Notes on some of the most interesting competition titles that screened at the Venice Film Festival this year, which wraps with its award ceremony today. A very strong Competition lineup that proves that artistic director Marco Müller still has what it takes and Cannes should be worried.
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
Aronofsky’s spectacular Black Swan is a gorgeously shot, arrestingly assembled and impressively acted take on the dualistic nature of creativity and art. Mastering the techniques of a chosen discipline is a first necessary step towards greatness for every artist, but it is only when you’ve mastered all the rules that creative types are really able to break them and find something truly new and original. Long story short: A little abandon goes a long way, and French ballet teacher Thomas (Vincent Cassel, supremely oily and intensely physical) keeps hammering on perfect ballerina Nina (Nathalie Portman) to let herself go a little more. Perfect movements are perfect for the starring role of the White Swan, but the same dancer also has to incarnate the dangerous Black Swan, which is all passion and danger, two characteristics that perfect technique alone cannot convey. Aronofsky conceived of this film and The Wrestler at the same time, and the two form an interesting double portrait of two people torturing their bodies for a living. Both start off as a working-class drama with melodramatic touches, but whereas The Wrestler stays safely within the confines of that genre—though it does that extremely well—Black Swan increasingly resembles a psychological thriller in which the White and Black Swan inside Portman battle each other for supremacy. It’s a daring movie even for Aronofsky, which exactly proves his point.
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
This is one of those films whose construction is so fragile that it is better to know as little about it as possible before seeing it, as the ideas it touches on and develops are not grand, sweeping statements but all of the between-the-lines variety. So only come back to this text after having seen the film. There. Everyone left? Good. Kelly Reichardt’s first period film isbuild on a series of (at first sight) counter-intuitive choices, which makes for compulsive viewing. This story of a small group of characters, their wagons and their guide, Mister Meek, who took a wrong turn somewhere on the Oregon Trial in the 1800s is not an epic about bravery or the conquest of a new promised land. Shot in Academy ratio, its landscapes are not majestic, with low horizons and an enormous expanse of sky, but towering rocks that seem insurmountable and unwelcoming, with at times only little air to breathe left at the top of the frame. The young couples that are on the trip are not heroes but ordinary folk. They don’t have scores to settle, they don’t dare dream big. They just want a better life than the one they left behind, and this is the only thing that keeps them moving. Though the film is by no means a documentary, Reichardt again interests herself in the minutiae and practicalities of everyday life, which throws not the characters’ working-class ordinariness but their shared humanity into relief, especially after, after an expedition led by Meek, they travel with a captured native, whose threatening presence increasingly raises questions of superiority, humanity and the rights and ways of the land. A tiny film that needs (and takes) its time to grow on the viewer.
Somewhere (Sophia Coppola, USA)
I’m the first to complain about all those critics that say Sophia Coppola always remakes the same film, which is always about herself. From my vantage point, The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette are three different films in three different genres. The first and third star Kirstin Dunst as the protagonist, but she’s not a simple stand-in for a spoiled-little-rich girl; both roles are more complex than they might at first appear to be. And whichever way you look at Coppola’s middle film, it is a film about Billy Murray’s character first and only then about Scarlett Johansson’s, who could arguable represent Coppola’s point of view. That said, her latest, Somewhere, feels like light retreat of Lost in Translation, with again an older man and a younger woman trying to interact, and again the world of privilege that is both a golden cage for the characters as well as a facilitator of quirky humor that might make things seem more profound than they are (making audiences laugh and making them think about something are not, unfortunately, the same thing). Elle Fanning plays the 11-year-old kid daughter of Stephen Dorff’s B movie star character, who lives in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont in a room equipped with two blond strippers he’s too tired to watch on most nights. She seems oblivious of or unphased by his lifestyle, pretending he is the best daddy ever, since it’s the only one she actually has. Elle makes her character’s tenacity almost endearing, and there is little doubt that she is the star in show. Still, there’s surprisingly little in terms of character development here—much less than the already light Lost — even if the succession of similar scenes in Somewhere does show how both are stuck in a routine that never changes, even if that routine gets old for the audience a long time before it does for the characters.
3 (Drei) (Tom Tykwer, German)
France, with Happy Few, and Germany, with 3 (Drei), both had Competition titles in Venice this year in which a regular heterosexual couple opens up their relationship to include at least one other person. Tom Tykwer’s highly bourgeois dramatic comedy is the most interesting of the two, and also a welcome return to something more personal and small-scale for the filmmaker after the big budget films Perfume: The Story of A Murderer and the instantly forgettable The International. The pitch is a simple one: A man and woman in a long-term relationship both cheat on each other with the same man, and find out it does wonders for their own relationship. Told with a surprising amount of tenderness and a wonderful, big-city sense of humor, Tykwer has fashioned here what seems to a very personal work about relationships and love for people in their 40s. The early going is somewhat long and contains many unnecessary elements—the winged dead mother of one of the characters floating through the streets of Berlin reciting Hesse comes to mind—but the film’s final 90 minutes (out of 2 hours) is surprisingly fat-free and involving, and has zero hang-ups about sex, children or balls any which way. The artistic-bourgeois milieu in which the film is set also feels completely natural and perfect, and Sophie Rois especially shines in the role of the finicky wife, a presenter of a cultural program whose thoughts the audience is privy to in an at-times hilarious voice-over.