From an Australian revenge drama to a very modern musical, the world’s oldest film festival proved typically eclectic
The artist and critic John Ruskin once dubbed Venice “a splendour of miscellaneous spirits” and when the world’s oldest film festival comes around each year his observation seems ever more fitting. The whole industry appears to congregate on the floating city’s lido, a step away from the sand, hopping off vaporettos and water taxis. Groups mingle with espressos in small white cups or clink glasses of blood red Campari and ice, anticipating the next arrival. In the wake of 2017’s opening hit La La Land music remained a prevailing theme among this year’s contestants for the prestigious Leone d’Oro (Gold Lion), though the offering remained typically eclectic. Here, we take a closer look at the films that caught our attention.
1. Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino (above)
After the resounding success of Call Me By Your Name Italian director Luca Guadagnino returns with a more personal project. A childhood infatuation with Dario Argento’s classic 1977 horror Suspiria sees him take on the task of reimagining the coven drama in 1970s Berlin. Dakota Johnson plays young American dancer Susie Bannion who is set on auditioning for the world-renowned Helena Markos Dance Company, after seeing the troupe’s leader Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) perform at the Martha Graham Academy in New York. As ever, all is not what it seems, yet among incantations and bloody ends it is the power of movement from Damien Jalet’s stunning choreography, paired with a haunting score by Thom Yorke, which casts this film’s greatest spell.
2. Doubles Vies, directed by Olivier Assayas
Juliette Binoche is back and in better form than ever in Olivier Assayas’ quick-witted French comedy. One part of a power couple, she plays a successful actress married to a publisher who is having doubts about the digital revolution and his friend’s latest manuscript. Intellectual sparring about the future of fiction and the tricky emotional waters of infidelity and fertility fill the screen as vividly as the Parisian bars and seaside summerhouses that contain them.
3. The First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle
It’s not the space travel but the domestic drama of the Biennale’s opener that earns Damien Chazelle’s lunar space race its competition spot. Claire Foy has already captivated our screens with her portrayal of the Queen but here she stands out with a quieter grandeur as Janet, the American housewife of Neil Armstrong (played here by an expectedly excellent Ryan Gosling). Complete with rigorous astronaut training exercises and tearful heart-to-hearts on wooden porches, Chazelle’s tale is unflinching in its examination of the expense at which men and women suffer in the name of progress.
4. Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón
This devastating offering from acclaimed Spanish director Alfonso Cuarón took a whole five years to complete and rightfully took home this year’s Leone d’Oro for best film. Set in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighbourhood we follow the life of Cleo, a young domestic worker, in a household which mimics Cuarón’s own. Shot entirely in black and white, this epic tale of love, family, and political strife proves that even the smallest lives hold multitudes within them.
5. A Star is Born, directed by Bradley Cooper
Lady Gaga steps seamlessly into the shoes of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand in the third remake of the original 1937 film. Bradley Cooper’s impressive directorial debut revitalises the classic tale with contemporary verve as Gaga takes on the role of Ally, a waitress plucked from obscurity and thrust onstage when she’s discovered by a successful musician (played all too convincingly by Cooper himself). In a world of drag queens, Saturday Night Live and Grammy awards, mental health and the dilemmas of addiction come to the fore as a surprising and poignant lead to make this musical linger.
6. Vox Lux, directed by Brady Corbet
Director Brady Corbet’s compelling 21st-century portrait follows the life of Celeste (Natalie Portman), a survivor of a school shooting who, after singing at a memorial for her lost peers, is propelled into pop stardom. The film is a visual feast, combining everything from spliced Amelie-style film footage under the dulcet narrative tones of William Dafoe to the distorted soundscape of pop concerts in mid-swing masterminded by Sia herself. Yet unlike A Star is Born, music – although its shadow looms large – is merely a side character. It’s the cogs of the machine that produce it, and the woman who is altered by it, which captivate.
7. The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Black comedy is familiar ground for Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose 2015 The Lobster took Cannes by storm. This time we’re transported to England in the 18th century, an entirely different kind of dystopia, with extra lashings of ponce, wigs and frills. Olivia Colman rightfully whisked away the prize for best actress for her portrayal of the clueless rabbit-petting queen who spends her days gorging on cake, oblivious to her country’s needs. Cousins played by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz fight for her affection by any means possible in this court drama, alongside Nicholas Hoult’s political scheming and Joe Alwyn’s dance moves. Think Marie Antoinette gone wrong, but also very right.
8. Sulla Mia Pelle, directed by Alessio Cremonini
Unlike louder productions at this year’s festival dramatising tales of real-life trauma, this retelling revisits a case from 2009 when a young man called Stefano Cucchi died while under police custody in Rome. Cucchi’s death went on to expose corruption within Italy’s special police force, the Carabinieri, a discovery which rocked the country. The details of his arrest, assault and heartrending end might be mistaken for Greek tragedy, with his family kept from the body of their beloved for far too long. The premiere was certainly the most memorable in Venice as Cucchi’s sister was brought out from the audience to stand alongside the director and cast. If other reenactments of evil and suffering at the festival risked appearing exploitative or indulgent, Alessio Cremonini’s picture instead offered solace – a promise to keep the memory of Cucchi alive and a declaration that his death was not in vain.
9. The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent
As the only female director in the running at this year’s competition it was clear even before the screening that Jennifer Kent’s contribution was going to be noteworthy. Set in 1825 Tasmania, Kent’s revenge drama – which should come with severe trigger warnings – follows Clare, a young Irish convict who suffers a harrowingly violent attack at the hands of a British officer. Intent on revenge, she begins a hunt across the wilderness with the aid of an Aboriginal guide. Over the course of the journey the two victims of violence find familiar and restorative ground as Kent tackles sexism and racism head on. In the press screening one male journalist felt it appropriate to heckle Kent by calling her a “whore”, a reaction which in itself feels testament to this film’s provocative and powerful message.
10. My Brilliant Friend (L’Amica Geniale), directed by Saverio Costanzo
The first two episodes of Italian director Saverio Costanzo’s new series, based on the international bestsellers of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, radiate with the attentive treatment of their source text. Impressive child actors imbue authentic emotion into an immersive world where every detail counts, complete with ragged dolls and Neapolitan dialect. Ferrante herself (among others) wrote the screenplay, which makes it hardly surprising that this collaborative effort between HBO and Italy’s Rai Cinema brings the world of Lila and Lenù to vivid technicolour life.