As another speedboat pulls up to Venice’s famous Excelsior Hotel, a gaggle of photographers shout loudly and the flashbulbs pop. Crowds gather on the bridge above, craning their necks to see which A-lister will step onto the dock next.
Behind them, posters hang for some of the huge films set to play over the next two weeks at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Among them are a beaming Harry Styles and Florence Pugh, fronting Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. All three are scheduled to arrive on the Lido next week, with hysteria in hot pursuit.
Further along the road is the Sala Grande, where the red carpet premieres take place. The wall that was erected these past two years, a Covid safety measure to prevent fans gathering en masse, has been torn down. The message is clear: Venice's festival is back in business.
This 79th edition is one of the starriest in living memory, opening on Wednesday with Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, an adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel of the same name, which will see Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle take centre stage.
Venice, which remained one of the only major festivals to carry on during the pandemic, has largely established itself as the curtain raiser for the Oscar race. This year, all eyes will be on Ana de Armas, playing tragic Hollywood siren Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde.
However, it has not lost its reputation as a serious festival for auteurs. Directors like Luca Guadagnino (Bones and All), Darren Aronofsky (The Whale) and Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin) will all compete for the coveted Golden Lion.
“Venice is a festival for cineastes,” British director Sally Potter tells The National. “The audiences are passionate about films and seem to care less about commercial success than about risk and daring in subject matter and form. And the city itself has a dreamlike quality — buildings riding out of streets of water. It’s a magical place to premiere a film.”
In the past, Potter brought her Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando (1992), the semi-autobiographical The Tango Lesson (1997) and historical drama The Man Who Cried (2002) to the festival to huge acclaim.
This time, she will unveil her short film Look at Me, starring Javier Bardem and Chris Rock — sure to get a great deal of attention following the latter’s altercation with Will Smith at the Oscars.
“It’s the first time I have shown a short film there so it’s a new experience for me,” she says. “The changing ways in which people now absorb the moving image, including on phones and laptops, means that length and duration have different meanings that they once did.
"A great festival like Venice means the life of each film starts as an event on a big screen before it begins its unpredictable life in the world.”
Potter is quite right: this year, the festival continues to push cinematic boundaries, exploring groundbreaking technology with Venice Immersive, a selection of digital installations and virtual-reality projects, taking place on Lazzaretto Vecchio, an island close to the Lido.
Among the projects on display will be Framerate: Pulse of the Earth. Directed by Mathew Shaw and William Trossell, of the London-based ScanLab, this poetic installation is derived from 3D scans of British landscapes, revealing a country in flux.
The significance of Venice is not lost on younger stars either. “I mean, I've watched press interviews just for fun, of people at Venice, because of the legacy of what this represents,” says American actress Quintessa Swindell, 25, who will make her Venice debut in Paul Schrader’s out of competition title Master Gardener, alongside Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton.
“It’s the oldest film festival in the world," she says, adding how she is delighted to be part of its history.
Schrader is also present to collect a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement — it’s something the screenwriter of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, who was here last year with The Card Counter, richly deserves. Now, however, it is the turn of French star Catherine Deneuve, who also collected a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement — some 55 years after her career-making role in Luis Bunuel’s Belle du Jour helped the film win the Golden Lion.
Deneuve, 78, arrived wearing a bright blue blouse adorned with a sticker bearing the Ukrainian flag, in support of the country torn apart by war. Name-checking key directors she has worked with over the decades, including Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy and Andre Techine, she spoke about the longevity of her extraordinary career.
“There is a lot of luck, good encounters, good decisions, sometimes bad — or wrong,” she says. “After so many years, you hope it’s been right most of the time.”
As for coming to Italy, she adds: “I’m very proud to be invited this year to the festival of Venice, which has always been important for me.”
It’s a feeling many will clearly share as the festivities begin.
Venice International Film Festival runs until September 10.