Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things, 2023, color, sound, 141 minutes. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) and Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).
THE EIGHTIETH EDITION of the Venice Film Festival was stacked, strong, and, gratifyingly, a place where ambitious work was rewarded rather than the few white elephants. With awards chatter (somewhat) muted as the SAG-AFTRA strikes kept actors away, there was no choice but to pay attention to the films. The jury, a formidable group led by Damien Chazelle, awarded the Golden Lion to Poor Things—Yorgos Lanthimos’s gloriously ribald, eye-boggling voyage of discovery that, in its first minutes, would seem a long shot for the top prize. There was a bizarro-world aspect to the unanimous acclaim for Lanthimos’s pseudo-Victorian feminist fable, in which housebound Bella Baxter (a virtuosic, completely free Emma Stone) barely musters baby talk and toddler walks until she embarks on a series of sexual, geographical, and epistemological adventures, accruing wisdom to match her ferocious personal mettle. A Frankenstein creation, Bella has been raised on empiricism by cracked scientist Godwin (Willem Dafoe), but God’s lawyer (Mark Ruffalo, channeling Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) tempts her away on a dirty trip to Portugal which leads to a cruise alongside urbane passengers Hanna Schygulla and Jerrod Carmichael, and to a Paris brothel. Flush with fish-eye camerawork and tweaked sunset palettes, the film features hallucinogenically sumptuous top-notch production design, tossed-off sci-fi curiosities, and a terrifically witty screenplay by Tony McNamara (The Favourite), adapting Alasdair Gray’s cult novel. Pushing past his tendency toward weird debasement and anticlimax, Lanthimos has given us a rambunctious heroine who bodies forth an innate human capacity for goodness.
Bertrand Bonello, The Beast, 2023, color, sound, 146 minutes. Louis (George MacKay) and Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux).
Things look less rosy in another warped period piece, Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast. And what a beauty of a beast it was: Bonello explodes a Henry James novella to imagine a relationship across three disparate eras—1910 high-society Paris; present-day Los Angeles; and a desolate, AI-driven 2040s, when people undergo a medical process of purging the traumas from their past lives (a process not entirely explained, which is fine). Léa Seydoux does the equivalent of an acting decathlon as a doll factory owner’s wife, a housesitting actress, and an unemployed woman seeking AI treatment but fearful of muffling her emotions (like some DNA-based antidepressant); George MacKay plays her suitor in one era, then, in contemporary times, an incel shooter modeled on Elliot Rodger. This is an essay in dread, but also a doomed romance par excellence, a picture of sexual menace, a cinematic seance, a dark comedy of modernity, a Hollywood satire almost in passing, and a spectral vision of our AI future (of the sort that can feel rote and ready-made in other movies). The film’s sprawl overwhelmed some at Venice, but Bonello’s unpredictable structure feels entirely justified, leaving one with a sense of a filmmaker limning the edges of the contemporary as if a successor to Olivier Assayas.
Both Poor Things and The Beast show filmmakers rising to the challenge of our increasingly vertiginous times, as does Green Border. Shining a light on the ugly treatment of refugees crossing into Poland—treated as “weapons” launched by Belarus’s dictator—indefatigable director Agnieszka Holland follows a Syrian family on the treacherous journey as well as activists and border control soldiers. Filmed in black-and-white with nuanced mobile camerawork (not to be confused with “documentary-style” shaky-cam), its churning narrative is unsparing about vicious abuse by Polish and Belarussian authorities. Holland’s intelligently rendered film about an ever-urgent crisis rattled the right people, eliciting condemnation from her country’s conservative justice minister.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Evil Does Not Exist, 2023, color, sound, 106 minutes. Hana (Ryô Nishikawa).
Evil Does Not Exist, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s entrancing follow-up to the wildly successful Drive My Car, addresses a different kind of clash. A Japanese village faces the indignity of a future glamping development that may pollute their water. At a presentation by two flaks for the company, the community calmly dismantles the plan, but the pair make a return visit to change hearts and minds. Grounded in local rhythms rather than political battle lines, Hamaguchi’s film moves at its own mysterious pace, expressing the immanence of the natural surroundings with the help of Eiko Ishibashi’s wondrous score, which creates its own kind of core structure to the film. (One might partly attribute the integral role of the music to the film’s genesis: Ishibashi had asked Hamaguchi to create natural footage for a concert, and he developed the project into a dramatic feature.) Another idiosyncratic work with a clockwork rhythm all its own was Wes Anderson’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Blithely continuing to experiment with form despite the haters, Anderson’s delightful short tells the tale of a self-trained British mind reader as an intricately staged piece of box-in-a-box theater, with all-star performers (Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes) acting as precise narrators, sets shifting and rolling into place around them.
Harmony Korine, Aggro Dr1ft, 2023, color, sound, 80 minutes.
In an unnerving coincidence, Venice boasted several films featuring hired killers (leading Dave Kehr to quip: “the sign of a healthy culture”). David Fincher’s gripping The Killer stars Michael Fassbender as a nerdily rigorous assassin in a stripped-down scenario of mopping up after a job gone wrong, while Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft, touted as post-cinema (though not quite that), deployed defamiliarizing thermal imaging, ominous AraabMuzik soundscapes, and video-game flow to conjure dazzling Miami psychedelica from an assassin’s musings and murders. And last but not least—there was even a Liam Neeson thriller—Richard Linklater’s Hit Man was an out-and-out joy, with Glen Williams breaking through as a teacher-turned-fake-killer for police stings, vibing beautifully with Adria Arjona. It yielded my most cherished kind of festival moment, as my audience erupted in delighted applause after an exquisitely played comic set piece.
Venice did have the customary share of biopics and historical dramas, which tried in different ways to buck conventions. Most successful was Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s coolly feminist recounting of the underage protagonist’s relationship with the King, plotting out her dissatisfaction (especially in the bedroom), his controlling aggression, and her crawling out from under all of it to become herself. Bradley Cooper’s serviceable Leonard Bernstein film, Maestro, centered on the composer’s sexuality in a more repressive era, trying gambits like holding its most dramatic conversation in a tense wide shot. Ferrari was Michael Mann in solid-to-stolid mode, tracking the race-car impresario/manufacturer (Adam Driver stalking about) as he pursues automotive excellence and juggles his wife/business partner (an electrifying Penélope Cruz) and his mistress (Shailene Woodley); it features a spectacularly brutal crash that illustrates the death that haunts Ferrari’s triumphs. On the broader historical front, Ava DuVernay’s expansive, late-screening Origin attempted the perhaps impossible task of adapting Isabel Wilkerson’s vast comparative study Caste, inserting the author as a character and deploying swaths of the text read in voiceover. And Pablo Larraín’s El Conde matched an irresistible hook—Pinochet as vampire—to a scabrously funny but impenetrable narrative. Special mention goes to Daaaaaali!, an increasingly absurd mise-en-abyme yarn about the Surrealist legend submitting (or not) to a documentary film crew—a mix of Buñuel and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker that confirms Quentin Dupieux as absurdist comedian and secretly poignant essayist of the human condition.
Sofia Coppola, Priscilla, 2023, color, sound, 113 minutes. Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi).
The less said of creaky efforts by Roman Polanski (The Palace, a hotel farce about as funny as stepping into dog excrement) and Woody Allen (Coup de chance, an easy-listening French-language version of his bourgeois crime fantasies), the better. More deserving among our veteran directors represented at the fest are Stephanie Rothman, whose joyfully sassy, class-conscious film The Working Girls screened in Venice Classics, and Frederick Wiseman with Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, about an upscale family-led restaurant in France, the director’s home away from home. Beyond going BTS on an institution at once ephemeral (meals are made and eaten) and enduring (culinary cultures are nurtured and developed over centuries), Wiseman’s latest shows how his work teaches us above all how to look and listen.
The fact that there’s still another fleet of worthy titles demonstrates the breadth of Venice’s programming, which excels even on the tricky post-Cannes, top-of-autumn front lines, and without the benefit of being a festival-of-festivals. Speed round: The Ross Brothers do a teenage American road trip in Gasoline Rainbow, an assembled fiction using nonprofessionals that’s full of fellow feeling (and an insistent soundtrack); doc highlight Hollywood Gate from Ibrahim Nash’at snuck into post-withdrawal Afghanistan for an incredibly risky exposé of Taliban rule; Olmo Schnabel’s debut, Pet Shop Days, infused a Safdies-esque helter-skelter NYC spree with queer desire; and more chaotic attraction coursed through Michel Franco’s haunting Memory and in Goran Stolevski’s raucous blended-household saga, Housekeeping for Beginners. Like its leading lights, Poor Things and The Beast, this year’s festival slate yielded a rich journey through human experience.
The 80th Venice Film Festival took place from August 30 to September 9.