Venice awards make a stand

Posted by · 11:05 am · September 11th, 2011

To judge from the press reaction to yesterday’s Venice Film Festival awards, you could be forgiven for thinking that Michael Fassbender won every single one of them, plus an extra certificate for full attendance.

That’d hardly be surprising in any circumstances, given Fassbender’s growing celebrity and the media’s reliable aversion to world cinema. Best Actor was the only major prize handed to an English-language film, after all — prompting cries of “Boring!” in many a comment board, for what in cinema is more boring than subtitles and faces you don’t immediately recognize?

But I’m being unfair. Surely one reason for Fassbender hogging last night’s Lido headlines — with Golden Lion winner “Faust” generally relegated to a grudging postscript — is that his was one choice made by the jury that nearly everyone could agree upon, and had indeed agreed upon since “Shame”‘s first screening a week before. I’d have been equally happy with an award for quick-witted “Carnage” savior Christoph Waltz, but I’m pleased the more exciting film got indirectly honored.

The combination of Fassbender’s busy year and bonus Venice appearance in “A Dangerous Method” may have given this award a faintly automatic air, but no less hard-earned for it, as it stamped the official seal on the Irish-German actor’s Next Great Thing profile. Would that the love-in had started a couple of years ago, when he was doing equally impressive work in the likes of “Hunger” and “Fish Tank,” but better late than never. (Meanwhile, does anyone even remember he was in “Jonah Hex?”)

But here I am, getting as distracted as everyone else by the Best Actor winner (and shamelessly baiting you with a photo, to boot), when I meant to say something about how the muted reaction to the other prizewinners is perhaps indicative of an uneven festival competition, where many of the most critically stimulating films were far from broadly embraceable. Indeed, maybe I’d be more tempted to lead with “Faust” if I was a little less cool on the film myself.

I’ve already discussed my own reservations about Aleksandr Sokurov’s undeniably substantial Goethe adaptation (and heartily recommend Jay Weissberg’s more detailed and diplomatic, but similarly detached, Variety review), but even the its estimable believers seem to describe it as a film to be admired rather than taken to bed. Jury president Darren Aronofsky described the film as life-changing in a press conference, but I have yet to encounter such wild-eyed passion first-hand, which makes me curious about what kind of life this proudly opaque film will have outside the festival-circuit greenhouse: Sokurov’s work has always had to work hard for distribution, and with “Faust” being at least as dense and mannered as any of his films, this could be an interesting test of how much sway festival trophies really have.

As it stands, this year’s Golden Lion selection is one I like in theory, if not in practice. Aronofsky’s jury is to be commended on rallying around a challenging work from a truly significant filmmaker — and flummoxing populist-minded pundits who will now describe this as a “surprise” win over such obvious non-contenders as “Carnage” (much touted by the European press) or “A Dangerous Method.” Better yet, they opted for a winner that screened in the festival’s closing days, after many journalists had left for Toronto, making a welcome (however unconscious) stand against the Venice directors’ excessive frontloading of the programme. Hurrah for “Faust,” then, for all these reasons. I just wish it was better.

Many critics were even more aggravated, however, by the two effective runners-up in the Competition. Jury Prize winner “Terraferma” was so tepidly received by the non-Italian press that I struck it from my viewing list, despite being a fan of director Emmanuel Crialese’s “Golden Door.” Meanwhile, many didn’t even see Best Director winner Cai Shangjun’s “People Mountain People Sea,” thanks to embarrassing technical malfunctions at both the surprise film’s press screenings. I’ve even heard some snide, improbable speculation that the award amounts to an apology from the festival for botching the little-known Shangjun’s big arrival; as I wrote earlier, however, the film is impressive enough to justify the award. It’s hard to see either film having much impact in the real world.

Two lesser awards went to films that I imagine having a slightly healthier life on the arthouse circuit, thanks in part to the critical following their directors have accumulated. Best Screenplay is an award I’ve heard described by former members of big-league juries as less a specific writing award than a general acknowledgement of a film with some, but not enough, keen jury support: whether that’s true or not, it seems an insufficient reward for the breathtaking formal poise and invention of my own festival favorite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Alps,” a film that should retain the audience of “Dogtooth” (even if it probably won’t land Lanthimos a second Oscar nomination).

I couldn’t be more thrilled to see Robbie Ryan, indubitably one of the most gifted cinematographers at work today, finally land some big-league recognition for his earthily poetic lensing of Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” — a film that, while a hard sell to distributors hoping for more genteel period pleasures, I see provoking more lasting cinephile debate than many of the festival’s more generously lauded and rewarded films.

Devoted Oscar-watchers, of course, will have found few pointers among the jury’s decisions: I don’t think I’m underestimating the Academy’s fondness for Russian-formalist interpretations of German literature when I say that Michael Fassbender is the only one of yesterday’s winners with so much as a theoretical chance of awards recognition across the ocean, and I remain highly sceptical of even that possibility. (As if so often the case at European festivals, the film that came out of the Competition with the most US awards-season steam, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” is one that proved too middle-of-the-road for the jury’s affections.)

Certainly, comparing the Venice awards list to the choices of this year’s Cannes jury — which reasonably rewarded the likes of “The Tree of Life,” “Drive,” Kirsten Dunst and at least one film destined for major Oscar attention — calls into question which is currently the more forward-thinking of the two most prestigious European festivals. What Darren Aronofsky and his esteemed peers provided yesterday was a helpful reminder that all film awards, just like all film, need not filter into one monoligual conversation, and we thank them for that.

(That effectively wraps up this year’s Venice coverage, though I’ll serve up some notes on a few remaining highlights, include Jonathan Demme’s strong documentary “I’m Carolyn Parker,” soon enough.)

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21 responses so far

  • 1 9-11-2011 at 11:11 am

    Will said...

    Is there any word on distribution for Wuthering Heights? It has shot to the top of films I’m anticipating.

  • 2 9-11-2011 at 11:53 am

    Michael said...

    Excellent coverage Guy – as per usual. :^D Thanks for illuminating all of us on the films that you saw while at Venice. Your thoughts have certainly raised and lowered expectations accordingly thanks to your dilligent frontline response. I hope I’m able to see some of these movies sooner rather than later so that I can also experience them firsthand (and I’m also glad to know which films to cross of my list).

    Just curious, between the three major festivals that you’ve been to so far this year (Berlin, Cannes, Venice) – which one has been your favorite overall?

  • 3 9-11-2011 at 11:56 am

    Jim T said...

    I’m boring myself with the compliments but I feel that you do so much more than you have to and the quality and quantity of the writing gives the impression of someone who is neither tired nor cares about when he’ll finish, that I can’t not say thank you once again for the amazing coverage!

    And thank you for not writing sentences as long as that one!

  • 4 9-11-2011 at 11:57 am

    red_wine said...

    I agree with you Guy. I find it extremely irritating and infuriating that foreign language cinema is just greeted with such a huge shrug, as if to denote it as something inferior and something cool people do not watch.

    Most of the thread/articles I read, their interest pivoted exclusively on the English language films in the competition with people predicting winners that were all English language and that struck me as highly ridiculous. I think most outlets even covered the awards at all in their hopes to squeeze some Oscar prediction fodder from any source available, however remote.

    Its a nice fuck off that the jury bypassed all Hollywood titles and bestowed its prize on a difficult to like formalist auteur work. However Faust may be, it is atleast saved the indignity of “I wonder how this over-rated pretentious tripe won over Carnage or Ides Of March” because I doubt much of these people will even watch Faust.

    I sometimes wonder that we don’t hear “Foreign language films are pretentious because they have sub-titles.” I hate the hypocrisy of the outlets who even pretend to cover festivals like Venice when they are not the least bit interested.

    Guy, I really admire you and Incontention in your broadness of view of what cinema is. The insight and info you provide helps create and bolster an every increasing appreciation of cinema.

  • 5 9-11-2011 at 12:12 pm

    Michael said...

    go red_wine go! I second everything he/she (sorry I don’t want to assume) just said but could never artiulate as eloquently as this.

    I wish that foreign films had more recognition and were more popular in the U.S. – I don’t know why it is so hard for so many people to appreciate a film that is spoken in a different language than English. People who don’t watch films with subtitles are definitely limiting themselves from experiencing some true cinematic gems, and I feel so sorry for them. This year hasn’t been the most consistent year so far for English language films, but if you look outside the box (aka at everywhere else in the world), I think you will find that there is almost always something interesting to watch. So far this year, my top 10 favorite films that I’ve seen only have 3 films in the English language. Yet none of the other 7 movies will be seen by anyone else besides fellow cinephiles (despite how amazing they are and worthy of wide praise.)

    It makes me sad, but that is how it goes (and why communities like InContention are so necessary to connect with fellow cinephiles in similar situations LOL.)

  • 6 9-11-2011 at 12:21 pm

    Han said...

    News: Iran sends A Separation for the Oscar.

  • 7 9-11-2011 at 12:21 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Guilty. Fassbender was all up in my headline. But it lead with Faust!

  • 8 9-11-2011 at 12:22 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Great news, Han.

  • 9 9-11-2011 at 1:37 pm

    Rashad said...

    People forget Fassbender was in 300 too. I knew I knew his face before when I saw Basterds. Always liked him there.

    “Then we will fight in the shade.”

  • 10 9-11-2011 at 2:14 pm

    John-Paul said...

    I’m glad the Venice winners were unconventional (according to the English-language press, anyway). I doubt any of the winners aside from Shame and possibly Wuthering Heights will get U.S. distribution, but I look forward to watching them at home when they are released on DVD, and I’m confident they will be at least more interesting than some of the more high-profile films at the festival.

    Having said that, I don’t think for a second that the lukewarm reception to Carnage and A Dangerous Method at Venice means much in terms of Oscar chances. Either film could still easily break through. I mean, since when did the reception at Venice, Cannes, or Berlin (the three major European film festivals) have a big impact on Oscar consideration? How many recent Palme d’Or winners, for instance, have gained any traction in the Best Picture race? The Pianist, off the top of my head, but that’s it. And plenty of other films from those festivals that didn’t win any awards end up faring much better overseas. I’m not saying Carnage or A Dangerous Method will factor into the Best Picture race (I think it’s doubtful), but I still consider both of them to be major contenders in the acting categories, as well as for Best Adapted Screenplay.

  • 11 9-11-2011 at 2:50 pm

    Liz said...

    “People forget Fassbender was in 300 too.”

    For good reason. He’s probably not too upset about that.

  • 12 9-11-2011 at 4:40 pm

    Marshall1 said...

    Guy, you didn’t write anything about Deanie Yip’s win in “The Simple Life”, so what you think of her performance comparing to say, Jodie Foster or Kate Winslet?? Was it really because she had no competition? I’m planning to see it in Vancouver…

  • 13 9-11-2011 at 4:58 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Will: US distribution, you mean? Not yet. It might take a while.

    Michael: Cannes had the best lineup this year — though Venice trumped Cannes last year, and has the atmosphere I enjoy most. Berlin sadly trails far behind, though it’s by far the best-organised fest of the lot.

    Han: Thanks. As I’ve been saying for a while now, I think it’s a real threat.

    John Paul: It’s not the festival reception that’s making people strike A Dangerous Method from their Oscar lists — it’s the film. It’s plain even to those who like it that it’s not Academy material.

    Marshall: Sorry, pure oversight that I neglected to mention Best Actress. A Simple Life was, unfortunately, one of the competition titles I missed, so I can’t comment on her performance. I did, however, see a few female performances better than Jodie Foster’s (and certainly Kate Winslet’s), so I wouldn’t hold them as any kind of gold standard.

    The truth, however, is that Yip had the only lone female lead role in the lineup, so while it’s not true that she had no competition, she did have a heavy advantage.

  • 14 9-11-2011 at 5:19 pm

    Keith said...

    Thanks for the stellar coverage and commentary, Guy. I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

  • 15 9-11-2011 at 5:26 pm

    Rashad said...

    He’s probably not too upset about that.

    He should be ’cause it rocks

  • 16 9-11-2011 at 5:48 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    You had me at Fassbender.

  • 17 9-11-2011 at 7:18 pm

    will said...

    @ Guy

    Yes, US distribution. Thanks!

  • 18 9-11-2011 at 8:19 pm

    Jack said...

    I think it’s just Oscar enthusiasts who like to project the Oscar race and what they know of it on every filmic award out there. And I guess they feel a certain pride when it’s names they know that win, for some strange reason.

    That said I always did think of Venice as the more familiar Hollywood-friendly of all the 3 major festivals, considering how many well known films in America have won (Vera Drake, Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution, The Wrestler, Somewhere) and actors like Imelda Staunton, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, and now Michael Fassbender. It’s a considerably sized amount, so that’s what I think a lot of people were also going on assuming that the more mainstream selections would see more success.

  • 19 9-11-2011 at 10:32 pm

    Glenn said...

    Excellent coverage, yet again, Guy. Loved every piece you did. I remember many being confused by “Still Life” winning (and it receiving a US release some 2years later) and that proved to be one of my favourites of the last decade, so if I ever get the chance to see “Faust” (likely at the yearly Russian film fest my city has?) then I’ll go in with an open mind.

  • 20 9-12-2011 at 6:11 am

    maurier said...

    “This could be an interesting test of how much sway festival trophies really have” – upon his arriving to St. Petersburg, Sokurov stated that “Faust” will be shown in Russia only at special screenings because no distributor is interested in his film. Pretty sad.