Venice 2019. Imperfect Truths and Perfect Candidates

As the 76th Venice Film Festival begins, a look at Hirokazu Kore-eda's first project abroad, and Haifaa Al Mansour's latest Saudi drama
Leonardo Goi
Early in the morning, late in the summer, the first ferryboat docked outside the Casino Palace shortly before 8 am, ejecting a crowd of critics onto the Lido and out toward the first screening of the year. Capping off weeks of excitement for yet another auteur-studded lineup (this year featuring the likes of Pietro Marcello, Olivier Assayas, James Gray, Ciro Guerra, and more), as well as endless controversies over its chronic lack of female representation (with only two women hailing from the 21-strong official competition, Haifaa al-Mansour and Shannon Murphy), the 76th Venice Film Festival kicked off on August 28. And the Lido—that long strip of land separating the Venice lagoon from the Adriatic—braced for the return of a platoon of cinephiles that will keep flocking to its shores until the feast’s end on September 7.
Now at its eighth edition under the aegis of Artistic Director Alberto Barbera, the festival has long turned into a fertile ground for awards season hopefuls. To be sure, this is nothing new: the late summer/early fall slot makes Venice an ideal launchpad for Oscar contenders, and the history of the Lido darlings-turned-Best Picture-winners goes back a few years already (recall the likes of Birdman, Spotlight, and The Shape of Water). But the fear that Venice may be sacrificing room for more experimental, daring, and relatively smaller-budget projects for the sake of large studio productions seems to have grown stronger since Cannes decided to complicate Netflix's films competing on the Croisette, and the streaming giant diverted some of its yearly crop to the Adriatic (Cuarón’s Roma very possibly the most recent and fortunate example of the trend). This year’s official lineup features two Netflix titles, Soderbergh’s Panama Papers drama The Laundromat and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story—with David Michôd’s The King slotted out of competition—and another two Hollywood productions competing for a Golden Lion, James Gray’s Brad Pitt-helmed space journey Ad Astra, and the Joaquin Phoenix vehicle Joker, by Todd Philipps.
Still, if in recent years the festival’s opener had been a concern reserved to the lineup’s larger productions, this year’s pick appears to herald a move toward a different kind of scale and vibe. After shrinking audiences in a cerebral sci-fi dystopia (Alexander Payne’s 2017 Downsizing) and shipping them out in space in close quarters with Neil Armstrong (Damien Chazelle’s 2018 First Man), the 76th edition opened with a more domestic, intimate chamber drama: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth (La vérité). A follow-up to his luminous Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, fathered a little over a year ago, The Truth marks the first time Kore-eda has ventured to shoot outside his native Japan, a journey shared with a star-studded Western cast that includes French icons Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, as well as American heavyweight Ethan Hawke. Admittedly, Kore-eda’s track record in Cannes has been somewhat stronger than his previous Lido appearances. Where the Croisette ushered some of the director’s most interesting offerings of the decade, the 2013 Jury Prize-winner Like Father, Like Son, his 2015 Our Little Sister and the 2016 Un Certain Regard entry After the Storm, the Lido has proved to be more of a mixed bag, awarding his 1995 debut Maborosi with a Golden Osella and then welcoming the Japanese director again in 2017 after a 22-year hiatus with his underwhelming cop procedural The Third Murder. As I joined my first queue outside the Sala Darsena, much of the pre-screening chat around me seemed to pivot around the same lingering doubt: would the director’s first project abroad prove as piercing as his home productions, or would he join the ranks of other auteurs (think of the Iranian Asghar Farhadi and his 2017 all-European Cannes opener, Everybody Knows) whose projects abroad proved far less convincing?
Sad as it may be for a Kore-eda acolyte to admit, while far from a disappointment tout court, The Truth didn’t quite live up to its pre-screening hype. In a secluded mansion hidden somewhere in central Paris, Catherine Deneuve reminisces, in Norma Desmond-mode, a career that’s long entered its sunset days. She’s actress Fabienne, a star in the French film firmament turned cantankerous seventy-something diva, basking in the memories of her old roles and accolades in the company of her factotum manager (Alain Libolt) and Michelin-starred chef and partner (Christian Crahay). The solitary confinement is interrupted by a family visit: her daughter Lumir (Binoche), her husband Hank (Hawke), and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) travel from New York to crash for a few days. Binoche is a scriptwriter; Hawke an actor with some rehab stints and second-rate TV credits under his belt, and Charlotte a wide-eyed child tiptoeing through Fabienne’s villa as if in a fairytale castle. The family visit predates the imminent release of Fabienne’s autobiography (The Truth), a self-serving memoir that glosses over a mother-daughter liaison fraught with jealousy, loneliness and pain under idyllic if entirely fabricated childhood anecdotes.
“I can’t find any truth in here,” chides Lumir, and the first quarrels over the book’s depiction of their relationship pave the way for the overarching leitmotif upon which Kore-eda’s work pivots. The Truth is, nomen omen, a film that’s primarily concerned with a struggle for authenticity, a battle waged by a family adjusting to the roles they’ve been cast in, and which they constantly re-negotiate. It unfurls inside closed spaces, with Éric Gautier’s camerawork meandering through Fabienne’s plush home and the studio set where she’s reluctantly agreed to star in a new film. It’s a sci-fi drama called “Memories of My Mother,” which sees her play the 73-year-old daughter of a dying mother who’s been shipped to faraway planet where time ticks more slowly and dons her an ageless, cherubic beauty (Manon Clavel). The film-within-film scaffolding allows Kore-eda to further obfuscate the boundaries between truth and fiction, while the parental affection Fabienne pours into her character hits Binoche like the mirage of a love she was never given. And yet, coming from a director that’s proved to be a master of human dramas, pouring candor and affection into his family tales, The Truth lacks the heart-wrenching pathos of previous entries in Kore-eda’s canon.
To be sure, this is neither down to Deneuve nor Binoche, each delivering terrific performances—with Deneuve’s towering a few feet above all others. She’s essentially playing herself, her Fabienne barely a step removed from the actress who plays her, much like Jean-Pierre Léaud had done in Nobuhiro Suwa’s 2017 The Lion Sleeps Tonight, where another timeless icon of film history served as the embodiment of the joys and sorrows of a life spent on stage. Together or alone, Deneuve and Binoche are so natural and effortless it’s a joy to just watch them linger.
But in a film that draws its best material once mother and daughter grind against one another, the clashes lack in emotional oomph, and the drama all too often defaults to more lighthearted comedy terrain, so much so that the lingering feeling is a far cry from the more habitual tear-jerking vibes of many a Kore-eda drama. This is also a talk-rich film. While Kore-eda’s script largely circumvents language barriers by relying on a polyglot cast and a rich meta-fictional subtext that stirs chuckles off the cast’s real-life personas (from the restless pokes at Hawke/Hank’s acting talents, to Deneuve/Fabienne’s wisecracks about colleagues and rivals), it does so at the expense of the quieter pleasures and observational flair of Kore-eda’s previous works—an ineffable grace which The Truth only intermittently evokes.
A few hours after The Truth’s bow, Venice unveiled the first of the year’s only two female-helmed official competition entries, Haifaa Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate. Anyone mildly familiar with Al Mansour’s filmography will remember the 45-year-old Saudi as a trailblazer: in 2012, her feature debut Wadjda found a slot in Venice’s Horizons sidebar as the first-ever film shot in Saudi Arabia by the country’s first female cineaste. Much like her bildungsroman had homed in on a girl to dissect women’s limitations within Saudi society, The Perfect Candidate follows a young female doctor as she struggles to vindicate her voice within the claustrophobic confines of a male-dominated world.
At its centre is Maryam (Mila Alzahrani), a promising doctor serving in a small town clinic in Saudi Arabia—so small and poorly serviced the road opposite it has never been paved, leaving ambulances to drop stretchers and patients on the mud. Little can Maryam do to persuade her senior male colleagues to funnel more funds toward the clinic. So virulent is the patriarchy she’s up against, her stellar qualifications don’t mean a thing in a world that has reduced her to a silent subaltern, and that eagerly reminds her of her position (“people won’t succeed if their chief is a woman,” croaks an old man pushed into the ER on a stretcher, horrified at the idea of a niqab-wearing girl would dare to look at his body, let alone touch it). But when a bureaucratic mix-up lands her an application for the local municipal elections, Maryam musters all her rage and courage, and seizes the opportunity.
What ensues is a fight for justice that constantly crisscrosses between the domestic and the communal, as Maryam’s struggle to show the outside world “what [she’s] made of” mounts an implicit challenge to her own father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulrhim), and power relations back home. A talented musician, when he’s not performing at weddings and family gatherings, the man loiters at home with Maryam and her two younger sisters, praying for the day he’ll be able to become “a real artist.” As he finally lands a chance to tour the country with fellow musicians, The Perfect Candidate splinters into two parallel storylines: Maryam’s, who recruits her sisters to raise funds for the campaign and to get her manifesto across (a feat that proves just as difficult among fellow women as it does among men), and Abdulaziz’s, who roams the country with his band and watches his daughter’s efforts parceled out through YouTube videos and social media posts.
Maryam’s quest for justice offers a far richer and emotionally complex terrain than Abdulaziz’s road trip, though Al Mansour, who penned the script next to co-scribe Brad Niemann, has the perspicacity to square both journeys as complementary attacks against the same retrograde mentality—one that suffocates Abdulaziz as much as Maryam. Sure, the country the young woman grapples with is far different from the Saudi Arabia Al Mansour had portrayed in Wadjda—changes, however minimal, have occurred: for one thing, Maryam can now freely drive her own car, while Abdulaziz’s tour comes as the byproduct of a cultural relaxation which has also finally allowed the first few multiplexes to sprout around the country. And yet extremism comes in different shapes, and is far from being eroded. If Maryam’s efforts to appeal to male voters are met with derision (at best), Abdulaziz’s band grapples with the omnipresent threats by traditionalist factions opposed to their right to artistic freedom.
The Perfect Candidatis far from a perfect film: there are moments when the plot seems to hit auto-pilot mode, ticking all the predictable boxes, down to the rhetoric Maryam embraces in her pleas for votes. But it does retain a lively, combative tone throughout, ambling away from polemics and interpolating a Sisyphean, infuriating struggle with moments of delicate homely candor, where the chemistry between the three sisters, away from male gazes, feels like a distant echo of the charms of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s 2015 Mustang. A battle over a rundown clinic and its unpaved road morphs into a far larger fight to defend and vindicate one’s voice, one’s place, one’s individuality over and against a patriarchal straitjacket. “Why keep going?” Abdulaziz asks his daughter as the prospects of her electoral triumph drift farther away. She looks at him, then seals her gaze onto some faraway place: “Because I finally feel like I’m someone more than the daughter of a wedding singer.” Ahead of James Gray’s interstellar epic Ad Astra, the first two entries in Venice's official lineup were powerful reminders of all the energy that can burst out of domestic, beguilingly small-scale epics.    

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Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2019Hirokazu KoreedaHaifaa al Mansour
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