Even when you’re at one of the most prestigious and venerated film festivals in the world, there’s no guarantee that you won’t see a bad movie. And yet as my time at the Mostra Internazionale D’arte Cinematografica, La Biennale di Venizia—the Venice Film Festival to you—draws to a close, it’s looking like I did very well with respect to this proposition. In my next and final diary installment, I’ll talk about the six Biennale College films, all of which are distinctive, and which I’ll be talking about with esteemed critical colleagues Chris Vognar and Stephanie Zacharek this afternoon, after I file this dispatch. While some of the pictures I saw were mixed bags (and there’s a couple I’m going to keep my powder dry on, because I suspect I may be reviewing them in full when they hit the States), all of them had outstanding features to offer.
The aggressively inventive Ana Lily Amirpour was at Venice in 2016 with “The Bad Batch,” and while it won a Special Jury Prize it also ... what’s the word? Polarized critics. I loved it myself but many felt its exceptionally feral depiction of a future dystopia was a little too balls-to-the-wall, and problematic to boot. It made very little of a splash on it U.S. release, failing to impact the zeitgeist to the extent that Disney named one of its “Star Wars” streaming series “The Bad Batch” and nobody said “boo.”
It may seem perverse to describe a motion picture that opens with a young woman in a straitjacket psychically compelling a mental hospital worker to stab herself multiple times with a nail cutter as reflecting the softer side of its director, but honest, the New-Orleans-set-and-shot “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” evolves into a fractured and at times ultraviolent kind of fairy tale. Jeon Jong-seo, of “Burning” fame, plays the title girl with the power. Once she escapes the asylum, that power affects the lives of a dutiful cop (Craig Robinson)—who moments before his fateful meeting with Mona gets a fortune cookie with the message “Forget What You Know”—a tough single mom/stripper (Kate Hudson), and her sensitive son Charlie (Evan Whitten). Oh, and a goofy drug dealer named Fuzz (Ed Skrein, whose performance initially struck me as a little too Vanilla Ice but who ended up growing on me—he was a fave rave with the festival press audience too).
Amirpour drinks in the lurid neon of Bourbon Street and the depths of that title blood moon with what feels like an unquenchable thirst. The story of the outcast and the wise child going up against the world is not a new one—like I said, the movie is a fairy tale—but Amirpour’s rendition of it is bracing, funny, and genuinely warm. This sincere attempt at audience outreach ought to do the trick when the film sees release.
I saw two French pictures here. If the country doesn’t seem to deliver a whole lot of cutting-edge work on the festival circuit these days, French cinema perpetually does well with certain conventional modes. “Illusions perdues,” directed by Xavier Giannolli from Balzac’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. The perennial tale of the young provincial who seeks artistic and romantic fulfillment in the big city and finds corruption, betrayal and heartache, it stars Benjamin Voisin (who’s got a bit of a heart-throbbier Tom Hulce vibe to him) as Lucian, a dreamy poet in love with a noblewoman. After they steal away to Paris together, his intoxication begins. The movie is rife with detailed observations on the growing scandal sheets of the inchoate newspaper business of the time, and its evocations of “fake news” feel like social commentary for today. But what Balzac chronicled was real enough in its time, so one can believe that GIanolli’s treatment of the source material is saying there’s nothing new under the sun.
As Lucian learns the ways of criticism that’s always bought and sold, he and his mentor (the ever-great Vincent Lacoste) have a discussion of how one may just as easily write a bad review as a good one. If something’s funny, call it frivolous. If something’s controlled, call is schematic. These observations are either sharp or supercilious, depending, I guess. And the movie overall is lively. Lucian’s fall (that’s not a spoiler; the narrator calls his story a tragedy pretty early on) isn’t quite as compelling as his rise, but as long as we’ve got character bits from Gerard Depardieu and Jeanne Balibar in our sights, the movie maintains interest. I was surprised to see Xavier Dolan in the film, doing good work as a literary rival to Lucian. He could do well as an actor, I think.
In conversation, my aforementioned colleague and friend Chris Vognar told me “Promises,” directed by Thomas Kruithof and starring Isabelle Huppert, was rather like a season, or episode, of “The Wire.” That’s apt—the story shows how well-intentioned people in power can be steered to near destruction by personal ambition while also giving, in specific scenes, detailed looks at how political sausage is made. Huppert plays Clemence, the two-time mayor of a Paris suburb, whose big housing restoration project my go down in flames before she steps down and lets a loyal protégé run for her office. She schemes with brilliant aide Yazid (Reda Kateb, who’s utterly great), wheedles with discontented tenants, and investigates who’s behind the refugee squats that are infesting the buildings. Eventually she decides she’s gonna run for that third term after all, which sets the hair of her party leader, her now former protégé, and Yazid on fire. In different ways. Expertly conceived and executed, and rather pertinent to French concerns especially in the light of Macron’s new plans for Marseilles, it deserves a shot across the pond—that is, from where I’m writing, the U.S. Although whether we will now even be able to absorb the idea of shovel-ready in the current political atmosphere is open to question.