Venice Film Festival 2023: Directors, not stars, take centre stage

The writers and actors' union's strike has put a dampener on celebrity presence, but not the quality of films

Venice Film Festival jury members from left: Laura Poitras, Martin McDonagh, Santiago Mitre, jury president Damien Chazelle, Shu Qi, Jane Campion, Gabriele Mainetti, Saleh Bakri and Mia Hansen-Love. AP
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As the boats start arriving for this year’s Venice Film Festival, it’ll be intriguing to see who is on them.

Three years ago, this Italian festival impressively battled through the Covid-19 pandemic, staging a socially-distanced gathering when all other major cinematic events were cancelled or moved online. Now, there’s another issue: the continuing WGA and Sag-AFTRA strikes.

As the American writers and the actors’ unions continue to grapple with the studios and streaming platforms over myriad issues, the star quota at this 80th staging of the festival will be drastically reduced.

For a festival like Venice, which has upped its game in the past decade by attracting eventual Oscar winners like Gravity, Birdman and Spotlight to premiere here, that’s a serious downer.

For the past two years, Timothee Chalamet has caused near hysteria here when he stepped out on the red carpet for, respectively, Dune and Bones and All. Likewise, the arrival of British star Harry Styles for 2022’s Olivia Wilde-directed thriller Don’t Worry Darling was another meltdown moment for the huge crowds of young fans that had gathered outside the Sala Grande.

This year, then, will be a very different affair.

“Hopefully, the films will speak for themselves,” one publicist tells The National, speaking anonymously.

It’s a noble sentiment. After all, only the opening film – Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, which features Chalamet’s Dune co-star Zendaya – was pulled from the line-up as studio backers Warner Bros decided to move the film into 2024. The replacement, the Italian Second World War drama Comandante, which premières tonight, may not quicken the pulses of stargazers in quite the same way.

Still, it’s clear where sympathies lie. La La Land’s Damien Chazelle arrived at the jury press conference today wearing a T-shirt that read: “Writers Guild On Strike”.

Others on the jury, including director Martin McDonagh, wore the same shirt to support those on the picket lines. The message was clear: financially remunerate artists properly for their art.

“It’s a difficult time in Hollywood, especially for working writers, actors, but also crew,” said Chazelle. “A lot of people who otherwise would love to be here during this festival are not able to be here.”

That is the case for Bradley Cooper, whose much-anticipated new movie Maestro plays in competition. Five years ago, Venice was the launch pad for his remake of A Star Is Born, in which he co-starred with Lady Gaga. Despite the feverish buzz around this biopic of composer Leonard Bernstein, he has ruled out appearing at Venice this time.

As the film’s director, he’d be permitted to make an appearance, but in solidarity with his fellow striking actors – he plays Bernstein, after all – he’s decided to stay away. “He was very sorry not to participate,” said the festival’s artistic director, Alberto Barbera.

Challengers aside, Barbera’s selection has remained intact and includes several heavyweight filmmakers in the main competition. Among them is Sofia Coppola, who won the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion for Somewhere in 2010. She returns with Priscilla, a look at the life of Elvis Presley’s paramour, starring Cailee Spaeny.

David Fincher is also back in Venice, some 24 years after he brought Fight Club here, with The Killer. A hitman drama starring Michael Fassbender, who returns to screens for the first time in more than four years.

Michael Mann, who was last in Venice with 2004’s Collateral, is also back with his first movie in eight years, Ferrari – the story of Enzo Ferrari, the Italian motor racing giant, starring Adam Driver in the title role. Driver is one of the few American stars who will be attending the festival, with SAG agreeing a waiver for Ferrari due to it being an independent production.

Likewise, Luc Besson’s highly-touted competition entry Dogman has been given special dispensation, which means star Caleb Landry Jones, who won Best Actor at Cannes in 2021, is set to walk the red carpet.

Veteran filmmakers will also feature. The festival will say goodbye to William Friedkin, who recently passed away aged 87. The director of The French Connection and The Exorcist has a final film in his locker, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a reworking of the 1953 play by Herman Wouk, which will screen posthumously.

Woody Allen will also present his 50th film, Coup de Chance, with this Parisian-set thriller likely to be the director's final film, aged 87. As he told actor Alec Baldwin last year on Instagram Live, “a lot of the thrill is gone”, with movies only getting a brief release in movie houses before shifting to streaming and pay-per-view.

Similarly, Roman Polanski, 90, returns with his comedy The Palace. Barbera recently referred to him as “one of the last great masters of European cinema”, as he defended the inclusion of him, Allen and Besson, all of whom have been dogged by various personal controversies.

Will this be the last time these filmmakers are seen at the festival? Is it a changing of the guard? Perhaps so, but with the actors and writers on strike, it does feel like this Venice will be the festival where the directors take centre stage.

The Venice Film Festival runs until September 9

Updated: August 30, 2023, 2:03 PM