Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Image of Nigel Andrews

It opened with the devil and it will end with the deep blue sea. A film about evil-doing in the ballet world, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, opened the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday. A programme packed with promise is now in progress. A sea-tossed Shakespearean fantasy – for many the star attraction of the Lido line-up – will be its finale.

Bard weather to close festival

The Tempest must be the ultimate, “designer” Venice movie. Julie Taymor’s second Shakespeare film after Titus (she also directed Frida on screen and The Lion King on stage) is, by report, a bold experiment in gender-flipping, starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, a lady sorceress on an enchanted island. But, for Venice film buffs, the appeal of the Bard’s late fantasy drama is surely that it allegorises – to a pinpoint perfection – the festival itself.

The man with magical powers and a fund of enchanted tales, “exiled” from the Italian mainland? That’s the festival’s director: a Prospero with the power to scatter stories and sorceries. The all-sorts rabble around him, from sensitive sprites (Ariel) to clowns (Stephano, Trinculo) to vulgar brutes (Caliban)? That’s us, the guests and critics, all-comers from around the world. The menacing encroachment of P’s usurper brother Antonio? That is the threat from mainland power rivals, ever ready to cross the waters and clobber the incumbent festival ruler.

Impressively, Marco Müller, the present Prospero, has been in charge for some years. Seven, exactly. But for every Venice chief the day will come when he must “drown his books” and end his revels. Only the festival itself and its location live on, each September an isle full of “sounds and sweet airs” and images to linger and enchant.

Tart with an Art

It wasn’t Italy but Spain, and it was a sunny year gone by. In her villa outside Marbella, standing by her sofa, I leaned towards a seated Deborah Kerr. I wrapped my arms around her, our cheeks pressed close. For what seemed minutes our bodies were locked in a fast embrace. Then, carefully, I hoisted her to a standing position. When a frail septuagenarian lady asks him to, an interviewing journalist must help her up from her seat.

Ah, memory. My first, last and only clinch with a superstar. Kerr (who died in 2007) is the honoree of a bumper retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank in September and October. The British actress strewed grace and class over the vulgar dream citadel, Hollywood, though as she remembered on that Spanish afternoon she kept trying to be a little less cut-glass than in The King and I and An Affair to Remember.

Actually she was called a rude name by the first director to audition her, Gabriel Pascal, who was testing for Major Barbara (1941). “He looked at me and my red hair and said. ‘Sweet virgin, are you an actress? You look like a tart.’” Luckily Pascal’s co-director was standing nearby, a little-known youngster called David Lean. He told her: “You’ll be a star.”

In Hollywood, when she got tired of the lah-di-dah roles wished on her by MGM, she seized the chance to play a slut for Columbia in From Here to Eternity (1953). As the loose army wife who flings herself at Burt Lancaster, “I went blonde. I wiggled my bottom. I broke loose.” She was Oscar-nominated. Joan Crawford, originally favoured for the role, “never spoke to me again”.

The British Film Institute season has the best of Kerr: imperious in Black Narcissus, witty in Bonjour Tristesse, haunted in The Innocents, touching in older age in The Assam Garden.

Star wars

We knew he had a big nose, but apparently Cyrano de Bergerac has a big mouth too. Gérard Depardieu – Cyrano’s screen representative on earth – has startled reporters by rubbishing the talents of fellow French thespian Juliette Binoche. “She is an absolute nothing,” he said of a star who, at times recently, has seemed the absolute everything, at least in European film acting. See her this week in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (for which she won the Cannes Best Actress prize). She is the main reason the film lives, breathes and has a pulsing heart.

Listen up, Gérard. We love you. We respect you. We always have. You don’t have to call a fellow actor a Nothing to persuade us you have been, and still are, Something.

And finally

From Venice, your Tempest-related quiz question of this month’s Talking Pictures column. Which 1950s Hollywood sci-fi film was based on Shakespeare’s play and co-starred a serious actor later to become a successful funny one? First e-mailer with the right answer will be congratulated by name in my next column. Other prizes are under consideration.

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