September 16, 2021
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR’S PARALLEL MOTHERS was the official opening night film of the 78th Venice International Film Festival, but through a twist of scheduling, mine was the less-trumpeted Atlantide. The new feature from gallery artist and filmmaker Yuri Ancarani was a playful overture, a coming-of-age portrait of teenagers and their fast boats on the lagoons and waterways of another Venice not mobbed by tourists. Reframing the games of status and speed from Ancarani’s luxe mirage The Challenge (with an assist from some re-creation), Atlantide has everything: drag racing, hot pursuit by police, boat sex, thumping trap music, adolescent tedium, fire at sea, a crab smoking a joint. “I am nobody’s slave. I want to be respected,” intones Daniele, the film’s morose central figure, who has something to prove and a girlfriend who’s obsessed. “Just like everyone,” she quips, before going back to losing her mind over him. What more could you ask for? Ancarani provides it with a camera-tilted tracking finale that turns Venice into a kaleidoscopic wormhole.
Immediately buried by the first flood of big titles, Atlantide offers a symbolic alternative to the way the festival on the Lido is sadly represented to many observers: through the ballyhoo of brand-builders on social media and critics who should know better. This year, Warner Brothers’ Dune attracted some of the worst offenders, and—presto!—a handsomely mounted, diverting throwback adventure became a cinematic miracle on par with the coming of sound (or the 2001 monolith). In this light, the competition jury led by Bong Joon Ho made a statement by bestowing the Golden Lion on a French abortion drama—Audrey Diwan’s Happening—that almost aggressively asserts the plainness of its early-’60s university milieu, following a string of winners from American studios (Nomadland, The Shape of Water). Yet it was another French period drama, the Balzac adaptation Lost Illusions, that performed the sharpest vivisection on our era’s cynical and depressing convergence of attention economies and mass art. In Xavier Giannoli’s bodice-busting tale of a provincial aspirant turned Paris publishing hack, an early nineteenth-century literary tabloid industry thrives on elements that might have twenty-first-century equivalents: manufactured controversy, favor-seeking reviews, and cult-of-personality power brokers. There are also priceless digs at critical clichés worthy of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. Admire a book’s staid style? Call it classical. Knocking the same style? Call it academic.
No euphemisms were needed for The Power of the Dog and Parallel Mothers, which presented plenty to crow about. Jane Campion’s sun-parched psychosexual struggle saw Benedict Cumberbatch in American Western drag—and imitating Lee Marvin’s brash baritone—as Phil Burbank, a rancher locked in a mortal combat of nerves with his brother’s wife (Kirsten Dunst), who seems to shrink before our eyes. In Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar framed a swift and sure melodrama of happenstance with a moving reflection on historical legacies, all grounded in Penélope Cruz’s generosity of spirit and effortless mastery of quicksilver shifts between love, vulnerability, and anger. That part of the hype was dead-on: Memorable female characters and performances ruled this year’s edition. Each time I turn about Pablo Larraín’s Spencer in my mind, I find another angle on its seemingly straightforward illustration of Princess Diana in captivity. Agitating under the constraints of the estate and the family that calls it home (for the holidays), Kristen Stewart’s royal might as well be in a haunted house: Everyone keeps feeding her warnings to watch what she says, and she’s looking for the exits. “It’s as if everything’s already happened,” she says of the clockwork Christmas traditions, tossing off a perfect formulation of entrenched power and the conservative imagination. As with Yorgos Lanthimos before him with The Favourite, the paths of 2000s-era filmmakers of extremity never cease to entertain (and illuminate).
One film on privilege that you might not have heard about from Venice is Michel Franco’s Sundown, starring Tim Roth as a wealthy vacationer who’s had it. He, his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and two teenagers are on an island getaway—until a funeral calls her away abruptly, and a desire to disappear possesses him completely. If the righteous knife-sharpening for last year’s New Order gave Franco any pause at all, there’s no sign in this indefatigable essay on oblivion and abandonment, which makes no bones about the frictionless lifestyles of the rich and wastes no energy on crafting glamorous ennui for our delectation. Surreal hallucinations place the film somewhere in Buñuel’s long lineage, but without the mercies of antic release. Ruthless too is the pulse-pounding secret-police thriller Captain Volkonogov Escaped, from Russian directors Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov. Set during one peak of political paranoia in 1938, the muscular and strange film runs after the Captain as he flees his state masters and seeks forgiveness from the relatives of innocent victims of execution orders. Laced with bracingly dark humor and suspense, the film eats away at any possibility of hope amid the doublespeak and murder-farm moral void of the Communist regime, without sacrificing its nimble pictorial sense.
Venice holds a place in its heart for genre and pulp—standouts being Ana Lily Amirpour’s New Orleans mind-control yarn Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon and Edgar Wright’s remix of the doppelgänger ghost story Last Night in Soho, though the no-frills Tim Blake Nelson shootout western Old Henry had its supporters too. On a totally different front, Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral—shown in the Biennale College section of films receiving a festival grant—exploded the suburban family drama with a raw, deftly acted, deep–New York portrait of a Long Island father whose ornery pride creates a miserable legacy for his son, observed from the 1980s into the new millennium (punctuated by regular-def-video archival clips). Finally, I’d be remiss not to underline the surehanded parable of modern moral compromise that is The Box, from past Golden Lion winner Lorenzo Vigas: A quick-witted boy collecting his father’s remains instead latches onto a stranger and receives an unsentimental education in management, labor, and murderous thuggery. Is this what the future holds? The strong Venice selection doesn’t pretend to speak with one voice, but these films aren’t pretending it’s all sunshine and sand.
— Nicolas Rapold
The Venice Film Festival ran September 1 to September 11.