Reading the first words of the October issue of the Cahiers du Cinéma, I got the distinct impression that Jean-Michel Frodon, the director of those revered pages of film criticism, went to a Venice Film Festival that took place in a different dimension than the one I attended this year. In his editorial, he simply states: "selection exceptionnelle, palmarès magnifique". Of course he is entitled to have a different opinion on this film or that — I am not that despotic — but a different opinion on a whole line-up of a festival? Why were ‘exceptional’ and ‘magnificent’ not the words that came to mind when I sat on the plane home after having sat through about forty screenings in a ten-day frenzy of fevered film attendance, article-writing and interviews? Was the problem that I did not have enough time to digest the films (sometimes literally forsaking the end credits of one film to cue up for another) or did his Royal French Highness of Film Criticism have access to films that I – miserable online journalist – did not?
Reading on, I found out it was a combination of things. Covering the festival live for european-films.net and cineuropa.org, I had largely skipped the non-European films about which Mr Frodon waxed lyrical, and the few European films that he greatly appreciated were the ones I had skipped for more mundane reasons such as the need for at least four hours of sleep a night, a meal every now and again and a few minutes here and there for a bathroom break (believe it or not, film critics are human beings too).
Since each film is only screened a few times and there are lots of other obligations that cannot be moved such aspress conferences, interviews and meetings, several films on my wish list ended up on my miss list. The eventual Golden Lion winner Sanxia haoren (Still Life) from Jia Zhang-ke (the young Chinese author of such treats as Shijie (The World) and Zhantai (Platform)) was such a film. No need to mention that Mr Frodon thought it was an "ample and complex" work, that benefited from a ‘touching and precise way of looking at the beings and things’ that populate this tale set in the region where the Three Gorges Dam is being constructed, giving us a film that is ‘at the same time mysterious and unambiguous’. Zhang-ke’s Dong, a complementary documentary about the painter Liu Xiao-dong was shot around the same time and in the same area and was shown in Venice as part of the Horizons sidebar. I missed this film too, which "opens up a double dialogue, between cinema and painting, between fiction and documentary". And also, we might add, between what was seen by some critics and not by others, which inspired this dialogue between Frodon’s and my own words.
Let us have a look at the other prizewinners, even if this venture is always a shaky thing to do at a festival since the awards represent nothing more than the final compromise of a handful of randomly thrown together jury members. The Jury Prize or runner-up to the Golden Lion went to the Chad film Darrat from Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, which I did not see and of which Frodon says he’ll dedicate it "the space it deserves" in a forthcoming issue (in French this sounds like a compliment). Ben Affleck took home the Best Actor Coppa Volpi for his role in the Allan Coulter’s noir Hollywoodland, which I did not see either and which Frodon ignores ("Why Ben Affleck?" was one of the first questions fired by other journalists at jury president Catherine Deneuve after the awards ceremony) and then there was the inevitable Best Actress win for Helen Mirren, whose performance in the good but nowhere near mythical Stephen Frears film The Queen is grandiose indeed. (No word on Frodon’s thoughts on the English actress.)
There was also the strange case of Nuovomondo (Golden Door), the new film from Respiro (Respiro: Grazia’s Island) director Emmanuele Crialese. It won the ‘revelation’ Golden Lion, a special prize created by this year’s jury. The Italian press went absolutely nuts over this formalistic and pretentious little film that, upon closer inspection, turns out to have no pulse. It is all ideas and characters being put through motions that are meant to illustrate exactly those motions without the slightest concern for their agents. It revels in its idea of a New World that opposes the barren Sicilian landscape that its poor peasant characters are leaving behind, but in their voyage to this New World gives a message about its potential that is as mixed as Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, and an equally big mess. To further add to the complication, the United States are never as much as glimpsed at in the film, except for the customs office at Ellis Island (filmed in Argentina) where all immigrants were subjected to a gruelling series of eugenic tests that would decide who could and who could not improve the American race. Perhaps they should have put the script through a similar process.
The Best First Film prize or Lion of the Future was awarded to the European co-production Khadak by Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens, a film that would have made little sense if the synopsis in the film catalogue would not have explained what it was actually about. Set and shot on location in Mongolia, the film continues the series of visually stunning works from that country as seen by foreign-funded filmmakers that also include The Weeping Camel, The Cave of the Yellow Dog and the Mongolian section of La gran final (The Great Match). Woodworth and Brosens both have a background in documentarymaking and the film’s set pieces are indeed a wonder to behold, though it is difficult to discern their story of an epileptic boy pre-ordained to become a shaman until the clan’s traditional ways are traded in for city life in a moved forced by an apparently government-sponsored epidemic that affects their flocks. It all feels like a fevered shaman’s dream rather than coherent piece of storytelling (much like the Jan Kounen Indian shaman tale Blueberry/Renegade).
Last but not least, Catherine Deneuve handed the Marcello Mastroiani Award for most promising actor to Isild Le Besco for her strong performance in Benoît Jacquot’s otherwise utterly forgettable L’intouchable (The Untouchable, indeed). Many journalists — this one included — expected the award to go to Dutch actress Carice van Houten, whose revelatory performance in Paul Verhoeven’s WWII thriller Zwartboek was the talk of the town (though not life-threatening for Dame Mirren’s Volpi Cup win in any way), but there was of course one factor that many had overlooked: Deneuve would likely want to give an award named after the father of her daughter Chiara Mastroiani to someone close to her heart – or at least close to her country’s cinema.
No prizes for the few wonderful surprises that I did see (most of them more promising than brilliant): the beautiful if a tad too leisurely paced Tsai Ming-ling Hei yan quan (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) about homosexual immigrants in Manilla and a travelling matress; the best Italian film of the festival La stella che non c’è (The Missing Star) in which Sergio Castellito again proves why he is considered on the best actors of his generation (and which means a comeback for veteran Gianni Amelio after the disappointing Le chiavi di casa/The Keys to the House); the Spanish discovery La noche de los girasoles (Night of the Sunflowers), a character-driven thriller set in the countryside that is niftily constructed and perfectly acted; the Swedish Van Santian ode to the loss of youth and the unreliability of memories that is the impressionist Farväl Falkenberg (Falkenberg Farewell) or Nue propriété(Private Property), about the harrowing disintegration of a Belgian farm family composed of Isabelle Huppert and real-life brothers Yannick and Jérémie Regnier as her spoilt sons.
So few discoveries, so many prizes. Perhaps next time, I should phone Jean-Michel before planning my screening schedule.
Boyd van Hoeij is the editor of european-films.net.The translations from the French are from the author. The Cahiers du Cinéma’s main article on the Venice Mostra (called "Souvenirs d’une Mostra de rêve: Venise impériale") was co-written by Jean-Michel Frodon and Stephane Delorme. Jean-Michel Frodon’s editorial is called "Espaces de liberté" and can be read in English as "Spaces of Freedom" on the website of the Cahiers du cinéma.