However stressful Venice can get – the sweat, the coffee queues, the ticketing system – it’s hard to feel disgruntled here for long. For a start, Venice has the world’s jolliest festival trailer, a gorgeously coloured animation of King Kong, acrobats and flying cowboys, all set to jangling ukulele. It puts you in a joyous mood at the start of every film, although it might not last when you’re confronted by something as brutally bleak as Andrew Dominik’s Blonde. Absolutely the hot ticket in the Venice competition, this is the much-awaited biopic of Marilyn Monroe, as imagined in the novel by Joyce Carol Oates.
Or, rather, it’s the story of “Marilyn Monroe”, the alter ego of a young woman named Norma Jeane: an artificial creation that the young star comes to despise, but also becomes addicted to, as she navigates a succession of traumas, starting with her childhood subjection to the volatility of her disturbed mother (Julianne Nicholson). Haunted by the phantom of a never-known father, Norma Jeane looks for “Daddy” in the men she marries – Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) – but only finds happiness of a sort in a sexually intense triangle with the narcissistic sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson.
The film is candid but not scabrous, despite scenes such as a horrifically unromantic liaison with JFK. With its sexual violence, graphic abortion scenes and general tone of nightmare, Netflix will no doubt have to slap on all the trigger warnings it can think of, and Blonde will surely attract much criticism for stressing the abuse and the victimhood – indeed, the martyrdom – at the expense of Monroe’s singularity as a screen talent. There’s also some ill-advised, not to say kitsch, foetus imagery that plays very uncomfortably in the year that Roe v Wade was overturned.
But there’s no denying that Blonde is furiously cinematic. Using a patchwork of visual styles, it showcases an extraordinary performance by Ana de Armas, evoking all the frustration, vulnerability and radiance we associate with Monroe – and when it most seems like an uncanny impersonation, it’s because she’s playing Monroe as a woman impersonating herself. This is the sort of controversial event movie every festival dreams of, and while it’s too soon to call, Blonde must rank high among the most provocative Hollywood biopics.
An outright joy in competition was The Banshees of Inisherin, by Martin McDonagh. I say joy cautiously, because this 1920s-set black comedy starts in brisk, breezy, faux top-o’-the-morning vein, mocking every rural Irish cliche you can think of, with McDonagh’s characteristic dialogue playing like JM Synge with added zing. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play two island-dwelling drinking buddies who fall out – to droll effect at first. But then the humour turns macabre and the political parallels loom as dark as the clouds over the mainland.
There was a distinct flavour of theatricality in the air in Venice this year, what with The Sonand The Whale. The former was Florian Zeller’s involving but staid drama with Hugh Jackman as the dad of a troubled teenage boy: nicely performed, but not nearly as inventive as Zeller’s The Father. Then there was The Whale, an oddly sober piece from the usually extravagant Darren Aronofsky – an unapologetically chamber-bound adaptation of Samuel D Hunter’s play, with Brendan Fraser as a morbidly obese man confronting his past. It’s solemn, contrived and finally sentimental, but what a cast – a very affecting and barely recognisable prosthetically bulked-up Fraser, with Samantha Morton, Hong Chau and, in fiery form as Fraser’s angry, hurt daughter, Sadie Sink from Stranger Things.
We also had two variations on that stage staple, the courtroom drama. Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985is an account of the trial of military officers of the dictatorship-era junta: conventional stuff, with a barnstorming performance by Ricardo Darín. Surprisingly witty despite the grimness, it feels like the best real-life TV movie you’ve ever seen. But in a league of its own, and one of the most uncompromising films here, was the austere Saint Omer, the debut fiction by documentarist Alice Diop. Co-written by Goncourt-winning novelist Marie NDiaye, it’s about a writer, Rama, played by artist Kayije Kagame, who attends the trial of a young African woman, Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), accused of killing her child. There are no frills: for much of the film Rama listens, Laurence speaks, in pitiless long takes. But as the trial proceeds, the differences and parallels between the two women gradually emerge through a steely contemplation of race, gender, will and justice. If Julianne Moore’s jury gave it Venice’s top prize the Golden Lion, this would be a very hardcore choice – and a deserving one.
Every festival needs its duds, but not every dud is worth getting het up about. The silliest buzz on the Lido this year was about who spat at whom, or didn’t, at the premiere of Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. It matters little: this derivative exercise in smash-the-patriarchy sci-fi was a gorgeously mounted, barely coherent mess: Harry Styles was insipid, Wilde’s direction lavishly overblown, but Florence Pugh emerged with credit, dismantling her Stepford-style crypto-Barbie protagonist with wit and brio.
A more substantially regrettable misfire, however, came from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican auteur behind Amores Perros and The Revenant. Ominously titled Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, it’s a bloated, self-important testimony about exile, Mexican history and the burden of genius, with Daniel Giménez Cacho maintaining dignity against the odds as a documentarist reliving his life as a hallucinatory succession of de luxe production numbers. One hates to call it derivative, but while film-makers don’t usually sue from beyond the grave, rumours are that Federico Fellini’s lawyers have been busy at the Ouija board.
Other eminent names have been on form. Britain’s Joanna Hogg followed her Souvenir diptych with The Eternal Daughter, in which Tilda Swinton doubles up as a woman and her elderly mother visiting an eerie country hotel. The merest sliver of a wisp of a breath of a film, it resembles an MR James ghost story of which every other page has been carefully removed, and it’s quietly transfixing. In a very different vein, Paul Schrader returned with Master Gardener, the story of a horticulturist (Joel Edgerton) with a secret and his patrician employer (Sigourney Weaver). Made with absolute pared-down control, it uncannily resembled Schrader’s last film, The Card Counter, only with nasturtiums, but that’s sort of the point: a vintage bloom from this unpredictable veteran.
It was a great year for documentaries: Ukrainian maestro Sergei Loznitsa’s The Kiev Trial was an uncompromising archive account of the USSR’s 1946 equivalent of the Nuremberg hearings; Mark Cousins offered The March on Rome, a typically elegant and thoughtful contemplation of Mussolini’s rise and its horribly durable legacy; then there was All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a competition entry from Laura Poitras. It’s a portrait of US photographer Nan Goldin, covering the outsider social scene she documented, as well as her more recent career as an activist campaigning against pharmaceutical dynasty the Sacklers. It’s a film every bit as candid as Goldin’s own work, the account of an art life that has defiantly been the bohemian real deal.
Best of the fest
Fiction: Saint Omer (Alice Diop); The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh); Tár (Todd Field); Bones and All (Luca Guadagnino). Documentary: The Kiev Trial (Sergei Loznitsa); All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras). Best documentary about the movies: Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy (Nancy Buirski), about the making of John Schlesinger’s 1969 classic and its legacy in American cinema.
Human: Cate Blanchett in Tár; Ana de Armas in Blonde; Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanda in Saint Omer; Taylor Russell and an altogether chilling Mark Rylance in Bones and All; Brendan Fraser and the whole ensemble cast of The Whale. Animal: Jenny the donkey, dispensing calm and compassion to a careworn Colin Farrell (also terrific, of course) in The Banshees of Inisherin.
Best genre film
Dead for a Dollar, a no-frills, meat-and-potatoes western from the veteran maestro Walter Hill (The Driver, 48 Hrs). The sepia-soaked tale of a bounty hunter, a gambler and a woman on the run down in Mexico, it stars Christoph Waltz, Rachel (Mrs Maisel) Brosnahan and Willem Dafoe flashing his best Burt Lancaster grin – plus a great whiplash duel in the dust.
Best new discovery
The Maiden by Canadian director Graham Foy, which starts out as a laid-back slacker study but takes a left turn to somewhere eerily dreamlike. Also notable, Luxembourg, Luxembourg, a gentle, goofy but caustic comedy about identical twins hitting the road, by Ukrainian director-to-watch Antonio Lukich.