Venice Film Festival round-up: From Yorgos Lanthimos standout Poor Things to Michael Mann’s operatic Ferrari

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in ‘Poor Things’ (Atsushi Nishijima)
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in ‘Poor Things’ (Atsushi Nishijima)

The mood at this year’s 80th Venice Film Festival was sometimes very fractious. There were topless protesters outside the premiere of the new Woody Allen movie. The festival was branded “horrendous, dirty and nasty” for showing Allen’s film alongside those of Roman Polanski and Luc Besson. After all, these are all filmmakers who had been accused of predatory sexual behaviour in the past. (The allegations against Allen and Besson have never been substantiated, and Polanski, after pleading guilty in 1977 to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, denied an accusation of rape made in 2019.)

The festival began on a very damp and downbeat note. There was torrential rain. The Lido, the thin little island strip on which it takes place, was deserted and drenched. The usual swarms of sunbathing tourists were nowhere to be seen. Hollywood A-list stars were also conspicuous by their absence.

However, once some decent films began to show, spirits quickly lifted. There were even some raucous parties, for instance, the late-night shindig hosted by a drinks brand on the grounds of the once luxurious but now semi-derelict Hotel Des Bains – a building that looks more and more every year like the abandoned mansion Xanadu in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. The Des Bains was where Thomas Mann was inspired to write his novel Death in Venice – but it was taken over at the weekend by young Venetians determined to have as wild a time as possible.

Challengers, the Luca Guadagnino tennis-based drama starring Zendaya that had originally been announced as the opening film, had been pulled by MGM/Amazon because of the Sag-Aftra strike. Instead, the festival began with Commandante, an Italian Second World War movie that received a lukewarm reception. It stars Pierfrancesco Favino (one of the few local stars considered bankable in Italy) as Salvatore Todaro, a rugged submarine commander in Mussolini’s navy Like many submarine movies, this is a sweaty, claustrophobic affair. It wasn’t helped by its sentimentality or its chauvinistic nationalism.

Dispirited festival goers were given a much-needed boost of adrenalin on the second day of the festival by Michael Mann’s high-octane Ferrari. Vying for the top award, the Golden Lion, this is a motor racing drama done in a grand operatic style. Adam Driver plays car designer Enzo Ferrari at a pivotal moment in his life in the late 1950s. His company is teetering close to bankruptcy and desperately needs outside investment. Ferrari has to decide whether his priority is to win races or sell cars to the public. He’s still grief-stricken over the death of his son. Penelope Cruz is in full Greek tragedy mode as his Clytemnestra-like wife and business partner Laura. Enzo is cheating on her with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley).

Driver was mocked by some critics for his wavering Italian accent and dour demeanour, but he gives a fine and subtle performance as a complex, buttoned-up man who prefers cars to people. Mann orchestrates the road race sequences and the lethal crashes in masterly style.

The Venice jury, which included such notable filmmakers as Damian Chazelle, Jane Campion, Mia Hansen-Løve and Laura Poitras, faced a daunting challenge. The competition they were judging included everything from Hollywood biopics (Bradley Cooper’s beautifully made Maestro about composer Leonard Bernstein) to action dramas (Ferrari); from highbrow thrillers (young German director Timo Kröger’s widely admired The Theory of Everything) to hitman dramas (Michael Fassbender as the professional assassin in David Fincher’s The Killer).

It was no surprise that Yorgos Lanthimos’s bravura new drama, Poor Things, adapted from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, won the Golden Lion. This film startled festivalgoers both with its formal daring and its surprisingly explicit sex scenes.

The Venice jury could hardly ignore its outrageous originality but Emma Stone’s astonishing performance as its Candide-like heroine Bella Baxter was overlooked for Best Actress. A decision taken presumably on the grounds that each movie can only get one main prize – but it still seemed like a rank injustice.

Best Actress went instead to Cailee Spaeny for her sensitive, affecting portrayal of Elvis Presley’s neglected young wife in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla.

Adam Driver in Michael Mann’s ‘Ferrari’ (Venice Film Festival/Neon)
Adam Driver in Michael Mann’s ‘Ferrari’ (Venice Film Festival/Neon)

Matteo Garrone won the Silver Lion for Me Captain, a drama about migrants from West Africa on an epic journey to reach Europe. The film’s non-professional young lead Seydou Sarr won Best Young Actor. Meanwhile, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi picked up a Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize for Evil Does Not Exist.

Peter Sarsgaard picked up the Best Actor award for his role as the widower kindling a romance with Jessica Chastain’s receiving alcoholic in Michel Franco’s Memory (which screened very late in the festival).

Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland won the Special Jury award for her heartfelt drama Green Border, which looks at the plight of refugees caught between Poland and Belarus.

The jury decisions are bound to be fiercely debated. For instance, some will question how on earth Guillermo Calderón and Pablo Larraín won the Best Screenplay award for Larrain’s wilfully strange El Conde (which depicts Chilean dictator General Pinochet as a Bela Lugosi-like vampire and Margaret Thatcher as his lover and accomplice) and why films of the quality of Maestro and Ferrari were ignored.

Nonetheless, festivalgoers will surely agree that the 2023 competition was one of the most eclectic and eccentric in recent memory.

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in ‘Priscilla’ (Philippe Le Sourd)
Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in ‘Priscilla’ (Philippe Le Sourd)

Luc Besson’s latest feature, Dogman, ranked as probably its oddest entry. It has an exceptional performance of its own, from Caleb Landry Jones as Doug, an outsider who lives in the New York slums with dozens of pugs of all shapes and sizes for company. He loves them and they adore him. When he is not performing Edith Piaf songs in drag at the local nightclub, he and his canine partners are orchestrating elaborate burglaries or taking on low-life gangsters. “So bad it had me howling in disbelief,” one British critic barked. That seemed wildly unfair. Besson has chutzpah and visual flair, with Landry Jones bringing a heady mix of pathos, camp glamour and little-boy-lost vulnerability to the central role.

Wes Anderson’s enchanting short, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, was a much more refined affair. Adapted from a tale by Roald Dahl, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a gambler and ne’er-do-well who discovers how to read cards with his eyes blindfolded. He accrues his mystical wisdom after coming across a medical study on Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian who has in turn been taught by a yogi. The film has multiple narrators telling stories within stories. Dahl himself (played by Ralph Fiennes) is spotted in his corduroys, sharpening his pencil in his famous writer’s shed. Those allergic to Anderson’s hyper-stylised approach to filmmaking won’t like Henry Sugar at all, but others will be charmed by this clever and moving cinematic parable.

Festival director Alberto Barbera complained to the trade press about the “personal and disrespectful reviews” of Polanski’s new film The Palace (which screened out of competition). However, Barbera himself acknowledged it was “weak” – which makes you wonder why on earth he programmed it. The new film sees the Oscar-winning Chinatown and The Pianist director making the kind of vulgar innuendo-laden farce you might expect from an end-of-the-pier comedian like Roy Chubby Brown. It is set in a luxury Swiss hotel on the eve of 2000 (Y2K, when it was feared the world’s computer systems would all go haywire).

Guests include Russian gangsters, plastic surgeons, rich old ladies with flatulent dogs, coke-sniffing models, retired porn stars and decadent aristocrats. The ancient orange-skinned Mickey Rourke plays Bill Crush, an ageing playboy with a get-rich-quick scheme. In one typically embarrassing scene, we see him leaning over the urinal stall to take a good look at the penis of the man next to him, the ex-adult movie star Bongo (Luca Barbareschi). This particular appendage used to be insured for millions of dollars.

John Cleese plays the 87-year-old Texan billionaire Arthur William Dallas III. It’s the look on the face of Cleese’s corpse that haunts the mind long after the final credits roll. His features at the moment of death are contorted in a grotesque gurning grimace. He has conked out while having sex with his 22-year-old lover Magnolia (Bronwyn James) and then she can’t get him off her.

‘The Palace’ debuted at Venice Film Festival (Eliseo Entertainment)
‘The Palace’ debuted at Venice Film Festival (Eliseo Entertainment)

Better by far was Coup de Chance, the new French language comedy-drama from Woody Allen (also screening out of competition). This deals with murder, lust and revenge but in a very light and clever way.

Lou de Laâge plays Fanny, a chic Parisienne, married to the wealthy, if shady, financier Jean (Melvil Poupaud). By chance, Fanny runs into Alan (Niels Schneider), who used to be at school with her and always had a crush on her. He’s a romantic figure, a cash-strapped would-be novelist. The film is an intriguing hybrid. Its jazz-filled score and many of its jokes are familiar from Allen’s New York-set movies, but other scenes here, such as all those illicit lunchtime meetings that Fanny and Alain have in Parisian parks, unfold like moments out of one of Éric Rohmer’s equally playful and elaborate studies of love and marriage.

Venice is the only major festival not to have had to cancel an edition during the pandemic era. There was widespread apprehension that this year would be a dud edition in the absence of big-name Hollywood figures as the Screen Actors Guild strike continues. In the event, once the protests started and Mann’s Ferrari revved up, it turned out to be as lively as anyone could have hoped. There were some very bad films and some excellent ones, Poor Things prime among them. Meanwhile, the moment the sun came out, the Lido was again swarmed with tourists and sunbathers. Venice has a carnivalesque charm that makes Cannes seem forbidding and oppressive by comparison – and it is still the place where you’re most likely to get the first sight of the films that will soon be competing for Baftas and Oscars.