Venice film festival 2016: out of the White House, into the Vatican…

Natalie Portman shines as a grieving Jackie K, Jude Law makes a slick pontiff and Terrence Malick scrutinises the universe again in a festival littered with big names

Every major film festival is essentially an island – or at least its own self-enclosed microclimate – and the fact that the Lido literally is an island can sometimes make the Venice film festival seem entirely cut off from the outside world.

This year, however, Venice felt like an integral part of the flow of the bigger universe. One reason was because its opening-night festivities were cancelled in solidarity with those affected by the recent Italian earthquake. Another reason is because you felt that more of its selections were likely to matter to the outside world than in some recent editions.

This year, the first few days were ruthlessly front-stacked with big-name films. This meant that by the time I arrived during the first weekend, I had already missed Damien Chazelle’s opening musical, La La Land, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Denis Villeneuve’s alien contact epic, Arrival – the latter two starring Amy Adams, all of them widely admired.

Scheduling nobbled Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge for me, but this second world war drama seems to have done wonders in rehabilitating Gibson’s reputation. There was plenty more to feast on. One outstanding title was Jackie, inventively directed by the brilliant Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín. Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy as she copes with the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Noah Oppenheim’s script presents her story through that time-honoured device of a press interview (Billy Crudup is very good as the journalist), with Jackie talking us through the events in Dallas, her famous 1962 TV tour of the White House, and the shock of simultaneously losing a husband and her first lady status. The moment at which Lyndon Johnson is inaugurated, suddenly leaving Jackie an isolated figure on the sidelines, is magnificently poignant. Portman has never quite seemed a heavyweight player before now – I wasn’t convinced by her in her other Venice feature, eccentric French period piece Planetarium – but in Jackie she gives an authoritatively nuanced performance. The next awards season seems hers for the asking.

Jude Law is a ‘sulphurously charismatic’ pontiff in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope.
Jude Law is a ‘sulphurously charismatic’ pontiff in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito/SKY

Other auteur names included Paolo Sorrentino, returning to the Roman follies of The Great Beauty with an eccentric peek under the skirts of the Vatican in The Young Pope, his TV series for Sky. The first two episodes were shown here, and they don’t yet convince that the show will be addictive, but Jude Law is sulphurously charismatic as a smoothie pontiff. The usual Sorrentino visual tricks are here – sweeping glides through marbled corridors, nuns playing football in slo-mo – but they feel heavier than in his best work. And the English-language dialogue – theological, political or just plain off-the-wall – is indigestibly prolix.

Equally indigestible was Voyage of Time, Terrence Malick’s latest extended gasp at the wonders of the universe. This religiose, abstract epic could be described as a prayer in images, and it will bring out the atheist in many a hardened critic. It feels like a bundle of trimmings from his Tree of Life – a rapturous assemblage of volcanoes, ice floes, creatures of the deep, the odd CGI dinosaur and an extended sequence showing the life of primitive man, like a slightly less hirsute sequel to the opening of Kubrick’s 2001. Along the way, Cate Blanchett recites – nay, intones – a poetic hymn to a universal “Mother” (“Oh Life… Hear my voice…”). There’s barely an image here that isn’t magnificent – but put them all together and the result is cosmic kitsch.

Intergalactic weirdness of a wilder kind came from the Mexican director Amat Escalante, whose name often promises festival controversy (Cannes-goers still speak with shudders of his ultra-violent Heli, known to some as “the Mexican flaming penis movie”). The Untamed is the most unrepentantly outré film here, about a working-class family whose lives are drastically affected by meeting a young woman and her nightmare lover – a tentacular alien being that embodies the pleasure principle at its intensest. Both distressing and compelling in its mix of HP Lovecraft ickiness and everyday realism, The Untamed got some unlooked-for laughs from a nervous preview audience. But it’s a crazily audacious film – and no one who’s seen it will touch calamari again in a hurry.

While The Untamed is surely destined for cult reputation, a film that probably isn’t – not least because it insists on practically flashing the words “INSTANT CULT CLASSIC” at you in scarlet neon throughout – is The Bad Batch. This wearisome piece of post-apocalypse hipsterism is Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to her superb vampire debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – but she’s disappointingly turned out a derivative, unpleasantly brutal desert-set fantasy about a young woman (scowlingly blank Suki Waterhouse) getting even after a nasty encounter with some body-building cannibals. Jim Carrey is unrecognisable as a silent, bearded hermit, while connoisseurs of dud Keanu Reeves performances will enjoy him in vintage leaden form as a Hefner-esque tyrant in a Burt Reynolds moustache.

Timothy Spall, who plays a ‘wheezy, lofty’ Ian Paisley in The Journey, on the red carpet in Venice last week.
Timothy Spall, who plays a ‘wheezy, lofty’ Ian Paisley in The Journey, on the red carpet in Venice last week. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Closer to the mainstream, there was The Journey, Nick Hamm’s imagining of a car trip shared by lifelong opponents Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness before the 2006 Northern Ireland peace talks. It’s a stagey, somewhat contrived piece, but the acting is a treat, and there are relishable comic touches in Colin Bateman’s screenplay. Timothy Spall is a wheezy, lofty Paisley, Colm Meaney is impish as McGuinness, and Toby Stephens and John Hurt excel watching from the sidelines as Tony Blair and an MI5 grandee respectively

There were two great documentary portraits. Andrew Dominik’s One More Time With Feeling charts the making of the new Nick Cave album, Skeleton Tree. But it also shows the singer and his wife Susie Bick dealing with the recent loss of their teenage son, Arthur. It’s an intimate, sometimes uncomfortable but never intrusive film, and Dominik – shooting in black-and-white 3D – sensitively matches the private life and the life of Cave’s incantatory new songs.

Actor and writer Julia Roy with director Benoît Jacquot in Venice for the screening of A jamais.
Actor and writer Julia Roy with director Benoît Jacquot in Venice for the screening of A jamais. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Differently revealing is David Lynch: The Art Life, in which the director engagingly sheds his aura as Weirdest Auteur in America to show himself as an enthusiastic, self-aware creator of paintings, sculptures and, well, things, and talks us through his pre-Eraserhead early years as an art student, bohemian and teenage rebel. You could never have imagined ever learning this much about Lynch the man, and fans will love him all the more for it.

As for people making a mark in front of the camera, this has been a good year for new female talent. Two French names to watch: one is Julia Roy, who stars in and scripts Benoît Jacquot’s À jamais, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novella The Body Artist. It’s uncanny, if a little arch, but, stealing the show from Mathieu Amalric and an eerie old house, Roy makes the show her own.

One to watch… Judith Chemla, star of A Woman’s Life.
One to watch… Judith Chemla, star of A Woman’s Life. Photograph: Startraks Photo/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Also from France, Judith Chemla is the lead in Stéphane Brizé’s A Woman’s Life, a fine adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant novel; Chemla shines as a hopeful ingenue, glowers movingly as a mature woman who loses her illusions one by one. Expect her to be a very visible art-house figure in years to come – along with Paula Beer, German star of Frantz, a very elegant black-and-white melodrama from hyper-prolific François Ozon. Set in Germany after the first world war, it’s about a young woman’s encounter with a Frenchman who knew her fiance, killed in combat. Throughout, Beer’s quiet intensity is mesmerising.


Jonathan Romney

The GuardianTramp

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