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Venice film festival: The tops and the flops

Scott Roxborough
September 8, 2023

Roman Polanski's being selected in the competition sparked controversy — but how was his film? Meanwhile, women directors offered some of the most important films of the festival. Our DW reporter reveals his favorites.

A woman in a black gown reaching out to her dog on the red carpet
Italian actor Caterina Murino's dog stealing the show on the red carpetImage: Yara Nardi/Reuters

At some film festivals, it's the red carpets that stand out; sometimes it's the politics and the protests outside the theater that catch your attention.

At the best film festivals, however, the movies are the stars.

And so it was at the 80th Venice Film Festival. There was plenty of glitz and glamour —  Hollywood strikes non-withstanding, we still got to see Adam Driver, Priscilla Presley, Fanny Ardant and Mads Mikkelsen pose for the paparazzi — as well as protests against government abuse in Iran, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and a pop-up street protest condemning the festival itself, for its decision to pick three movies — Roman Polanski's "The Palace," "Coup de Chance" by Woody Allen and Luc Besson's "Dogman" — whose directors have all been accused of sexual assault.

That was mostly background noise, however, compared to what was happening in theaters. The real show was up on screen and it was by turns important, fantastic, silly or downright lousy.

Ana DuVernay on the legacy of racism in the US

Some of the most important films in Venice this year were directed by women.

The first African American female filmmaker to have competition entry at the Biennale, Ava DuVernay turned Isabel Wilkerson's weighty, scholarly book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents," about the roots and enduring legacy of racism in American society, into "Origin," a powerful and deeply touching love story.

Ava DuVernay.
Ava DuVernay is in the competition with 'Origin'Image: Guglielmo Mangiapane/REUTERS

She does so by linking the history and themes explored in the book — which draw links between theories of race and white supremacy in America to those in Nazi Germany and beyond — to Wilkerson's own story of writing it, in which she faced the tragedy of the sudden loss of her husband, mother and close cousin within a few short months.

A wake-up call for Europe

Agnieszka Holland's "The Green Border" is a wake-up call for all those who have forgotten the horrors on the edge of Europe, brought about by the policies of the supposedly democratic nations within.

The Polish filmmaker dramatizes the plight of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, who were lured to the Belarusian-Polish border by Belarusian government propaganda promising easy passage into the European Union and instead found themselves pawns in a geopolitical game. When the Polish government cracked down, they were stranded, left to struggle and starve in the swampy, treacherous forests between the two countries.

A child is standing amid barbed wire.
'The Green Border' shows how migrants were trapped into a geopolitical crisis provoked by Belarusian dictator LukashenkoImage: Agata Kubis/Courtesy of Astute Films

Members of Poland's far-right government have attacked the movie without having seen it, comparing it to "Nazi propaganda." 

Holland is one of European cinema's most unflinching historic witnesses, having explored the legacy of the Holocaust in the Oscar-nominated "Europa Europa" (1990) and "In Darkness" (2011) and, in "Mr. Jones" (2019), that of the Holodomor, the Soviet-imposed famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s. 

A flop for Roman Polanski

Meanwhile, a few established directors were responsible for major flops. 

Polanski's "The Palace" was a stinker, a nasty, unfunny class conflict — the set-up is a showdown between the rich and the serving staff at a New Year's Eve celebration in a swanky Swiss hotel. The clash opposing the have nots and the 1% has been done much better, and with many more laughs, by Ruben Ostlund in "Triangle of Sadness" or Mark Mylod with "The Menu." 

If this is to be the last film by the 90-year-old director of "Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby" and "Frantic," he's certainly decided to go out on a low.

Film still from 'The Palace' showing three men in suits, two of them are holding one of them back
Polanski's 'The Palace': a major disappointment Image: Malgosia Abramowska

'Ferrari': a car crash with a fake Italian accent

Michael Mann, one of Hollywood's greatest living directors, who has been shut out of the studio system since his expensive (but quite good) mega-flop "Blackhat," arrived in Venice with "Ferrari," hoping the independently-made film starring Adam Driver as the legendary Italian auto maker Enzo Ferrari would turbo-charge his career.

The racing scenes, with gorgeous 1950s open-top cherry-red Ferraris, are thrilling but the film is a car crash.

A man wearing a grey suit.
Adam Driver in the role of Enzo FerrariImage: Eros Hoagland

Driver plays Enzo as a dour macho who bullies and bribes his way to the top, all while cheating on his "Italian" wife (Penelope Cruz speaking in her natural, Spanish, accent) with his "Italian" mistress, who, to quote a favorite reviewer, in Shailene Woodley's performance feels about as authentically Italian as Pizza Hut. I hope Italy files suit on the grounds of national defamation.

Luc Besson's wacky comeback film

The silly came in the form of "Dogman," another potential comeback movie from another one-time superstar director.

Luc Besson ruled the 90s action era with films like "The Fifth Element" and "Leon: The Professional." His own galactic misfire — "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" — landed him in the Hollywood dog house. Multiple #MeToo allegations kept him there, even though Besson was cleared on one assault charge and denies any wrongdoing. "Dogman" is his shot at box office redemption.

The film stars Caleb Landry Jones as an abused boy who finds salvation in dogs and drag shows. Born in what looks like 1930s Alabama, he inexplicably grows up in modern-day New Jersey and, thanks to a Doctor Dolittle-esque ability to communicate with canines, he becomes a Garden State Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and helping the poor with the help of his four-legged shaggy army.

Besson's film feels like three or four movies smashed together — part action thriller, part coming-of-age sexual identity drama, part "Home Alone" with dogs — and is a crazy hot mess. I kinda loved it.

A still from 'Dogman': a person looking intensely at a dog.
Luc Besson's 'Dogman' defies categorizationsImage: Shana Besson

Jones is phenomenal. I don't know of any other actor who could transition from a shoot-em-up with Latino gangsters to lip syncing "La Foule," as a drag Edith Piaf. They'll need to create a new category at the Academy Awards to give this Dogman his due.  

'Poor Things': Yorgos Lanthimos offers a new favorite

But the real standout at the 80th Venice Film festival, the truly fantastic, was Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things."

The Greek director was last seen on the Lido with "The Favourite," a period drama that smashed up every convention of the genre only to reassemble the pieces into something much more interesting.

With "Poor Things," the reassembling is literal. Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter, despairing Victorian housewife brought back from suicide and re-animated as a Frankenstein-like creature with the body of a grown woman and the mind of a child. But this Frankenstein monster is horny. And a feminist. Suffice to say her journey out of the patriarchy will be eventful. And hilarious.

Film still from 'Poor Things': actor Mark Ruffalo hugs Emma Stone who doesn't look happy
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo star in 'Poor Things'Image: Atsushi Nishijima

Stone's performance is fearless, jaw-droppingly good, and packed with lines that will soon be quoted everywhere. (A personal favorite: "I just have to go punch that baby"). Put your money down now on Stone for best actress at next year's Oscars.

Cult director Korine goes for a 'vibe' without plot

Don't bet on Harmony Korine's "Aggro Dr1ft" taking home much in the coming awards season. His new movie, if the term even really applies to this experimental work — shot entirely with infrared cameras, creating a flat, trippy, video-game aesthetic — is less interested in reinventing cinema than obliterating it.

A still from 'Aggro Dr1ft': a shooter in a thermal lens aesthetic
'Aggro Dr1ft' was shot entirely in thermal lensImage: EDGLRD/Iconoclast

Korine, whose anti-movie movies "Gummo," "Trash Humpers" and "Spring Breakers" have earned him cult status among midnight screening fanatics, has done away with things like plot, character or even performance. His actors speak in flat monotones, repeating the same cliched phrases — "I am the world's greatest assassin," "I'm here for my money" — and moving like badly animated characters in the cut scene of a first-person shooter, circa 2001. All played to a thumping soundtrack composed by EDM producing legend AraabMuzik.

Korine says he's less interested in "plot" than "vibe" and hoped his film would push cinema towards a new art form, one that fuses film, music and gaming. "Aggro Dr1ft" ain't that. But it is an experience. One those of us lucky to encounter it in Venice this year will not soon forget.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier