A trembling sandspit shaken by September storms. It is the perfect place to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterly The Master. The Venice Lido this year, hosting the 69th Mostra del Cinema, has seemed more than usually fragile and beleaguered: more clouds, scantier crowds, fewer perks and flourishes (Italian austerity?), and a new festival director who is actually an old one. Alberto Barbera, brought back after a prior three-year spell (the 1999-2001 festivals), replaces the retired and admired Marco Müller.
So the competition’s best film to date had, paradoxically, its ideal setting. From the man who made Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, here is another epic of American striving and tortured dreaming, its opening scenes on a faraway beach – the Pacific at the close of war in 1945 – weirdly in tune with the troubled Adriatic on our doorstep. Festivalgoers could see a flicker of resemblance too in Joaquin Phoenix’s demobbed marine: prone to drink and emotional turbulence (like some homesick film critics) and failing to adjust to peace until he meets the title mentor. An L. Ron Hubbard in all but name, he is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a magnificent blaze of slyness, wit and charlatan charm. (But please consult your lawyers before bandying the word “Scientology”. They seem a litigious crowd out there in Goofball-Philosophy-Land.)
Phoenix becomes Hoffman’s favoured henchman, perhaps also the devil he sees daily in his private mirror. The Master is a metaphysical bromance, all about the power of huckster demagogues – the US needs this story in election year – and the iffy love affairs that develop, if unchecked, between ruler and ruled. The movie’s genius touch is that we like Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) even while we see through his salesman soul. The two men meet on a luxury yacht, the capricious sea again opening a story chapter. They later pass through Phoenix, Arizona, a place name punning on the rebirth creed of Dodd’s philosophy (and the name of the film’s star) while it hosts the hilarious first conference devoted to “The Cause”.
This mischievous pageant is pun-rich throughout. Phoenix’s sideline is making moonshine and moonshine of a different kind is what Hoffman sells. Is he the fons et origo of his bogus metaphysics? Or is he the tool of his helpmeet and soulmate, a pretty wife (Amy Adams) whose caringness comes to seem literally too good to be true?
Anderson has developed such skills as a storyteller that he can freely mix realism and surrealism. Characters keep bursting into song. And when Dodd/Hoffman performs a Pan-like dance at a party while singing “I’ll go no more a-roving with you, fair maid”, the women partygoers are suddenly all seen nude. Is this actuality? Hallucination? If so, whose? Here is an America, or a world, in which dreaming is a disease. It causes daytime visions, destroying reality and our grip on it. Watch what you wish for, says the film: there are power-hungry people ready to help you attain it, enriching their pockets in the process.
In the 15 months since Malick’s The Tree of Life won the Cannes Golden Palm a lot of doubters have gone about saying, “We need to talk about Terrence.” How much licence do we go on giving this man to make his own form of moonshine? The bliss-out mystical pantheism that featured in Tree is almost the only feature in To the Wonder: two hours of Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko prancing around Oklahoma, bodies in quasi-balletic motion while disembodied spoken thoughts, voiced in an ethereal murmur, fill the soundtrack. Sometimes they jostle with the beatific-inspirational music, which includes the Parsifal prelude, breathing more divine afflatus whenever the director thinks our spiritual tyres need re-pumping. (Much more and they’ll burst.)
There is romance of sorts and a troubled Affleck-Kurylenko marriage, seeded in the Mont St Michel idyll that opens the film. There is hardly a plot. God is everywhere, though even respectful spectators giggled a bit when Javier Bardem appeared, taming his Minotaur machismo to play a small-town midwestern priest full of love for the world’s unfortunates. It is too early in the trawl of human evolution to be sure that To the Wonder is as god-awful as it seems. Maybe – just maybe – there are secret specks of wit or artistry. I don’t think so, though. Only professional duty now remains to coax me into another Terrence Malick movie.
Marginalised by the early Malick/Anderson ballyhoo and expectations, the festival’s other films have been like immigrants clinging to the sides of a freighter. Sometimes they fall into the water, never to be heard from again. At others, they clamber atop rivals’ shoulders, yelling for attention. I enjoyed Bernard Rose’s Boxing Day, the British film-maker’s most inventive Tolstoy adaptation. Who would recognise the Kreutzer Sonata director’s Russian muse in this scenic modern-day tale of a property speculator (Danny Huston) and English hired chauffeur (Matthew Jacobs) touring Colorado’s icy mountains, their growing and unexpected bosom-buddiness luring them perversely towards disaster?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, from past Golden Lion winner Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), opened the festival with a swagger of important themes: politics, philosophy and terrorism in the story of a young Lahore professor (Britain’s Riz Ahmed) confronting the temptations of radicalisation. The Iceman is a truth-based thriller about a contract killer, strongly cast (Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder) if Godfather Lite in style. Pascal Bonitzer’s Cherchez Hortense is a droll French comedy about the thinking classes, Jean-Pierre Bacri and Kristin Scott-Thomas (Gallic again) among those spinning the discussion plates, from Asiatic Studies to Zen and the art of relationship maintenance. Bonitzer’s is the only competition entry among these also-mentions. This gives you all the more freedom to put your Golden Lion betting money where it belongs: on The Master.