Carnage amid the canals

Judging by the first week, you’d think one of three demands needed to be met to enter a movie at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The film’s title had to start with a “C”; the story had to be epochal or apocalyptic; most clinchingly of all, the cast had to include one English actress doing her nut in an unfamiliar accent.

So Carnage, the best film so far, a Roman Polanski-directed version of Yasmina Reza’s stage play about two quarrelling New York couples holding a tribunal about a fight between their children, and Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s entertaining global-disease epic, were A-List qualifiers, meeting all requirements. Both had Kate Winslet in prime form, first as a rabid mum, second as a battling American epidemiologist. Elsewhere, with Andrea Riseborough gamely impersonating Wallis Simpson in W.E., the abdication drama-romance directed by Madonna, and Keira Knightley playing a deranged patient in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, based on Christopher Hampton’s play about Jung and Freud, the Anglo-female perspective on life and history has seldom been more ubiquitous.

Winslet and Riseborough have strong claims already to the Best Actress prize. The first is terrific in Carnage, teamed with the scarcely less formidable Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. A Polanski in total mastery of his material films Reza’s play largely inside one room, reaping the pressure chamber rewards. In a story of tactful politeness turning to sarcasm, exasperation and spasms of seriocomical rage, the close-ups become tiny tell-all explosions; the group shots are perfect, powered tableaux of social calamity.

Andrea Riseborough in W.E. has a different calamity on her hands but, as an actress, transcends it. Madonna’s duo of parallel stories about a woman called Wallis – the throne-wrecker who married Edward VIII and a Manhattan-dwelling “Wally” (Abbie Cornish), obsessed with her forebear, who discovers love’s modern-day pains – will sit in multiplexes perplexing all but the novelettish at heart. The singer/film-maker creates few interesting echoes between “then” and “now” and miscasts the main male role. James D’Arcy’s King Edward is an anaemic-mannered stick. Riseborough alone survives the debacle, a British actress brilliantly replicating an interbellum high-society American accent while suggesting the sparkle and allure we can only guess at in Mrs Simpson from the old photos and newsreels.

Knightley and Fassbender in 'A Dangerous Method'

Keira Knightley goes for broke in early scenes of A Dangerous Method, gurning, yowling and grimacing as an advanced-stage Russian schizophrenic. Later she calms down, but by then unfortunately everything else has become becalmed. Cronenberg’s direction is weirdly static (you could forget that he once pushed the boundaries of avant-garde sci-fi/horror); Michael Fassbender’s Jung is a cipher in a frock coat; and Viggo Mortensen’s Freud drawls laboured Viennese wisdoms. Only Vincent Cassel has a brief heyday as a mad, bad German shrink.

Mad or bad, the films at Venice – for many of us – have been unprecedentedly accessible. English-speakers have scarcely had to read a subtitle. One starts to feel a little guilty when every second movie is from the US, the UK or other lands Limey-lingo’d. One day it is Soderbergh’s rip-roaring Contagion. Another day, George Clooney’s smartly directed, savvily scripted The Ides of March. The charismatic Hollywood multitasker’s new political thriller opened the festival and strewed the red carpet with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and other luminaries of Hollywood character casting.

There have been foreign-language movies, of course, but none so far is a bookie’s favourite. The Taiwanese revolutionary epic Saideke Balai takes a little-known slice of local history – the rising up of heartland tribes against the occupying Japanese in the last century’s early years – and turns it into a blood-basted barbecue of slaughter (graphic beheadings a speciality). Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps, from the Greek director of the prizewinning Dogtooth, is a tortured curio. A group of people trained to impersonate the recent dead hire themselves out as post-bereavement surrogates for grieving families. In movie plots there is a thin line between originality and strained contrivance. Better by a little was Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Poulet aux Prunes. Artist-cartoonist Satrapi, who made Persepolis, raids her comic-strip oeuvre for this French-speaking, Iran-set fairy tale, pictorially pretty with a piquant cast (Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni).

You could even say that Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome, shown on the fringe, is in a foreign language: “Pacino-speak”, that mannered, florid outreach of the Method. In a documentary hewn from the same block as Looking for Richard, the actor performs excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s century-old succès de scandale. Between the theatrical scenes (partly inspired by Steven Berkoff’s London-revived Salome) Pacino and his camera crew hop about the western world tracing Wilde’s life and roots. Ireland, London, Paris; with Gore Vidal, Tom Stoppard and Bono (!) for expert chat. We even go to Palestine to dig up Herod and his story. It’s all perversely entertaining: an actorly ego trip thinly camouflaged as a love letter to past art.

Back in the competition, the main trends show little change. Latest unveiling, as I write, is Steve McQueen’s Shame, another tale of apocalypse, this time psychosexual. Michael Fassbender plays an Irish-American sex addict – prostitution, promiscuity, cyberporn – lacerated by his failure at long-term love. The setting is New York, the lead female performer is another Brit acting her all in an alien accent: Carey Mulligan, excellent as the hero’s mixed-up sister. Fassbender is good too, making up for his stuffed-shirt Jung with lots of no-shirt – indeed no-anything – self-exposure, physical and emotional.

The film tells us little we didn’t know already about the old proximity-versus-relating human quandary. And at times it looks suspiciously like an essay in gay-culture self-castigation disguised as a homily for heterosexuals. But Hunger director and video artist McQueen has an indisputable skill at packing big, handsome, glacial-seeming images with covert emotion and encrypted power.

Venice Film Festival continues until September 10

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