#Venice2013: In review

There’s a lot to take home from Venice, not least a bit of sun tan and the pesky mosquito bites we’ve been subjected to for the last week. There’s also my uncharacteristic optimism to the state of upcoming cinema that I didn’t have last year. Granted, this is only my second trip to Venice and, even more granted, I didn’t even see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master when it screened on the Lido 12 months ago, but to think my favourite films last year were Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, A Hijacking, or a lesser Brilliante Mendoza film, is startling. Perhaps because I’m more initiated, or more likely because the films were just better, this year was a huge improvement. A strong showing from the Brits in Under The SkinPhilomena and Still Life, Nicolas Cage, Lukas Moodysson and Stephen Frears back on form, Tom Hardy finally proving himself, Terry Gilliam making a good (if not great) film again with The Zero Theorem, a handful of strong docs, and of course the endless (and very good) free coffee in the press room, made a sterling year.

And that’s even when I’ve been informed that audiences at the press screenings were down on last year, but many of the public screenings I attended (all my accreditation would allow) were full or brimming to the edges. We didn’t get into Daniel Radcliffe-starrer Kill Your Darlings (despite the screening room holding 1,300 people), nearly had to stand at the 1,600-seater PalaBiennale for Philomena, and found ourselves having to settle for the overflow screenings of Night Moves, Child of God and even the trashy schlock of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons.

What’s changed over the last few years is the rapid rise of both Telluride and Toronto, which overlaps the end of the Venice festival, and to where a lot of delegates had taken flight by the end of the festival. That’s why many hadn’t even seen the eventual Golden Lion winner, Sacro GRA, a fly-on-the-wall documentary on Rome’s ring road, which screened on the penultimate day of competition.

Sacro GRA, respected but not highly praised, was emblematic of the festival with its top-prize win. Lots of films here were well-reviewed, but few had universal acclaim. Under The Skin, which received rave reviews from British critics, was booed and torn apart by Europeans, while festival favourite and Grand Jury Prize winner Stray Dogs, the Tsai Ming-Liang slow-burner, split audiences. Others such as Tom à la Ferme and Night Moves were liked by many, but rarely out-and-out loved. Only Stephen Frears’ Philomena communicated to the masses, a great big crowd-pleaser that Italians lapped up even more so than the British, but most viewed it as too safe an option to win the top prize, although it did win Best Screenplay for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It meant there was something for everyone – indeed, the friend I took thought Philomena was his best film, while it doesn’t register in my top five. A good deal of people I met really liked Night Moves, but to me it didn’t feel the breath of fresh air that I wanted from a top film. I found that in Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary Under The Skin, which hugely impressed me right until its rather clumsy conclusion, but my favourite was Miss Violence, still the only film I’ve been brave enough to call a five-star movie here (although I can see that changing in future for UTS), a bruising, challenging, stunningly constructed that highlights the great art coming out of Greece’s tortured society.

Rounding out the top five is the heartbreaking British drama Still Life, starring Eddie Marsan as a council worker who traces relatives for those who have none, Lukas Moodysson’s sweet but hard-edged We Are the Best, and this festival’s winner of the Ed Frankl Batshit-Insane Award, the penis-chomping madness of Moebius.

So here’s that #EdFrankl Top 5:

1. Miss Violence
2. Under The Skin
3. Still Life
4. We Are the Best
5. Moebius

Also shoutouts to PhilomenaJoeTom à la FermeLocke and The Unknown Known, all of which I’d heartily recommend when they’re out in cinemas; or catch Under The Skin, We Are The Best, PhilomenaTom à la Ferme and Locke at next month’s London Film Festival, where reviewed films Night MovesThe Armstrong Lie, plus Venice-favourites which I didn’t see, Gravity and Kill Your Darlings will also be showing.

And the worst film? Undoubtedly Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons, but dreary costume drama A Promise starring Rebecca Hall, which I saw on the last night, comes a close second.

#venice2013: Under The Skin

Under The Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer) 

The Venice Movie Village – a leafy garden area behind the Palazzo del Cinema with an overpriced cafe and chattering delegates – is abuzz with people arguing over Under The Skin. Jonathan Glazer’s third film, and his first for nine years, is divisive in the extreme, garnering as much applause as booing in screenings here (including, remarkably, in its star-studded gala screening), as audiences have taken to and struggled with its experimental mix of sci-fi and psychological thriller in the dark recesses of an otherworldly Scotland.

Scarlett Johansson, in perhaps the performance of her career, is a seductive, unnamed alien preying on lonely, adrift Glaswegians before they vanish forever. Even though she barely speaks, Johansson conveys instantly the confinement of being stuck in a lonely world. There’s something uneasy, uncanny about her appearance, at once beautiful and troubling, staring into the wilderness with big black eyes and caked in make-up. Scotland itself is at the heart of the drama, a wild, desperate place where the wind batters and the rain pours, and where its people’s accents – or perhaps the language itself – are impenetrable. It reminded me of that unplaceable terror found at the heart of Nicolas Roeg’s Venice-set Don’t Look Now, with its constant state of threat and disturbance.

Glazer’s choice to strip out the baggage of Michel Faber’s chilly satirical novel from 2000 may prove to be controversial (I rather took to the book’s strange vegetarianistic critique), but Under The Skin remains utterly engrossing, bewitching and beguiling, richly filmed and with a score by Micachu as eerie and dislocating as Jonny Greenwood’s celebrated music for There Will Be Blood. It’s also full of technical wizardry: early scenes evoke Kubrick’s futurist visual experiments in 2001. In others Glazer uses an immediate in-yer-face realism, with bravura sequences as covert cameras film Johansson mingling with the public in Glasgow shopping centres and seedy nightclubs. Indeed, many of the people her character interacts with are people off the street – non-actors – giving the film a rare but exhilarating mix of realism and impressionism.

But while the film is as much a meditation on loneliness and alienation, it’s also a fierce feminist retaliation: Johansson’s weapon against man is her beauty, and, when her curiosity about humanity deepens, she discovers it is her sexuality that defines how she is viewed as a human being.

I can’t deny I found its ending, which I felt too abrupt, rather clumsy – perhaps the heart of many people’s grievances with the film here – but Under The Skin will surely rank amongst the high watermarks of the festival, and certainly remain one of its most haunting, memorable, unique spectacles.

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