Just as the Berlinale reliably serves as a launchpad each February for the forthcoming year’s arthouse big-hitters, so Venice ushers in the start of the autumn awards race. Superficially, the two festivals couldn’t be further removed – the perpetually sun-drenched Lido in late summer feels an entire world away from the somewhat less idyllic surroundings of Potsdamer Platz in February. But as tempting as it may have been to idle away the days sipping Aperol on a shaded terrace, I stoically confined myself to the dark to get a first peek of films that’ll be making their way to your local Kino in the coming months.
Although I arrived too late to catch it, Damian Chazelle’s lavish musical La La Land was met with near-unanimous adoration, instantly cementing its status as the one to beat at next year’s Academy Awards.
The Competition kicked off for me with Denis Villeneuve’s elegiac sci-fi drama Arrival, a slow-burning tale of first contact starring Amy Adams. Though it sometimes precariously straddles the line between profound and ridiculous, it’s heartening to see large-scale genre fare concerned more with ideas than action. Particularly impressive is the way in which it explores the relationship between the languages we speak and our understanding of the environment we inhabit.
Adams also takes centre stage in Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s swaggeringly confident adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. Equal parts outlandish Hollywood satire and streamlined, hard-boiled thriller, it establishes Ford as one of mainstream American cinema’s most exciting directors – not bad going for a part-time side gig.
Just as it started to feel like this might be a festival line-up for the ages, Wim Wenders was on hand to bring audiences back down to earth with a jolt. Les Beaux Jours d'Aranjuez is an interminably soporific adaptation of Peter Handke’s 2012 stage play, pointlessly shot in 3D. Concerning the sexual recollections of an enigmatic middle-aged woman (Sophie Semin), the film plays out like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac re-imagined as a maddening, feature-length Samuel Beckett monologue.
Wenders wasn’t the only old master to tarnish memories of an illustrious career. Even the staunchest Terrence Malick supporter will struggle to defend Voyage of Time, an exasperating, impressionistic history of Earth that plays like a parody of the auteur’s recent divisive output – think CGI dinosaurs plodding across the screen, while Cate Blanchett earnestly recites trite odes to Mother Nature.
Headline stories included the 10-minute standing ovation that greeted Mel Gibson’s bid for career resuscitation, Hacksaw Ridge. This World War II romp is a strangely intoxicating cocktail of pious Christianity, domestic abuse, cloying sentimentality, and eye-popping ultra-violence. It’s certainly a film only Gibson could have made, both for better and worse.
In terms of local interest, Berliner Paula Beer was the festival’s breakout star, picking up the best new actor award for her captivating central turn in François Ozon’s Frantz. Yet while the film – a loose remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s post-World War I melodrama Broken Lullaby – was broadly well-received, I found it to be another underwhelming offering from an increasingly risk-averse filmmaker.
It seems all the more unremarkable when considered alongside fellow Competition title The Untamed. Part unflinching domestic drama, part Cronenbergian psycho-sexual horror, Amat Escalante’s latest is thoroughly deserving of the Silver Lion award it shared with Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise.
Sadly I had to leave before Lav Diaz’s Golden Lion winner The Women Who Left screened, but my viewing binge ended on an emphatic high note with Jackie. Pablo Larraín’s English-language debut is a spellbinding account of the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, told from the perspective of his shell-shocked widow. Natalie Portman’s performance is prime Oscar fodder, an uncanny approximation of a real-world icon, with lashings of ostentatious grandstanding. But the film is far from the middlebrow awards bait you might be imagining. Larraín blends stylised and vérité shooting styles to breathtaking effect, while Mica Levi’s jarring score lends proceedings an unsettling, otherworldly tone.
This really only scratches the surface of what was, with a few notable exceptions, an impressive, eclectic programme. I was also floored by Safari, Ulrich Seidl’s predictably unflinching portrait of Austrian tourist hunters in Africa. Hounds of Love is an almost unbearably tense Australian abduction thriller, marking first-time director Ben Young as one to watch. And Andrew Dominik’s One More Time with Feeling is a devastatingly intimate portrait of Nick Cave’s attempts to come to terms with the death of his teenage son. Suffice it to say that, coming at the tail-end of what may be the worst cinematic summer in recent years, this most venerable of festivals proved quite a tonic.