At the Venice Film Festival, building sites are usually only found on screen, but this year visitors to the Lido, a 10-minute water-bus ride from the gorgeous St Mark's Square, were greeted with roadworks, renovations and views blighted by rubble. The surroundings only added to the feeling that has developed over the past few years that Venice is a festival in decline. The reason for most of the rubble is that a huge new cinema is under construction that will allow Venice, which shows around 80 works, to compete with the upstart Toronto International Film Festival, which begins today and shows more than 300.
On the first day, the sense of gloom grew with the news that the much talked about new cinema will not be ready next year, as planned, but in 2012, by which time the festival director Marco Mueller will have finished his tenure. The nice way of putting it is that Venice, which draws to a close on Saturday, concentrates on quality over quantity. Toronto will happily accommodate Hollywood studios by holding junkets and screening films that have already premiered at other festivals but which need a push to help their US release and box office. Venice wants to show only the best films. And to be fair, it started off with two films that are likely to be on most people's must-see list in the coming months.
Darren Aronofsky had a career resurrection the last time he came to Venice, when his film The Wrestler went a long way towards wiping from memory the lamentable The Fountain. Black Swan, his offering this year, has much in common with The Wrestler. Both feature people facing challenges in their careers, although Black Swan is about someone at the start rather than the end of her professional life. It's a character study about a young ballerina (Natalie Portman) who is given her first lead role in a New York production of Swan Lake.
When life starts imitating art, Aronofsky makes clever use of doppelgängers and also incorporates horror visions in a manner reminiscent of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Portman is already being talked about as an awards contender. Self-doubt and youth-in-crisis are also the themes of Tran Anh Hung's adaptation of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. The story centres on how a teenage boy and girl cope with the death of their best friend. It's rare to see a film where young people are so open with their emotions, and this tenderness is matched by exquisite shots of fields, woods and snow. The drawback comes when the film tries to follow the structure of the novel a little too closely, and an extended epilogue sequence doesn't quite match the earlier action.
In an unusual step, Venice opened the festival with three movies this year, the third being Robert Rodriguez's extravaganza Machete. It's a movie inspired by the fake trailer that he made to appear in the middle of Grindhouse, the double feature he co-wrote, produced and directed with Quentin Tarantino. As could be expected from a homage to B-movies, it's heavy on action and low on plot. Needless to say, it delivers, although it's inclusion in the festival does seem like a sop to Tarantino, who served as head of the jury this year.
A big theme this year is the cost of celebrity. Sofia Coppola has touched upon this issue before in Lost in Translation, but it becomes the main theme of her lush new film Somewhere. It stars Stephen Dorff as top Hollywood star Johnny Marco. He seems to have everything, including a great career, adoring fans and money to burn. But the price is a broken marriage and a fractured relationship with his 11-year-old daughter, played with stunning maturity by Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota.
Coppola eschews fast cuts, holding the camera for as long as possible on each scene as Marco confirms that fame is no antidote to a banal and empty life. (Journalists at the festival took particular delight in watching Coppola's accurate portrayal of a press conference). One of the most anticipated titles of the festival was also about celebrity. This was I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck's documentary on the extraordinary decision taken by Joaquin Phoenix to turn his back on acting to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist. Affleck is married to Joaquin's sister Summer, so it's no surprise that he gets such brilliant access, but the depiction of Phoenix is far from flattering. He's a man in the middle of an artistic crisis and acts out in ways more typically seen on MTV's Jackass.
The big question on everyone's lips was whether the film is a hoax or not. Affleck tries his hardest not to let the cat out of the bag, and the film plays as if it were a documentary rather than a mockumentary. Phoenix is beguiling, and watching him implode over the course of the year raises interesting questions about celebrities and the public's complicity in allowing them to go off the rails. The general consensus is that it's a brilliant hoax - and it's a view that I'd have to go along with, although in my heart I wish it was all real. It makes for a better story that way.
Phoenix, who has been sporting an impressive beard, appeared in Venice unusually clean-shaven. The same could not be said of Vincent Gallo in Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing. The Polish director has cast the American actor to play an anti-American fighter in Afghanistan who is captured by the invading American army. Shackled and seemingly readied for Guantanamo, he escapes from a CIA plane over Poland and starts to go all Rambo. It has some memorable moments, but the lack of dialogue and explanation often makes the story impenetrable.
There was a double dose of Gallo at Venice, as his latest directorial effort, Promises Written in Water, played in the main competition. It was 75 minutes long, apparently Gallo's lucky number. That's mercifully short - Gallo has made an abstract film about relationships in which he hogs the camera. The themes of isolation, vulnerability and lost love are intriguing, and the black-and-white photography is beautiful, but this still manages to make his 2003 film, The Brown Bunny, seem like a comparative masterpiece.
The big Middle Eastern film of the festival was Julian Schnabel's Miral, an adaptation of Rula Jebreal's book about life as a Palestinian growing up in Israel. It's bravely shot with Schnabel trying to encapsulate 50 years of conflict history without turning the fiction into a history lesson. Also set in the Middle East is Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad's play Incendies, about the voyage of the twins Nawal and Jeanne to the Middle East to learn about their roots.
Martin Scorsese showed his 60-minute documentary A Letter to Elia, which he co-directed with Kent Jones. It features Scorsese talking directly to camera about the influence that the film director Elia Kazan had on his work and life. It's truly touching and poignant, and proves Scorsese is determined to ensure Kazan is not a man who is remembered only for naming supposed communists during the 1950s McCarthy trials.
Less enjoyable were Tsui Hark's extravagant action-adventure Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame, Kelly Reichardt's western Meek's Cutoff, and Ben Affleck's second film The Town. Like his debut film, Gone Baby Gone, The Town is set in Boston, yet this crime drama never quite makes good on it's early promise and peters out to a James-Cagney-style ending. Yet the misfires are easily outnumbered by interesting fare.
Venice has set a strong marker for Toronto, which begins today and which will this year feature more than 100 world premieres. As the festival wore on, there was a genuine feeling that Venice probably had its best selection of movies in a number of years. There is life in the old dog yet. If the Canadian film festival can match Venice for quality, it's surely going to be the most exciting place in the world for cinephiles to be for the next 10 days.