Venice has a reputation as the easy A-list festival – the one that comes as a gentle package of calm and Campari by contrast with the agitation of Cannes. Well, the calm may yet settle upon us, but it’ll take a day or two for the stress to wear off. During the lockdown years, Venice managed to subsist in very sturdy form by introducing a ticketing system partly designed to maintain social distancing and it pretty much worked fine. Last Sunday morning, though, a new online ticket system raised public and press hackles by putting delegates through a baffling e-labyrinth of queues and dead ends for more than five hours. Once people actually arrived in the city, greeted by a Wednesday morning downpour, followed by a blast of blistering sun, we all felt we’d been put through a special circle of Dante’s hell reserved for jaded cinephiles.
Just as well, then, that the festival got off to a juicy start. It kicked off with writer-director Noah Baumbach, whose Marriage Story was one of Venice’s most popular hits in recent years. His competition opener, White Noise, however, isn’t nearly as gratifying. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, it’s set in a fictional university town. Adam Driver plays a lecturer in Hitler studies who takes shelter with his wife (Greta Gerwig) and kids after a chemical calamity sends their community into a chaotic evacuation. Don Cheadle plays a fellow academic, the resident dispenser of enigmatic cultural aperçus and a specialist in the meaning of the great American car crash. This is a wordy, enigmatic and visually stylised number, with Driver delivering his non-sequitur one-liners with wry aplomb, and there’s a definite tang of Robert Altman to the frenetic stylisation, but it’s never entirely clear quite what the film is for. It’s pitched as a period piece, a post-postmodernist take on the glacial irony of DeLillo’s style, but its manic ironies are an awkward translation of the chilly detachment of the original. Still, if you’re of the 1980s generation that looked to Devo videos for philosophical statements on consumerist alienation, you may get a nostalgic frisson.
Luca Guadagnino has been a Venice favourite ever since making a splash here with 2009’s I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton. His competition entry Bones and All is his first US-set venture, and it’s one of his best. Call Me By Your Name and his TV series We Are Who We Are showed Guadagnino to be a dab hand at portraying anguished youth – but not nearly as anguished as the teenage heroine of his new film. Taylor Russell plays Maren, whose father leaves her to her own devices after finding he can no longer handle her cannibalism. Setting out alone, Maren finds herself encountering other “eaters” – first, an older man played by Mark Rylance (one of the creepiest, most unsettling performances you’ll have seen in a while), then a moody young loner played by Timothée Chalamet.
That the film is visually understated only makes it more disturbing – yes, there’s gore, but far worse is hearing about what eaters do. It’s a curiously beautiful film too: a romantic road movie that crosses a strangely desolate America, and young lead Russell mixes innocence and feral toughness to compelling effect.
Equally daring in its own way is Tár, a singularly strange offering from US writer-director Todd Field – and it’s unlikely that the competition will feature anything more unashamedly highbrow. Not that Tár is any sort of outre art film – at heart it’s a very watchable and involving melodrama – but it’s unusually ambitious and remarkably serious in its engagement with classical music. Cate Blanchett gives an absolute tour de force performance as Lydia Tár, a composer, pianist and conductor whose achievements make Simon Rattle and all that crowd look like a bunch of bar-band hacks. Set mainly in Berlin, it follows Tár preparing a performance of Mahler’s Fifth while leading a home life with her partner (Nina Hoss) and young stepdaughter, attending to orchestra politics and taking a less than entirely professional interest in a new young female cellist.
The dialogue is somewhat technical in its references, and you may very well get most out of it if you happen to know what’s meant by “very Punkt Contrapunkt” (I didn’t), but that shouldn’t spoil it for anyone else. Blanchett gives a complex and altogether commanding performance that’s possibly her best ever – and that features her playing the piano and conducting for real. Perhaps Tár’s ideal viewer is a New Yorker-subscribing Radio 3 listener, but it’s a bold, thoughtful adult drama that sustains itself over a very stylish 158 minutes.
As for fun and games, we’ve also had Lars von Trier getting away from the increasingly morbid bombast of his recent features and letting his hair down by offering a belated third season of his pioneering 1990s miniseries The Kingdom. Set once again in a Copenhagen hospital where dark forces are on the rise, this third season, entitled Exodus, cheerfully recaptures the wilful weirdness of the original, judging by the two episodes I caught. It has running gags about Danish-Swedish enmity, a sleepwalking elderly woman as a metaphysical Miss Marple, and a very well-known Hollywood star dropping in to play a satanic emissary who manifests as an owl. There’s also a meta-level, with characters complaining that the hospital’s reputation has been ruined by the original series and “that blundering fool Trier”. Fool or not, it’s nice to see the antichrist just being a cheeky monkey for a change.
Even more fun, however, is French thriller The Origin of Evil. Written and directed by Sébastien Marnier, who made a great, creepy classroom thriller called School’s Out, it stars Laure Calamy (currently to be seen on screen in sex-worker drama Her Way) as a woman who works in a canning factory and who makes a surprise call on a very wealthy family in their luxury villa. They’re as dysfunctional as they are spoiled, and initially give her the cold shoulder, but soon she’s drawn into the proverbial web of intrigue, stitched from a succession of ingenious twists.
Calamy offers a few surprises for anyone who only knows her as goofy Noémie in Call My Agent!, while the family members (including veteran Jacques Weber as a very old-school patriarch and a witty, malicious Dominique Blanc as his wife) are superb. Marnier’s film manages to be cruelly funny, while evoking the spirit of that master of the French thriller Claude Chabrol, with hints of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. It offered a touch of class as a first-day festival highlight – like prosecco with a strychnine twist. With some heavyweight titles coming up in the next few days, in and out of competition, something light but acidic is just what you want to prime the palate.
Coming attractions: next week’s highlights
One of the most hotly debated of all forthcoming films, this has Australian director Andrew Dominik telling the Marilyn Monroe story, as recounted in the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Ana de Armas plays Marilyn in a film that’s reputedly sexually candid and guaranteed to be even more controversial after its premiere.
Don’t Worry Darling
Actor turned director Olivia Wilde follows her much-liked Booksmart with something in a darker vein: the story of a couple living in an ideal community that might not be so ideal after all. Florence Pugh stars alongside Harry Styles – increasingly credible as an actor – guaranteeing red carpet fever later in the week.
Acclaimed French documentarist Alice Diop plays in official competition with her first feature. It’s co-scripted with Goncourt-winning novelist Marie NDiaye (Three Strong Women), promising considerable dramatic clout, and stars actor and artist Kayije Kagame as a writer following the trial of a young woman (Guslagie Malanda) accused of killing her child.
Dead for a Dollar
Hollywood genre veteran Walter Hill (The Driver, Southern Comfort) is here to receive a lifetime’s achievement award, but will also be presenting his latest film. Hill once said that all his films are really westerns, but here’s the actual thing. It stars Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan.