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A blustery wind whipped through Venice as the annual film festival entered its second week. It gusted over the slither of land that hosts the event and up the red carpet, sending hairdos and dresses swirling and causing the occasional wardrobe malfunction — to say nothing of carelessly pasted toupees. And with it other elements blew in: stormy relationships, winds of war and some serious hot air from across the cosmos.
One thing that continued from the first week was the preponderance of strong female leads. With one former US First Lady very much in the news spotlight, another is put under the microscope in the robust biopic Jackie. Natalie Portman stars as the west’s most famous widow in a film that does not purport to tell her life story but focuses on the days following JFK’s assassination.
As in last year’s paedophile priest drama The Club, Chilean director Pablo Larraín doesn’t flinch from the facts. We see Jackie in the immediate aftermath of the shooting: blood-spattered, still wearing the famous pink Chanel suit and refusing to change. We are spared the actual moment of horror but that too arrives later. We also get the pill-popping, the drink and references to JFK’s serial infidelity. Portman wanders through it all, alternating between glassy detachment and aching vulnerability. In flashbacks and a recreated TV special we see how she carefully curated the White House and with it the Kennedy public image and come to understand why she later struggled in vain to stage-manage her husband’s legacy.
This Jackie is complex, stoic and stubborn, flashing the steel that underpinned her stately exterior when speaking to the press, confiding in Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and confessing profound inner doubts to her priest (John Hurt). Portman captures the slightly stiff gait and the mid-Atlantic drawl, though the breathy, soporific delivery she adopts at times brings to mind — of all people — Marilyn Monroe. At 35, Portman’s beauty is starting to be contoured by life experience in a way that is bringing new depths to her performances.
Mel Gibson too knows a thing or two about living in the public eye. In recent years he has been better known for his personal indiscretions than his movies but he breaks few rules in Hacksaw Ridge. Returning to the director’s chair a decade after the Mayan epic Apocalypto, he tells the true story of conscientious objector turned decorated second world war hero Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).
The structure is tried and tested: humble small-town origins, sweetheart left behind, rigours of boot camp training, horrors of the battlefield. The early scenes hold few surprises as we see loveably gauche Garfield bullied by his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and beaten by fellow-soldiers but refuse to waver from his pacifist beliefs. Once on the Okinawa battlefield, however, Gibson shifts into another gear and proves again that he has few equals in staging armed conflict. This long section is unbearably tense and visceral in every sense, with bodies and souls torn apart as army medic Doss does his duty and far more.
The fact that Doss was a devout Seventh-Day Adventist gives plenty of scope for Gibson to get some sermonising in. He smuggles in too an abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) who is eventually redeemed. Gibson has certainly redeemed himself as a director, and even though this film is not in competition, it could be enough to convince Hollywood of a Gibson comeback.
The Distinguished Citizen is one the fest’s best yet. In Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s bone-dry comedy, a celebrated Argentine novelist living in exile finds out why “go back where you came from” is such a vicious curse. It opens in droll fashion with a bitingly sour Nobel acceptance speech in which Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martínez) thanks the committee for confirming that he is now officially irrelevant as a writer. In the malaise that follows, all invitations are refused but in a moment of weakness he agrees to return to his home town of Salas.
Once there, Daniel is showered with the milk of human kindness but it doesn’t take long for it to curdle as the unconcealed contempt he has for his origins is turned back on him. It’s a performance of restrained and sustained sardonic brilliance from Martínez in a funny and wise film undermined only by an unnecessary coda.
More male comic despair was to be found in Piuma (Feather), an Italian crowd-pleaser about a young Roman couple’s unplanned pregnancy. The place of this lightweight farce in the Competition raised some eyebrows but it does boast a comedy acting masterclass from permanently exasperated paterfamilias Sergio Pierattini whose wildly semaphoring hand gestures alone were enough to provoke spontaneous rounds of audience applause.
It’s not just the men who are suffering in Venice. Guy de Maupassant’s Une Vie is one of those many 19th-century novels in which a woman is battered and beaten down by life. However, this is not period cinema as we know it. Stéphane Brizé, who won acclaim for The Measure of a Man in Cannes last year, shoots handheld and adopts a modern French idiom that casts off the stiff conventions of costume cinema like an unwanted corset and gives the film a bracing vérité immediacy. Jeanne (Judith Chemla) is shot mostly in tight close-up and conveys movingly the trials of a woman mistreated by her uncaring husband and troublesome son but refuses to relinquish her morals or memories, even the painful ones. It’s an intimate, even suffocating portrayal — not always easy to watch but richly rewarding.
The Bad Batch is not for the faint-hearted either — or the vegetarian. The sophomore feature from Ana Lily Amirpour, whose debut was the hit Farsi vampire flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it stars English model Suki Waterhouse as Arlen, a young woman banished to a lawless ghetto in the Texan desert. Amirpour switches from the sleek black and white of A Girl to an arresting neon-and-dust aesthetic and proves again her command of camera and canny use of music. The first half-hour is A-grade B-movie as Arlen is captured by cannibals and partially devoured before making her escape as meals on wheels via skateboard. Jim Carrey is put to unusual use as a mysterious desert hermit but Keanu Reeves proves an enervating presence as a dozy kingpin. Latterly the film gets lost in its desert milieu but it has all the makings of a cult favourite.
So does Mexico’s The Untamed, in which fantastic realism collides with tentacle erotica. It opens with a jolt. We see a young woman in the final throes of orgasmic pleasure only for the camera to pull back to reveal an eel-like creature slithering away. An incubus? An alien? An ugly metaphor come to life? Director Amat Escalante (Heli) isn’t telling. Instead he plunges us into a gritty domestic drama in which an end-of-tether mother, her outwardly macho but inwardly conflicted husband and gay brother find themselves sucked into an ever worsening spiral of recrimination and violence. And, now and then, someone disappears to a cabin in the woods to commune with the tentacled creature, culminating in an eye-popping scene that’s surely inspired by the notorious 1814 Japanese woodcut “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”. But the film as a whole is a unique specimen, destined for a following among lovers of the bizarre.
Spira Mirabilis is a feast of visual non-sequiturs and patience-testing sequences in which at one point we’re required literally to watch plaster dry. This meandering non-fiction tone poem takes in the clanging construction of Hang percussion instruments, long shots of embryonic marine life and archive footage of the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee. Halfway through the late screening people were leaving in droves. Only after 90 long minutes does the film start to coalesce into a semi-coherent whole; there’s even humour in the form of a Japanese jellyfish expert and karaoke hobbyist who combines his twin passions in a show-stopping musical turn.
Terrence Malick is still a name to conjure with but increasingly also one to avoid, except for those with a high-tolerance for woolly spirituality and bottomless self-indulgence. Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey attempts to tell the history of the universe in a mercifully brief 90 minutes. As ever, the images are pretty, with clouds scudding and heavenly bodies twinkling like a big-budget computer screensaver. Meanwhile Cate Blanchett dreamily intones what sounds like a prayer: “Oh mother. Who are you? Life-giver, light-bringer.” By the fifth “Oh mother” you start to think “Oh brother”. And by the time the CGI dinosaur from The Tree of Life turns up, it starts to feel like the next ice age is long overdue.
As the festival enters its final phase it’s still all to play for in the hunt for the coveted Golden Lion. Polls of public and critics put Tom Ford’s knockout Nocturnal Animals rightly in the lead, with La La Land and The Distinguished Citizen in hot pursuit. But there are still films to come from big-hitters of world cinema: Andrei Konchalovsky, Lav Diaz and Emir Kusturica. Tune in online on Monday to find out who came out on top.
Ends Sunday, labiennale.org