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Film

Venice International Film Festival 2019

By Shane Danielsen
Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

Blanco en Blanco. Image courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The official area of the Venice Film Festival, on the Lido, is ringed by a perimeter of staggered traffic blockades; such are the times in which we live. To gain access, one must pass through one of three checkpoints, manned by uniformed guards who would, for most of the event, glance briefly into one’s bag and make perfunctory gestures with metal detectors, before waving one through.

Three days before the end of the festival, however, the mood turned, and I arrived early in the morning to find a long queue of restless attendees and a level of security more suited to an El Al flight. My bag was searched, and my badge scrutinised. Was the person in the photo me? Really? Then why did I suddenly have hair, when in the photo my head was shaved? “Show me your papers,” the guard said coldly. A little way off, a crowd of nearly identical-looking carabinieri stood watching the queue and nursing semiautomatics, their eyes hidden behind dark glasses. It was annoying, sure, but also several orders of magnitude more exciting than most of what we were seeing onscreen.

Had they been tipped off to something? It seemed an odd time for a terrorist attack. The event was winding down: most buyers and critics had decamped to Toronto, the next stop on the festival calendar. Timothée Chalamet had gone – and Robert Pattinson, arguably the program’s biggest draw, had never turned up. Any action would take out only poor suckers like me, determined to catch every last entry in the hope of being delighted, even if only for a few hours. But as with so much else in Italy, the answers were never forthcoming.

It had opened, seven days earlier, with La Vérité, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first production outside his native Japan. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche (and a visibly befuddled Ethan Hawke as the latter’s husband), it finds the usually dependable director floundering. Absent the penetrating eye of his best socio-realist work – Nobody Knows (2004) and last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters – and devoid of the beauty and mystery of Maborosi (1995) – his first fiction film, and his best – it settles into a kind of drab middle-ground, playing at times like a “French movie” made by someone who’d watched a lot of them, but might never have actually visited Paris.

The plot, confusingly, seems drawn from real life: Deneuve plays… well, herself: a distinguished grand dame of the French screen; Binoche is her daughter, a screenwriter. But the publication of maman’s memoirs occasions family hostility, much of it to do with a long-dead rival, Sarah, generally considered the more talented of the two; as such, Sarah seems uncomfortably reminiscent of Deneuve’s own sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died in a car accident in 1967, aged just 25. The characters talk a lot. They drink wine. There’s an unforgivably bad scene where they all waltz in a town square, while a trio of “local musicians” plays. Ah, la belle France! I felt particularly sorry for Hawke, who wears an expression of mild panic throughout, and spends most of the film outdoors, playing with their child, while the adults inside get on with things.

Swedish auteur Roy Andersson made a surprising return with About Endlessness – an unnecessary addition to the trilogy that made his name: Songs From the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which won the Gold Lion here in 2014. A series of sketches, like those films, it offers up another helping of his sad, absurdist comedy, this time to distinctly meagre effect. He’s had five years since his last film – and this was all he’d come up with? This lame string of failed bits? The jokes aren’t funny enough, the insights not acute enough, the sense of existential despair (Andersson’s preferred register) not nearly deep or unnerving enough.

Intended as a commentary on the infinite – its terrors and wonders – it becomes little more than a demonstration of his signature visual style: the meticulously constructed sets, the dreamlike lighting (so evenly dispersed that radiance seems to hang in the air like fog, leaving no shadows anywhere), the diagonal compositions. Running just 78 minutes, it at least honours its theme in this one respect, feeling every bit as endless as a bad stand-up set.

I found Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story programmatic and overlong, far less satisfying than his last film, The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) – though it didn’t lack for admirers on the Lido. Billed as an even-handed study of a marriage’s dissolution, and reportedly inspired by the filmmaker’s acrimonious break-up with Jennifer Jason Leigh, it actually comes down far harder on the wife than her husband (whose point-of-view we mostly occupy), and neatly exculpates the act of infidelity, on the husband’s part, that led to the break. (Baumbach has consistently denied rumours that he had an extra-marital affair with his now-partner, Greta Gerwig.) As the warring couple, Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson are both good, though neither is quite as electrifying as Dustin Hoffman was in Meyerowitz. Only a sequence late in the film, when Driver, in a bar with some friends, launches into an impromptu, surprisingly accomplished rendition of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”, feels truly cinematic or surprising.

For much of its duration, I had a quarrelsome relationship with Ema, the latest feature from Chile’s Pablo Larraín, a director I mostly admire. Constructed as a series of tableaux, its brief, mostly enigmatic scenes at times feel reminiscent of Jackie (2016), the Natalie Portman vehicle that is by some margin his least successful film. Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) is a bisexual reggaeton dancer with a skanky hairdo and a faintly malevolent air; Larráin, clearly smitten by his leading lady, lets his camera linger on her, whether naked or clothed, with a rapturous, almost holy fascination.

Fragments of domestic drama (mostly to do with Ema’s break-up with her husband and artistic director, played by Gael García Bernal, her attempt to regain custody of their allegedly disturbed son, and her seduction of an older female lawyer) bump up against excerpts from her dance performances, many of which are stunning. The tone, though, remains consistently chilly, distant; I admired its craftsmanship, even as I wondered what the hell was happening. But in the final half-hour, following a kind of multi-stage pansexual orgy that unites the various strands of the narrative, the pieces of this puzzle begin to lock together, until finally the film reveals itself to be less an art installation (as I had first suspected) than a pitch-black comedy in the register of Buñuel and Lanthimos. Minor Larráin, perhaps – but still several times smarter than most filmmakers at their best.

Polanski’s J’accuse (AKA An Officer and a Spy, a retelling of L’affaire Dreyfus) is immaculately crafted, slightly dull and utterly anonymous, lacking any discernible trace of its maker’s personality or preoccupations. Worse still, apart from Louis Garrel’s bracingly unsympathetic portrayal of Dreyfus, it adds precisely nothing to either our understanding of that case, or to the three screen versions that have preceded it. None of which stopped it walking away with the Grand Jury Prize.

Beside Atom Egoyan’s entry, however, it is a towering masterpiece. Guest of Honour represents yet another chapter in the extraordinary decline of this once-acclaimed filmmaker. Playing like a remix of his older, better films – the scrambled chronology of Exotica (1994), the mundane work-drama of The Adjuster (1991), the multiple framing devices of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) – it only serves to illustrate how far he’s fallen. The direction was workmanlike, but the writing is little short of execrable, one of those “well-made” scripts where every element must fold neatly into every other, until you have a hermetic, entirely artificial construct, one in which no trace of actual life is allowed to intrude. It’s ironic, since Egoyan is clearly at pains to make naturalistic dramas set in a recognisably “real” world – yet every detail he fills in only adds to their contrivance.

James Gray’s Ad Astra, by comparison, was merely a disappointment – confused, irresolute, and so lackadaisical with the laws of physics as to make High Life look like Apollo 13. (Shout-out to the New York–based critic who hails it as being “as realistic as space futurism gets” – always nice to see someone demonstrably stupider at the physical sciences than myself.) And Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network was just befuddling. A dull would-be thriller about the Cuban Five, sent to America by Fidel Castro to infiltrate anti-Cuba terrorist groups in the US, it plays like a third-rate Netflix drama that has been cut down, apparently at random, to feature-length. Characters appear suddenly and vanish, storylines seem to skip a beat or two… Surely, I thought as I watched, he hadn’t written this? It felt like a job-for-hire. But no, there he was in the credits: sole screenwriter. Go figure.

The two best films I saw were polar opposites: from Hollywood, Todd Phillips’s Joker (which shocked pretty much everybody by taking the Golden Lion for Best Film, but since I’m reviewing it in next month’s issue of The Monthly, I’ll refrain from discussing it here), and Blanco en Blanco, by Chilean director Théo Court, screening out of Competition in the Orizzonti section, for which he earned a well-deserved Best Director prize. That it stars the great Alfredo Castro – I think my favourite working actor – was a bonus. (As a colleague remarked afterwards, just seeing Castro’s name in the credits guarantees a film will be at least 20 per cent better than it might otherwise have been.)

In this one, set in the early 1900s, he plays Pedro, a photographer who has been summoned from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego to photograph the wedding of one Mr Porter, a wealthy landowner. But when he arrives, there’s no sign of his patron – who, in a nod to Kafka’s The Castle, remains unseen and inaccessible throughout – and the bride-to-be is revealed to be a recessive, rather frightened 12-year-old girl.

The photographer quickly becomes obsessed with her, but his fascination, we learn, is less sexual than aesthetic. An artist, he’s preoccupied by an almost Keatsian equation of the beautiful with the true; outside this formulation, everything else is irrelevant. Setting up his first shot of the girl, he repeatedly asks her governess if there’s more light available – there isn’t – and the insistence of this question prefigures his own journey into darkness, as he continues to photograph her. All the while ignoring the genocide going on around him.

Beaten for these transgressions on the orders of the still-absent Mr Porter, and with no way of either fulfilling his official duties or escaping the island (boats off the archipelago are few and far between), Pedro succumbs slowly to the madness that has already claimed the property’s German foreman, played vigorously by Lars Rudolph. Soon he’s taking part in one of the colonists’ forays against the indigenous inhabitants – whose slaughter, typically, he attempts to somehow render “beautiful”, fussily adjusting and re-adjusting the position of their bodies in the frame of his camera.

Classical in form, but imbued with distinctly postmodern themes – the legacy of colonialism, the social responsibility of art – and making breathtaking use of the stunning, desolate landscapes of the region, this chilly study of self-delusion is as masterful as anything I’ve seen in recent years. Like Portugal’s Pedro Costa, Court is a poet of darkness, more comfortable in the shadows than in daylight. What he uncovers there is darker still: a vision of pitiless cruelty, greed and indifference. Reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, this is a great film.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Blanco en Blanco. Image courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

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