The Venetian Cocktail

in 68th Venice Film Festival

by Gautaman Bhaskaran

One important reason as to why this year’s festival quality petered out could have been long-time Festival Director Marco Mueller’s near obsessive desire to go for an all-out premiere show. The 65 movies in the official sections were being screened for the first time ever. If I am right, they were not even shown in the countries where they were made. This was certainly one important criterion for competing entries.

Also, a good many of them were in the English language, often from Hollywood. Not that they were bad, but I felt that they were not really A-list festival material. What was William Friedkin’s Killer Joe — about an American cop who moonlights as a professional killer — doing in the main competition, vying for the Golden Lion with about 20-odd other films? Similarly, why was Ami Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields — about serial murders of young women — also competing? I also felt that movies such as The Last Man on Earth (Gianni Pacinotti, Italy), The Exchange (Hahithalfut, Eran Kolirin, Germany), Faust (Alexander Sokurov, Russia), Life Without Principle (Dyut meng gam, Johnnie To, Hong Kong) and a few others were disappointing to say the least.

Every time I saw such a film, I was left wondering why an Indian movie could not have been selected in competition. A festival selector tells me that of the 150 or so Indian films that were seen by Venice, none except Gurvinder Singh’s Alms For A Blind Horse and Amit Dutta’s Golden Bird could qualify. They were rejected on some ground or the other. One of the reasons could have been the eligibility criteria: a work could not have been shown anywhere, including perhaps the country of origin. A few titles that could have made it to Venice strike me: Indian movies that were better than the bad ones I mentioned above. Here they are: Ishqiya (Hindi), Aaranya Kaandam, Angadi Theru (both Tamil), Traffic (Malayalam) and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s latest creation in Bengali.

Somewhere along the way, Cannes and Venice have deep-rooted prejudices about Indian cinema, strengthened perhaps early on by India-based selectors, who were either Bollywood besotted or who played publicists to their favourite stars, directors and production houses. Last year, a high-ranking Cannes administrator told me that he was quite annoyed at the way some bad quality Indian cinema was being pushed on to him!

As for films in the Venice program that pleased me and many other critics, George Clooney’s political thriller The Ides of March may not have been exactly opening night movie material, but it was intelligent, high on production values and acted out superbly. The Clooney-Grant Heslov written work (based on Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North”) was gripping. What made The Ides of March a pure delight to watch was its story line of political sex and some great acting by Clooney as U.S. Democratic Presidential Candidate Mike Morris, and Ryan Gosling as the campaign mastermind Stephen Meyers.

When Morris, a liberal and honest politician, is caught having sex with a beautiful and smart intern, Evan Rachel Wood’s Molly Stearns (who gets pregnant and needs to have an abortion), a political storm — much like what happened when Clinton was caught — seems to gather. The scandal threatens to ruin Morris’ career, particularly after he fires Meyers. But the young man could be the only guy who could save Morris. As Meyers tells Morris in a line that clinches the film, one can start a costly war or bankrupt the country, but one cannot afford to have an affair with an intern. Clinton found that out, though he escaped. But Morris was not too sure that he could be as lucky.

Roman Polanski’s Carnage gripped me with its magnificent ensemble cast of Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Water for the Elephants), Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly (We Need to Talk about Kevin) and terrific script played out in real time. Polanski, who still cannot travel to the U.S. because of a sex abuse case hanging over him, cockily sets his movie in New York. The opening shot, a long one, shows us two boys in a fight that ends up with one of them hurting the other. Their parents Penelope (Foster) and Michael Longstreet (Reilly) as well as Nancy (Winslet) and Alan Cowen (Waltz) meet a little later in a New York apartment to discuss and put aside the incident, which is really nothing more than a boys’ squabble.

Adapted from Yasmina Reza’s immensely popular play ‘The God of Carnage’, which was staged to full houses in New York, London and Paris, the film co-written by Polanski was as engaging as it is provoking, though the final part appeared a bit of a drag. Although it is an out-and-out chamber piece set in a classy New York apartment and resembles a theatrical production, it is nonetheless a fine piece of cinema that is bound to attract Academy voters in the coming Oscar season.

Wonderful characterizations, with Alan as a prudish upper crust lawyer who is forever on his mobile phone and Penelope as an uptight art lover and author, propel Carnage into quite another realm. A seemingly calm Nancy (an investment broker by profession, who is always guilty of having neglected her children) soon loses control of herself as the conversation among the four slip from the pretentiously civil into biting sarcasm. She not just vomits, but also on Penelope’s precious collection of art books, setting off reels of drama.

Even this histrionic turn-of-events does not stop at what now has got into a bitter argument about child care and cruelty to birds. More coffee follows and the visiting couple (Alan and Nancy) somehow never seem to drag themselves out of Longstreet’s flat. When coffee is replaced by alcohol, tongues can no longer be reined in, and anger pours out not only against the ‘guilty’ child, but also against each other. The wives accuse the husbands, the husbands the wives — and viciousness creeps in. Carnage, though, ends with disarming simplicity, showing adults what fools they really are.


The French once copied the Italians to establish a movie festival on the Riviera in the late 1930s, but what now ironically looks like a reversal of sorts, the Venice International Film Festival appears to borrow from Cannes.

Chinese director, Lou Ye — who in 2006 was banned from making movies for five years after he had screened his bold (set against the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest) and sexually provocative (with full frontal nudity), Summer Palace at Cannes — got (or smuggled) his Love and Bruises into Venice this year. Shot mostly in Paris with a content even more sexual than in Summer Palace, Love and Bruises is a love story between a Chinese immigrant girl and a French worker, though Lou calls it “a symbol for political and social issues”.

If Beijing must have been peeved over this Venetian impertinence, China could not have been any less angry with the inclusion, also in the Festival, of Cai Shangjun’s People Mountain, People Sea. A surprise film (added to the competition program midway through the festival), a practice that Festival Director Marco Mueller started in 2006, the Shangjun also had the okay from Beijing, which is known to strictly controls the kind of cinema that is made and, more importantly, exhibited to the world.

Undoubtedly, China would not have wanted an international audience and media to see People Mountain, People Sea for it contains grim scenes of China’s tough labor conditions in its coal mines. Cai Shangjun won the Silver Lion for Best Direction, a case of rubbing salt on the wound. However, the story about a man, who, disillusioned with the police force, chases his brother’s murderer, and in the end masquerades as a miner to try and destroy the killer working in the collieries, is not anything out of the ordinary.

There was, though, some great cinema at Venice, setting off against some bad fare.

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method on psychiatry and psychoanalysis came to me, an Indian, as a blessed relief. Imagine an Indian movie on the subject with its spooky mansion, ghostly figures in white walking in the middle of the night with ankle bells making weird noises and a psychiatrist jumping around trying to better a circus trapeze artist. Bhool Bhulaiyaa is a good, recent example with Akshay Kumar playing psychiatrist to Vidya Balan’s mental illness.

In contrast, A Dangerous Method is a sober work with a disarmingly authentic feel and look. Set in the early years of the 20th Century in Zurich and Vienna (hotbeds of sexual revolution then), Cronenberg’s (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and Crash) work borrows significant segments from the lives of Sigmund Freud, psychiatrist Carl Jung and their beautiful patient, Sabina Spielrein. Not only does she mess up the great relationship between these two brilliant pioneers of psychoanalysis, but also, paradoxically, helps them enrich their theories, even discover some facets and add on to what they already know.

The film opens histrionically with a madly raving Spielrein (Keira Knightley) inside a horse-carriage that is rushing her to Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) hospital in Zurich. There, Jung tries out his mentor, Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) psychoanalysis or “talking cure” on her, and in the months to follow, she not only recovers from her mental illness (probably hysteria brought about by her father’s abuse of her in her childhood), but also shows the promise of herself becoming a great psychiatrist. She does indeed become one, a renowned one at that.

A-married-with-kids Jung finds himself drawn to Spielrein, and he breaks the doctor-patient code by having a sexual affair with her — further ruining his already strained relationship with Freud. The two men by then had begun to differ in their approaches to treatment: while Freud believed that every mental disorder could be traced to sexual problems, Jung went beyond these to look at mysticism as well.

Fassbinder is just brilliant as the doctor, just as inspiring as when he threw away the white coat and stripped himself to the skin in Steve McQueen’s Shame that got him the Coppa Volpi for Best Actor. As noted film critic Derek Malcolm wrote, “One of the best reasons for seeing Hunger, McQueen’s debut feature, was the performance of Fassbinder as Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands…Fassbender is also a good reason to watch Shame….”

In Shame, Fassbender essays a 30-plus businessman in New York addicted to sex. His life apart from work (what that is is never clear) is but a string of sexual encounters that ranges from one-night stands to whoring. When either is not available, he masturbates at home, in the office.

Fassbender, unbelievably different here from his performance in A Dangerous Method, is Brandon, a guiltless sex addict who is forced to apply the brakes on his runaway libido when his sister, Sissy (portrayed with easy charm and charisma by Carey Mulligan) arrives at his flat and makes herself at home. She is suicidal, and yet somehow manages to bring about a semblance of sanity to Brandon, who perhaps for the first time begins to feel some kind of emotional bonding in his life.

Shame is bold, uncompromisingly so, and McQueen dares to show the sex scenes without hesitation, but the only reason that the movie leaves us uncomfortably in the dark is why Brandon finds himself on such an obsessive path. Also, we do not quite know exactly what the relationship between Sissy and Brandon was before she appears in his apartment. There is a hint of shame here, though.

Steven Soderbergh — whose debut feature at 26, Sex, Lies and Videotape, won him the 1989 Palm d’Or at Cannes and which provoked a near stampede at the International Film Festival of India in Kolkata later — brought Contagion to Venice. Like some of his movies, Contagion is dramatic in its subject. It plots an outbreak of a deadly virus in today’s times, something similar to the 1918 Spanish flu that reportedly killed close to 100 million people in about two years.

Through an impressive bevy of stars, the film narrates how Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, a high flying businesswoman, picks up the bug in Hong Kong and spreads it during her journey back home to the U.S. Her screen husband, Matt Damon, is immune though, but half his family dies. With Jude Law as a journalist, Kate Winslet as a WHO doctor (sent to Hong Kong to try and trace the origin of the infection) and Marion Cotillard and, Laurence Fishburne in various other roles, Contagion is racy and is likely to make us nervous every time we hear someone cough or sneeze. However, emotional connection between audience and cast may be difficult, given the number of characters and the rather short screen time each has.

Finally, I saw an adaptation of one of the greatest English classics, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, written between 1845 and 1846, though published only in 1847. It was only after the literary success of Emily’s sister, Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ in 1847 that ‘Wuthering Heights’ went into print.

Set on the British Yorkshire Moor in a manor called Wuthering Heights, the story narrates the almost obsessive love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, an orphan brought up by her parents. Their unrequited passion ultimately destroys them and many around them, reducing to ashes the impressive Gothic mansion itself.

It is this Wuthering Heights (the novel later lauded as an even better work than ‘Jane Eyre’) that British director Andrea Arnold has visualized into a movie. Arnold, who made gritty cinema such as Red Road and Fish Tank, has made a movie that is quite dark, hardly verbal and captivatingly rustic. And she has made Heathcliff a black (played by James Howson) in a daring departure from the book.

Using first-time actors and a handheld camera (oh, but what a distraction this is), Arnold focusses on Heathcliff’s traumatic boyhood in the impoverished home of Catherine, her parents and brother. The boy (Solomon Glave) is physically and mentally abused and treated no better than a slave. It is only Catherine who loves him, but is helpless to stop the inhuman treatment. This actually leads to Heathcliff’s almost desperate love for Catherine (essayed by Shannon Beer as the young version, and Kaya Scodelario as the older one).

Though wonderfully shot in natural light in Yorkshire by Robbie Ryan, the movie fails to create the mesmeric richness and tragic poignancy of the written classic. Somewhere, I felt unsatisfied.