Venice Film Festival 2019 – Bad Guys Steal The Show

Villains from Roman Polanski to the Joker dominated the 76th Venice Film Festival

Polanski wasn’t even there. Had he shown up, the 86-year-old film maker and fugitive rapist might have been extradited to the US, which would have been the biggest drama of all.

Polanski was certainly on trial in absentia at Venice, and the storm had been brewing ever since the festival director Alberto Barbera put his film J’Accuse in competition for this year’s Golden Lion. Many in the #MeToo climate of course say Polanski shouldn’t be allowed to make films and certainly shouldn’t be feted by festivals or awards bodies – remember, he was booted out of the Academy last year, a decision over which he is now suing them. 

The supreme irony is that J’Accuse (An Officer and a Spy) is about the Dreyfus Affair, the infamous 1895 case that had France split in uproar, of a Jewish army officer wrongly accused and imprisoned on Devil’s Island for passing information to the Germans. And, it turns out, it’s a pretty good film, too, a prestige production, impeccably performed by excellent French actors, in French, mounted in immaculate period detail and utterly gripping in its measured pace and tone.

If anyone is going to succeed with a film about antisemitic persecution and accusation, it’s Holocaust-survivor, Polish exile and Hollywood pariah Polanski, whose films, from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Frantic, are powered by paranoia.

Jean Dujardin and Alfred Dreyfus in J’Accuse

The main focus of J’Accuse is not Alfred Dreyfus himself, although the wronged soldier is well-played and represented with noble dignity by actor Louis Garrell. Nor is it about writer Emile Zola, who has often been seen as the key figure in the Affair – probably thanks to Paul Muni in the Oscar-winning 1937 Hollywood film, The Life of Emile Zola – although the author does make a brief appearance and, of course, the publication of his titular polemical article forms a key sequence that unfolds brilliantly.

But this film is really about a figure new to me in the story, a Colonel Georges Picquart, played with charisma and depth by Jean Dujardin, the French star better-known for comedy and who won an Oscar for silent film The Artist in 2012. (He does, however, have a passing resemblance to Inspector Clouseau here, and once you get that idea into your head, the film risks total collapse, so I won’t mention it…)

Picquart begins re-investigating the Dreyfus case, despite orders from above to leave it alone. Despite his lack of affection for both Jews and for Dreyfus, once a student under him at military academy, Picquart’s meticulous professionalism drives him to seek justice.

Polanski plots a detached, procedural path through the complications of historical fact (no figure was invented, the film points out at the start), creating a tense political thriller, complete with early surveillance techniques and detective work (cameras, stake-outs, bugging). At times, it has the air of theatre or heritage TV,  but that allows Comedie Francaise performers of the calibre of Gregory Gadebois (superb as the bumbling yet dangerous Lieutenant Henry) and Herve Pierre (as the bumptious, deceitful General Gonse) to shine through the whiskery make-up, cigar smoke and military costuming.

How much all of this can be labelled as personal to the director is speculation but the story of a man trying to clear his name amid persecution and racism surely rings many bells, or alarms, depending on one’s position. Based on Robert Harris’ book of the Affair (the pair worked together on The Ghost Writer), J’Accuse is finely crafted and clear-eyed, with every mention of the word “Jew” stinging keenly.

Good – and indeed important – as the film is, it will not be enough to dampen the controversy around the man who made it, but in Colonel Picquart, Polanski gives us the champion he needs.

Which brings me to Joker, and the super villain for our explosive age.

“Funny, funny how? Like I amuse you, like I’m a clown?” goes one of Martin Scorsese’s famous lines from Goodfellas and there’s definitely a bit of Joe Pesci’s psychopathic Tommy DeVito in Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He’s undeniably impressive as Joker, full of manic, wiry energy and rubbery danger, a mix of Ace Ventura and Travis Bickle. But the film, I didn’t like.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

I should mention straight off that it doesn’t look like a superhero movie at all – even if it is unmistakably an origins story from the DC Batman universe – but more a gritty, urban decay thriller, riffing on (or ripping off) those earlier Scorsese texts, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. And Joaquin’s skin-and-bone physique certainly owes something to the famous physical transformations of Raging Bull. Set in a garbage and graffiti-strewn Gotham in the late 70s/early 80s, the Scorsese homage/pillage is completed by the presence of Robert De Niro himself as a late night TV host on whose show Joker’s failed stand-up comedian and fired clown somehow gets asked to appear. (It’s as if, in a twisted universe, Rupert Pupkin finally got the gig off Jerry Lewis..)

I found it a nasty, toxic piece of work though the Sala Grande where I saw the film exploded with wild applause at the end. We live in divided times, so maybe this is the blockbuster we deserve, and maybe this is what they’ve always said about Warner Bros crime pictures, from Little Caesar to Dirty Harry.

Yet for me it was an ordeal of unpleasantness, which gave Phoenix too much room to over-indulge his performance without deepening our understanding of a deeply troubled character. Arthur Fleck suffers from a mental condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. He lives with his reclusive mother, works as a clown, gets a taste for murder, becomes a symbol for anarchy and sparks riots against the rich, represented by Thomas Wayne.

But crucially, wit is missing from the film (why are stand-up comedians in movies never funny?). Knife-edge though Phoenix’s Arthur may be, tension is absent for long periods, until the finale explodes with an uncomfortably gleeful menace. I found the film confused and dangerous – morally, not technically – and Arthur will surely become a hero for many, as he does in the movie. I’m not sure director Todd Phillips can handle such incendiary, Manichean material, and such a wild performance. There’s brilliance here, as there is in many a bad guy, but this taxi is too out of control for its driver.

Phoenix certainly cements his position as the most out-there performer of his generation, and Adam Driver is fast becoming the leader of his. He’s superb in Marriage Story, and given that Venice has had a knack for generating early Oscar buzz in recent years – Birdman, Spotlight, Gravity, La La Land all debuted on the Lido – Noah Baumbach’s bittersweet divorce comedy, a Netflix production, came out strongest in this regard.

Marriage Story

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story

It features career-best performances from Scarlett Johansson and Driver. They play a couple – he’s Charlie, an avant-garde theatre director on the Brooklyn fringe, she’s Nicole, his lead actress and muse and a former Hollywood teen star – with a young son, Henry. Nicole decides to move back to LA to star in a TV pilot and realises her marriage has been suffocating her. She gets in a lawyer (a superb Laura Dern) and the process slowly wrecks them all, emotionally and financially. 

Channelling Bergman and Woody Allen (the number of Woody alumni is remarkable: apart from Scarlett herself, there’s Wallace Shawn, Alan Alda and Julie Hagerty), Baumbach brilliantly maintains a comic tone, even while the scenes ratchet up the rancour. Driver is just magnificent as Charlie, bringing all that unpredictable yet funny vulnerability that so wowed and worried us when he appeared as Lena Dunham’s lover in Girls – and he brilliantly delivers a Sondheim number from Company.

Curiously, Venice opened with Cannes-winning director Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s first film since his Shoplifters won the 2018 Palme d’Or and his first outside his native Japan. The Truth is set in Paris, and mostly in French, so might have seemed a nailed-on Cannes fit, especially as it stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, as a mother and daughter. 

Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke in The Truth

But it made an enjoyable if unspectacular opener here, a playful drama about a diva actress writing her memoirs and appearing in a sci-fi film while her script-writer daughter visits from New York, her own little daughter in tow, as well as her recovering alcoholic bit-part actor husband, played by Ethan Hawke. Amid the family recriminations and nearly-dramatic confessions, Deneuve dominates with a crackingly haughty performance, one you feel she contributed much to, including introducing the still-haunting presence of a lost relative referred to as Sarah. She must surely be based on Deneuve’s actor sister Francoise Dorleac, who died in a car crash in the 1960s. It’s no masterpiece, but Kore-Eda handles it with a lightly guiding, winsome skill.

Seberg

Kristen Stewart in Seberg

More French actress mythology came in Seberg as Kristen Stewart played Jean Seberg, the iconically gamine star of A Bout de Souffle and Bonjour Tristesse, an American who won the heart of New Wave Paris. But in this film, directed by Australian Benedict Andrews, Seberg returns to Los Angeles in 1968 and lends her support to the Black Panthers, alerting the FBI to her activities and leading them to mount a campaign to “neutralise” her. Vince Vaughn and Jack O’Connell play the agents who drive her to madness in an extraordinary story I admit I never knew. Stewart is extremely watchable and beautiful in a selection of Chanel outfits, even if she doesn’t quite get under the skin of Seberg’s complex story. It’s a very tasteful-looking film, always interesting if never quite explosive, revealing a shocking bit of Hollywood history that reclaims a powerful female narrative and voice for its star.

The paucity of female film makers in the line-up was the other big talking point of Venice – as it was last year, when there was only one female director. This year saw that double to two in the main competition, which felt wilfully rubbish of the selectors, as if they wanted to piss off half their audience. 

While many films  – such as The Truth, Seberg, Marriage Story – had female experience, voice and characters at their heart, the work of Saudi Arabia’s first-ever female director Haifaa Al Mansour was the most obviously significant of these, following up her 2012 Venice debut Wadja (about an 11-year-old girl wanting a bicycle) with another story of female determination, The Perfect Candidate.

The Perfect Candidate

Nora Al Awadh in The Perfect Candidate

It’s the story of a woman doctor who, campaigning to get the road to her clinic built, ends up running for local election. Even though she isn’t allowed to address male voters directly (I wasn’t sure from the film – can women even vote?), and can’t get permission to travel without authorisation from a male guardian, she battles through, taking on tradition and the law with passion and calm resolve. The film makes its points elegantly if bluntly – how else are you going to get through to these people? – and, although it is always fascinating, indeed. eye-opening as it literally lifts the veil on life in the rarely-filmed Kingdom, the very fact of its existence is probably what’s most remarkable about it. 

And that may be what wins it an award – meaning Venice, the world’s oldest film festival at 76, will end up on the right side of history after all.