced espresso — not to mention the artsier exclusivity of its film programming, a once hit-and-miss virtue that scored a bulls-eye with a 2010 lineup that beat last year’s Cannes for range, relevance and vitality.

Once the chief domain of Croisette-rejected castoffs and second-string art house curios, Venice is more frequently the first choice of top-tier auteurs and Oscar hopefuls: “Black Swan,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Wrestler,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Atonement” and “A Single Man” are just a handful of the big-ticket pictures that have made their first appearance on the Lido’s sun-kissed shores.

And yet, for all this positive growth, the shadow of the slightly overlapping Toronto fest looms large over the Italian event: nowhere is this more apparent than in the scheduling of the Venice programme, which is so front-loaded as to induce a faint sense of panic. Mindful that a number of journalists will be leaving for the more mainstream temptations of Canada, Venice organizers have lined up the bulk of the big-name attractions in the first half of the 11-day festival.

George Clooney’s baity political drama “The Ides of March” kicks things off on Wednesday, with Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” and, more improbably, Madonna’s “W.E.” both bowing the next day. Friday brings David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” and one of my own most curiously awaited titles, “Dogtooth” director Yorgos Lanthimos’s secrecy-shrouded new feature “Alps”; Saturday the all-star (and out-of-competition) attractions of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” while Steve McQueen’s “Shame” and Todd Solondz’s “Dark Horse” will also be let out of the bag before this week is out.

A more devious festival might have held one of their prize titles not going on to Toronto (“Carnage,” say, or Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) until the festival’s last days to discourage journos from getting itchy feet, but they know what they’re up against. As it stands, closing film “Damsels in Distress” — despite the significant intrigue factor of being American maverick Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years, and starring rising indie princess Greta Gerwig — is unlikely to prove sufficient to lure them, though it’s a tasty reward for the rest of us. (All digits crossed that it breaks with the ignoble tradition of festivals generally saving the worst for last: at the very least, the bar set by last year’s Venice closer, Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest,” shouldn’t be too hard to clear.)

There’s enough anticipation in these parts for the latest from Cronenberg, Polanski, Alfredson, Soderbergh and Clooney that I needn’t remind you once more what they are, but joining “Alps” at the top of my dying-to-see list are two films from new-ish British talents who had their first success at Cannes.

Andrea Arnold made my #2 film of 2009 in “Fish Tank”; now, she brings her sensual urban sensibility to the realm of the heritage film with a new (and reportedly highly sexed) take on Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.” Adapting Brontë has already worked a charm for one unlikely indie director this year (yes, I recently caught up with Cary Fukunaga’s splendid “Jane Eyre”) — here’s hoping Arnold and her young cast can make it two. Meanwhile, McQueen’s aforementioned sex-addict study “Shame” reunites him with Michael Fassbender, the star of his debut feature “Hunger”; between this and “A Dangerous Method,” Fassbender has two shots at the Best Actor prize, and could well be the man of the hour.

Other major international auteur names brightening the Competition lineup include Aleksander Sokurov (“Faust”), “Persepolis” Oscar nominees Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (“Chicken With Plums”), William Friedkin (the Matthew McConaughey-tarring Tracy Letts adaptation “Killer Joe,” ) and Abel Ferrara (“4:44 Last Day on Earth”). Todd Solondz will be hoping to repeat the Venice popularity of 2009’s “Life During Wartime” with “Dark Horse,” its typically eclectic cast including the long-dormant Mia Farrow. A less experienced American entrant is Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of Michael, whose factually inspired feature “Texas Killing Fields” stars Sam Worthington and a certain Jessica Chastain. Whatever happened to her?

Of course, as with previous years, competition standouts could well emerge from names not mentioned here, though based on previous experience, I feel safe making at least two predictions: that at least half the Italian film quota will be dismal, and that the annual “surprise film” will be among the most grueling surprises of your life. Last year’s selection, Wang Bing’s “The Ditch,” a harrowing tale of life in one of Mao’s labor camps, prompted this observation from friend and fellow critic Shane Danielsen: “The Venice selectors’ idea of a surprise is news of your mother’s sudden death.”

Away from the competition, the lineup offers numerous pockets of interest beyond the red-carpet draws of the Madonna and Soderbergh features: the documentary lineup is particularly strong, with new offerings from American masters Jonathan Demme (“I’m Carolyn Parker”), Ross McElwee (“Photographic Memory”) and Frederick Wiseman (“Crazy Horse”), as well as two new works (one short, one feature) from Pietro Marcello, whose “The Mouth of the Wolf” was my single favorite doc of 2010.

Add to this new films, split across the Venice Days, Orrizzonti and Out of Competition sidebars, from an array of interesting names including Chantal Akerman (“Almayer’s Folly”), Mary Harron (“The Moth Diaries”), Al Pacino (“Wilde Salome,” the cast of which includes — you’ll never guess — Jessica Chastain) and even James Franco (here furthering his friendship with American gay culture with a biopic of 1950s teen idol Sal Mineo) and there should be more than enough to explore even once the festival has blown its pre-Toronto load.


“Almayer’s Folly,” Chantal Akerman

“Alps,” Yorgos Lanthimos

“Crazy Horse,” Frederick Wiseman

“Damsels in Distress,” Whit Stillman

“A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg

“Faust,” Aleksander Sokurov

“Pelesjan,” Pietro Marcello

“Shame,” Steve McQueen

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Tomas Alfredson

“Wuthering Heights,” Andrea Arnold

Our coverage kicks off tomorrow with my review of “The Ides of March.” (For the impatient, keep an eye on my Twitter feed for shorter, if speedier, reactions to festival films.) Stay tuned as I try to stay sane.

[Photo: Focus Features]

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15 responses so far

  • 1 8-30-2011 at 9:19 am

    will said...

    Franco’s Sal Mineo movie is premiering already? Didn’t he start shooting it a month ago or something?

  • 2 8-30-2011 at 10:14 am

    Sawyer said...

    Can’t wait! I want to see 4 stars for A Dangerous Method and Shame!

  • 3 8-30-2011 at 10:41 am

    Jack said...

    I don’t personally expect A Dangerous Method to be nearly as good as hyped (I think Cronenberg’s gotten, dare I say, soft? this past decade) but I can’t imagine an Aronofsky-led jury giving the gold to anyone else but him.

  • 4 8-30-2011 at 11:02 am

    Mike_M said...

    A great list of films at Venice this year, I am sure you will have a FANTASTIC time, I am super-jealous that you will be seeing many so soon.

  • 5 8-30-2011 at 11:20 am

    Jasper said...

    Why does no one hype Himizu!?

  • 6 8-30-2011 at 11:51 am

    Sawyer said...

    Please define soft. Because when I see A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, the last adjective that comes to mind is “soft”.

  • 7 8-30-2011 at 11:54 am

    Jack said...

    I guess soft can be relative as I think of it those as soft to his standards, by I think of those films as much less daring or interesting or provocative as he is at his height even if you can’t quite call them “tame” or anything.

  • 8 8-30-2011 at 12:03 pm

    Tisforthommy said...

    The Jessica Chastain thing is getting absolutely insane. But I like her. Looking forward to your coverage, Guy. Always a great read.
    Especially interested in Shame, Wuthering Heights, Method, Carnage, Tinker, Alps and for some reason Moth Diaries.

  • 9 8-30-2011 at 1:29 pm

    red_wine said...

    Jessica Chastain actuallly has 3 doubles. That is how she can be in four different places shooting four different movies at the same time.

  • 10 8-30-2011 at 2:42 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    Greatly looking forward to your coverage on Wuthering Heights and A Dangerous Method! Don’t spare us any details… I’m living vicariously through you, Guy!!

  • 11 8-30-2011 at 3:08 pm

    tony rock said...

    Sorry, but Cronenberg has gotten immensely better as a filmmaker since he moved away from “hard” horror.

  • 12 8-30-2011 at 4:25 pm

    JF said...

    Guy, I look forward to hearing your input in all these titles, after that oustanding coverage of all things Venice last year.

    One question: are you going to try to see films from the Orizzonti and Out of Competition sections? Like the portuguese “Swan” (Cisne) by Teresa Villaverde? I’d love to hear your input on this one.

    It’s being publicized as one of Portugal’s frontrunners for the Foreign Film Oscar submission alongside “Mysteries of Lisbon” and “José e Pilar”.

    P.S. – Can you fix the comment above me? I wrote Guy’s name instead of mine. Oops.

  • 13 8-30-2011 at 6:13 pm

    Steve G said...

    Will be following your tweet reactions with interest. Especially excited to hear if Wuthering Heights is a worthy follow-up to Fish Tank.

  • 14 8-30-2011 at 9:43 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    It bears repeating: Guy’s annual Venice reports are maybe my favorite annual feature of any Oscar-related site. His meticulous, entertaining, and quickly turned-out reviews have the extra virtue of opening the conversation to new films and filmmakers just as the trades start conspiring to make everything about Oscar for the next six months.

    This whole site strikes such a fantastic balance through the whole season, which I know is a bear to hang in there with. Looking forward to everything that’s coming, Kris and Guy! Have fun, both of you, through your September excursions.

  • 15 8-30-2011 at 10:46 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Thanks Nick!