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She’s still got it: The old lady of Venice meets Netflix

The big presence at the Venice Film Festival's 90th birthday party was the streaming giant

Photographer Nan Goldin in documentary All the Beauty and Bloodshed. Photo: Neon

Venice is the oldest film festival in the world, now celebrating 90 years since Mussolini realised he could use the power of cinema as part of his fascist propaganda. It now extends the summer season for visitors to Venice Lido, while also kicking off awards season for Hollywood studios.

To be honest, the festival is now showing its age. The famous location of Visconti’s Death in Venice, the Hotel des Bains, continues to crumble quietly, its garden foliage encroaching all around. It was once the social hub of the film festival and every year there’s a rumour the hotel will be revived by the Russians or the Chinese, or a luxury group.

Every year I pass by in hope, only to feel a ghostly chill as I walk the fenced-off perimeter and tut about the cracking of the stone facade. It is the very epitome of faded grandeur.

The delegates at Venice are old, too. I remember joking with Javier Bardem once as we huffed along the Croisette that Cannes was no country for old men. But Venice is far less hectic and the residents of the leafy Lido – with
all due respect – must be one of the oldest groupings of citizens in Europe.

If Cannes requires sweat, elbows and pushiness, Venice requires patience and time, because you’ll get stuck in a painfully slow queue (having got off a
ridiculously slow boat) and have to wait while some teeteringly ancient festival accreditees struggle to get their phones to download the new digital tickets.

These aren’t merely first-world gripes. The future and the past loom large here, dominant subjects on screen and off, with existential panels convened on “The Future of the Film Festival” and the publication of a weighty tome (seriously, it’s 1,180 pages!) covering 1932-2022, written by the venerable Italian critic and lecturer Gian Piero Brunetta.

“We have to admit the golden age of cinema is gone,” he sighs when I meet
with him under the giant Murano glass chandeliers that dangle from the Casino ceilings. I ask him whether he thinks people like us will be meeting
here 90 years from now to watch and talk about cinema.

“The building was constructed in six months by Mussolini and it is still magnificent, so I think it will be here. I cannot promise people will be watching films the same way as the last 90 years,” Bruentta says. “Yet I am
still optimistic: cinema is really about the imagination and how it reflects the
politics and morality of the world. It will evolve in a form that continues, always, to do that.”

There are new feature films here from gnarled old hands such as Walter Hill (80), Abel Ferrara (71), Fred Wiseman (92), Paul Schrader (76) and lots of new docs about old movies, on Midnight Cowboy, Richard Harris, Godard, Sergio Leone and Franco Zeffirelli.

Interestingly though, the biggest presence here is the big newcomer, Netflix. They’re all over this festival, as if sensing opportunities. Still held at arm’s length by Cannes, the new-ish streamer is gobbling up the glamour and respectability offered by the Old Lady of Venice.

And then the screaming starts as Timothée Chalamet steps off a boat. Thousands of teenagers run to the water’s edge and throng the red carpet to get a glimpse of him. Yes, ah yes, the movies need movie stars, and Chalamet is clearly the leading one of this new generation, but will he be the last? Tik Tok and YouTubers are much bigger stars surely, at least in terms of followers or subscribers, but for now Chalamet is art cinema’s poster boy, a
great, skinny white hope.

Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All (Photo: Neon)

Thankfully, too, the film Chalamet stars in here is very good, the latest from Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash). It’s called Bones And All, oddly billed as a “cannibal romance”, which turns out to be just about the right description when you see it. Set in the late 1980s across rural America, it’s got elements of Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde and
Twilight, as two flesh-eating lovers go on the run in golden hour light.

The breakout star of the movie is really Taylor Russell, who shines as the young woman, Maren, coming to terms with her cannibalistic addiction and who finds herself drawn to drifter and fellow eater Lee (Chalamet). The more menacing Sully (Mark Rylance, as colourful as you would expect) is also on Maren’s scent, quite literally.

It’s a strange film, which could easily become ludicrous at times, but it never really plays out that way and for a Guadagnino movie, it’s actually quite restrained, even in its moments of gore. While you could stretch it metaphorically to be about any outsiders: artists, homosexuals, the gender fluid, addicts and so on, or it could be about consumerism or the all-consuming passion of love (a committed cannibal eats the bones and all), it works very nicely as a tender love story and, due to Russell’s soulful performance, you feel all the emotions even as they chomp down on their victims. I would give the movie two thumbs up if I didn’t fear they’d be gnawed off.

There was more consumerist 1980s US metaphor in the festival opener White Noise, adapted from the 1985 Don Delillo novel by the director Noah Baumbach, who is working on a much bigger scale (Netflix budget ahoy) here than his usual neurotic urban comedies, such as The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha or Marriage Story. Starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, who are both frequent collaborators, the film follows a family who are forced to flee a toxic cloud.

Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise (Photo: Netflix)

I found it an uneasy, on-the-nose mix of stilted dialogue, mannered acting, glib directorial references and pandemic-era parallels but, let’s be fair, not without some strong moments, including a rather spectacular mass dance number in a supermarket that occupies the entire end credits (if you get that far…)

Netflix has also allowed Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu to indulge
in a three-hour artistic epic called Bardo (extending his penchant for
films beginning with B, from Babel to Biutiful and Birdman), about a well-respected journalist and filmmaker returning to Mexico after years in Los
Angeles and being thrown into crisis by accepting an award.

Though many people found it insufferable, I thought it was pretty amazing, with some superb set pieces and long-take camerawork by the genius Darius Khondji and a brilliant, mezcal-fuelled central performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho.

Personal and political at every turn, there are clear links with fellow Mexican Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which debuted here for Netflix in 2018 and, obviously, Fellini springs to mind with this sort of carnivalesque satire, in this carnivalesque city.

Everyone’s doing breathtaking shots these days. France’s Romain Gavras, funded again by Netflix, concocted a dazzling opening sequence to his explosive film Athena, set in a Paris banlieue where, after a police beating
leaves a teenager dead, the citizens riot (on the Athena housing estate), which leads to full-on urban warfare.

Gavras, though, is too flashy for his own film’s good. That opener is so tremendous you want to stand up and applaud it, but you don’t want a whole
film like that. It’s like watching a YouTube compilation of spectacular, top-corner free-kicks.

The technical bravura eventually overwhelms our emotional connection
with three Muslim brothers at the centre of the riot and any political points about the volatile social powder keg of today’s Paris. The film is co-written by Ladj Ly, whose 2019 film Les Misérables it clearly resembles, with nods, as ever, to La Haine.

The movies come thick and fast. There’s Oscar talk around Cate Blanchett for her barnstorming portrayal of a conductor in Todd Field’s film TÁR, and she’ll take some shifting now that she’s claimed this early front-runner slot.

I really liked Other People’s Children by Rebecca Zlotowski, a deeply personal and subtle, everyday, unfussy and moving film about family. Virginie Efira (who’s in everything these days except her clothes) falls in love with a man (Roschdy Zem, charming) and also his five-year-old daughter. It’s just a very astute movie about love and belonging and rejection.

Penélope Cruz was back, defending the Best Actress trophy that she won last year for Parallel Mothers. Cruz is great to watch as always in the Italian film L’Immensita, set in Rome in the late 70s, playing a glamorous, depressive housewife living in a new-build flat in the suburbs whose eldest daughter wants to be a boy. Directed by Emanuele Crialese, there are some fine moments – and sports cars and carpets – but for a film that is about interiors, emotional and decorative, it never quite bursts out.

The real discovery for me was a tiny-budget British film called Blue Jean, which heralded two sparkling new talents in director Georgia Oakley and
star Rosy McEwen.

Set in the North East in the late 1980s, it’s about Jean, a PE teacher who is
struggling with her lesbian identity while Thatcher’s government introduces Section 28, a law forbidding the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and local authorities.

I can’t believe there hasn’t been a film about this horrid period in LGBTQ history before, certainly not one that finds such a powerful way in to explore its quietly devastating impact on so many lives. Oakley’s direction is smart, brisk, heartfelt and classic; McEwen is simply magnificent as Jean.

I’m struggling to remember such an impressive British debut, but I found
myself thinking back to Samantha Morton in Under the Skin.

So, a star is born and we debate and discuss, learn and cry. After all that, the
movies do what they always have done.

Here’s to 90 more years, then.

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