Best Film Discoveries

The Very Best Films of La Biennale di Venezia 2018

Venice Film Festival had an incredible line-up this year, with films directed by the Coen Brothers, Cuarón,  Greengrass, Guadanino, Lanthimos and Mike Leigh, starring famous actors such as Tilda Swinton, Nathalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly and unexpectedly, Lady Gaga, who debuted in a leading role in a film presented out of competition – A Star is Born, with Bradley Cooper who also directed the film, a remarkable debut. 
Bradley Cooper e Lady Gaga

Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga

All in all, it was a thrilling edition. Most screenings have divided the press and the public, a desirable outcome actually since it makes for more passionate conversations. I haven’t seen all the movies in the official competition because I also watched a parallel section, Orizzonti, from which I can recommend this intense drama from Uruguay, The Twelve Year Night. Unfortunately I missed Rome, Cuarón’s Mexico-set drama, a personal film that took the Leone d’Oro this year, awarded by a jury chaired by Guillermo del Toro. Roma will also be screening at London Film Festival in October and will be out on Netflix in December.
From all the movies I saw in Venice, there are three that stood out and that I critically embraced without a shadow of a doubt:
I saw The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos on the second day of the festival and I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites. The visual pleasure this film provides is hard to describe (may Laura Mulvey forgive my saying so!).
I wasn’t at all surprised that it took the Grand Jury Prize. If you’re not a fan of the macabre fictional universe the Greek director got you accustomed to, I understand, it’s not to everyone’s taste, but this film is very different in tone, being based on an original script signed by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara whose screenwriting career I’ll have to follow closely from now on. At the same time the film retains the same technical virtuosity, sublime camera movements and mise-en-scène with which Lanthimos impressed in his previous creations, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And the result of this collaboration is an astonishingly sumptuous and scrumptious film.
In short, the action takes place around 1700 at the court of Queen Anne, played with extraordinary flair by Olivia Colman who took the prize for Best Actress.  Rachel Weisz is Lady Sarah, the queen’s right hand and her favourite, for reasons that become clear after 30 minutes of viewing time (do not read the synopsis!). Lady Sarah struck me as the strongest female character in the history of cinema, her strategic skills in conducting the war with France only surpassed by her cunning in the way she leads her personal life. Lady Sarah is omnipresent in the film and conquers you by always saying what she thinks, to the dismay of most males at the court, whom she humiliates without the slightest hesitation. Asked why she does this so consistently, she answers bluntly: “A lady must have her fun.”
But the fun starts to turn sour when Lady Sarah realises that her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whom she takes under her protection at the beginning of the film, is even more cunning and skilful than she is, something that this powerful character couldn’t have foreseen in her blinding arrogance. What follows is a fierce personal duel between these two different types of femininity for the place of Queen Anne’s “favourite”. We are humorously entertained to see the different strategies the two rivals use to achieve their goal. It’s like a game of chess.  Abigail, more rudimentary, goes straight to the target by directly fulfilling Queen Anne’s physical and emotional needs, while Lady Sarah tries to upstage her by more sophisticated manoeuvres, her tactful deploying of humour in the bathing scene being one example. In the end, Queen Anne seems to regain her strength and mental faculties  and with them, her dignity. Unfortunately, it’s all an appearance as long as there’s a favourite!
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Emma Stone & Olivia Colman

I’m not much into Westerns but this film was top of my to-watch list in Venice being a big fan of Jacques Audiard, one of the best directors working today in my opinion.  You must have heard of A Prophet (2009) or Dheepan  for which he took the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2015.
His latest film and the first one in English, The Sisters Brothers, is, at least on the face of it, a Western whose action takes place in 1850 in America, a period known in history as the Gold Rush, a very fertile source of inspiration that makes you think immediately of Charlie Chaplin’s film from 1925, The Gold Rush.
Bu why would Audiard, who is an auteur, be interested in tackling the Western genre? Here’s why I think he was interested. The classical Western is a tool America used to explain itself. Who makes the law and what does the law stipulate? Where is the frontier? Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys? Each Western was a national ritual dramatising the triumph of civilisation, the victory of a socially responsible individual towards the Indian “savages”, a very hypocritical narrative, hence the amount of revisionist Westerns, such as the one under discussion.
In contrast to the classical Western, there is no Indian savage in Audiard’s film. The Sisters Brothers are two notorious assassins working for a mobster in Oregon City known as Commodore. Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is the elder brother and the more responsible of the two, while Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) is a rebel and a drunk. Their mission is to catch Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a prospector who invented an effective way to find gold, based on scientific methods. But they are not the only ones on his trail, there is also John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a well-educated detective who writes them regularly. At some point, the letters become implausible and the Sisters brothers start to suspect that something is wrong. Should they go ahead, at  the risk of losing their lives or should they return home and change careers? But what kind of life could they build for themselves, wonders Eli Sisters, very keen on re-inventing himself. Perhaps they could open a shop? Huh?His brother Charlie is not so sure.
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Jacques Audiard & John C. Reilly

What’s interesting about this movie is not what happens on the screen, even though the action does not disappoint for a second. What really captivated me is the characterisation of the brothers of the title. Their psychological profile is the opposite of what you expect and it gradually emerges from their incessant chatting and mutual teasing in times of peace on screen. Although they come across as two macho males armed with all the arsenal of guns and pistols to decimate an entire brothel within seconds, the last scene of the movie marvellously captures their psychological essence: the two skilled assassins are in reality two tired  little  boys who can’t wait to go home to their mum! And with this very funny story of two homesick brothers that challenges obsolete notions of masculinity in cinema, Audiard took the Best Director Award at Venice Film Festival this year.
This extravagant, baroque creation from Brady Corbet (who distinguished himself on the Lido in 2015 with The Childhood of a Leader and whom you saw as an actor in Haneke’s Funny Games as well as a host of independent American films) is the most daring piece of cinema I saw in a while. The film could have been a total fiasco due to the unusual narrative techniques it adopts and the tendency to combine somewhat disparate ideas. But it’s not, quite to the contrary, it’s phenomenal!
Structured as an opera, with a prologue, two acts and epilogue, Vox Lux is the furthest away from classical cinema, with its strict rules of building a story. The film actually seems to draw more from literary techniques. The result is seductively agile, highly effective and surprisingly cinematic. Just when you expect the movie you’re watching to engage in a certain direction, it suddenly changes course and drags you down a different, but equally delirious, path.
With a stellar cast (Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin), the film tells the story of Celeste, a child with an innocent air and musical talent, who, after a traumatic event in childhood, becomes famous overnight and turns into an extremely anxious diva / pop star with a behaviour that borders on the ridiculous. But the film has a greater ambition than to trace the birth of a celebrity in the making. The director uses Celeste’s character to illustrate how key events of contemporary history impact her personality. These events are succinctly dealt with, Corbet doesn’t bore you with a detailed socio-political dissection. Moreover, he carefully selects a handful of contemporary events that intersect the story. Thus, the narrative is punctuated by numerous intrusions in voiceover and filmed in fast-forward, from a commentary about Abba’s importance on the Swedish music scene, to the shock of 9/11, a terrorist attack on a beach in Croatia, in relation to which Celeste is being interviewed by journalists in a memorable scene in the film. It all culminates in an adrenaline-inducing music performance worthy of Grace Jones and you leave the cinema dizzy and enthralled.
Natalie Portman, Brady Corbet, Stacy Martin e Raffey Cassidy

Natalie Portman, Brady Corbet, Stacy Martin & Raffey Cassidy

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I would have also liked to include Guadanino’s Suspiria, with a superb Dakota Johnson in the main role and a most powerful performance from Tilda Swinton, but something was a bit awry in it – the film is so overloaded with symbolism, it brought to the mind’s eye a heavily adorned Christmas tree that’s about to fall over.
I also had high expectations from Werk ohne Author (Never Look Away) from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck but it lacks the impact of his debut film, The Lives of Others and it also packs in some strange inconsistencies in the portrayal of some of the characters.  I enjoyed watching it though, and this was mainly due to mesmerising performances from Tom Schilling Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer.
Tom Schilling

Tom Schilling

 

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In José Luis Guerín’s spellbinding ACADEMY OF MUSES, women feminists still define themselves in relation to men but that’s because reality is full of contradictions and this is not a “cinéma à thèse”!

If  José Luis Guerín’s  L’Accademia delle Muse had been the only film I saw at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2015, it would have been totally worth the hassle of getting there and surviving under the scorching Swiss sun!

academy-of-the-muses

L’Accademia delle Muse is the BEST FILM DISCOVERY I made on the festival circuit in 2015. Hopefully coming up on MUBI soon.

This interview with José Luis Guerín was taken in French during  LOCARNO Film Festival in August 2015. This is my English translation.

Dana Knight: This is a very special film, a very unusual film. It’s very difficult to describe and impossible to label, how did you come up with such an original idea?

José Luis Guerín:  Yes, I even had problems trying to write a synopsis! Because the main story belongs in a way to a stereotypical world: adultery, encounters in cars, things like that. But what is important in cinema is not what happens but how it happens. The way the film captures certain things, the way in which words are being spoken. This is a film that totally seduced me with the way it talks about things. The beauty of the dialogue, in the tradition of Lubitsch and Eustache, the mise-en-scène of the words, of the utterance. As a cineaste, you always want to show things in a different light, in a surprising light, as if we see them for the first time.

Knight: The film is shot documentary-style, especially the scenes in the classroom. This adds to the freshness of the POV.

Guerín:  Exactly. This is something that I developed from one film to another, a sort of renovation of dramatic form. I started by doing fiction films but then I felt that fiction was in a sort of cul-de-sac, fiction is generally just stereotypes that we repeat. The work with the actors is always interesting and I love working with actors but it always leads to a cul-de-sac. So in order to evolve in the way of telling a story, I would alternate between documentary and fiction film. And it always happens that in documentaries I use the wisdom from fiction films: how to work with narrative, time and space. And in fiction films I use things that I learnt from documentaries:  how to create a situation, the quality of interaction between characters in order to capture a moment of truth. Because the art of docu-fiction consists of capturing a moment of truth.

Knight: In this film,we have the impression that things are happening now  and we are there with the characters.

Guerín: This was exactly my intention, yes. Even if I was the one who organised the situation, the fictive situation, I don’t know exactly how things are going to take place. I am as surprised by what I see happening in front of me as the spectators are. That’s why in my method of filmmaking I don’t shoot for 6-8 weeks continuously, I alternate between short periods of shooting and editing. I start with analysing what I just filmed on the editing table,  then I’m thinking: wouldn’t it be interesting to develop these characters in a follow-up shoot? So it’s cinema that nurtures itself, it’s not made of predetermined ideas imposed on a story line, it’s not a closed scenario. The writing of the scenario takes place at every step of the filmmaking process.

I struggle with the idea of cinema seen as closed compartments: the creative stage that consists in writing a screenplay, then shooting, which is the execution of what we wrote, then editing what we filmed. No, I like to write a little, then go and shoot a few scenes, then I edit what I shot, then I rewrite, then I shoot more. It’s a process in which I’m the first spectator of my film, my film escapes my control, there is an interaction between me and cinema. I like this a lot because for me cinema is about revelation, about discovery. If I know in advance what is going to happen, I lose the desire to see that happening.

Knight: How did you work with the actors? What is their creative share in the film, how did they contribute to their character, their speeches?

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Guerín: We talked about this a lot. They are not professional actors, the professor and his students exist for real, this academic community is not my creation.

Knight: How did you discover them?

Guerín: I met professor Rafael Pinto through his writings and seminars on Dante. His texts on Dante were very important for a previous film I made, In the City of Sylvia. He invited me to sit in on his class one day and in all narcissism he said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you filmed me talking to my class?”. And to be honest I did find him interesting, and also the characters who started appearing in the film. So I suggested they played a fictional version of themselves. And I loved their love for words. Sometimes in these philological contexts we utter words of love with the rhetoric of a troubadour. Other bits seem taken from a bolero. It’s impossible to write these lines and then give them to actors to recite, it’s pretty incredible what they come up with. And they say these words with such conviction.

Knight: Because this situation is natural to them, these words come naturally to them.

Guerín: Exactly. And this is what excited me, to build the narrative around the quality of the spoken words.

Knight: How do you see the professor, what is your perspective on him? We discover him gradually and what we discover is very conflicted!

Guerín: Yes, he’s a very conflicted character. And also an incorrect character!

Knight: That’s exactly what I wanted to say but didn’t quite dare finish my thought…

Guerín: Yes but I don’t like to judge my characters, I don’t like to moralise. That’s why I like Eric Rohmer a lot, he’s looking without judging. I want to give spectators the space to think for themselves.

Knight: That’s why I’m asking you this question, because I couldn’t detect any judgement on your part, I don’t have the slightest idea what your take on this character is.

Guerín: Exactly. Even if there is a sort of ironic distance, there is humour. It’s important to have humour in the film. 

Knight: Without judging though, you must have an instinctive reaction towards him. So do you like the professor or are you hesitant about him? He’s a great charmer.

Guerín: Yes, he is. And there are several sides to him, he’s a little bit like Don Quixote, a crazy idealist, and I like that. I like his power of seduction, his faith in the power of words. But to have a moral perspective on a professor who sleeps with all his students, it’s tricky!

Knight: But you’re not actually showing that, maybe he is innocent!

Guerín: No, I didn’t but we imagine that he does! There is a possibility that he sleeps with them all. And it’s disproportionate, it’s incredible that he would. But it’s a valid hypothesis. And even this idea of an academy of muses that aims to save the world through involvement with poetry, is such a crazy, incredible idea. And this reminded me of Hitchcock who said: the more incredible the subject, the more realistic its execution should be. And the subject of this film is indeed incredible, but we believe it because they are so convincing. So the professor in this film is not related to me in any way, except maybe as demiurge. Sometimes I think that he is like a cineaste who is about to create a world, a film world with his students who are his actresses.

And that is what I also felt as cineaste. The characters are autonomous, they are completely independent of me. They escape my control and I like this idea a lot, to have no control over them. To create a process that goes beyond me.

Knight: I also wanted to ask you about the jealousy scene between the professor’s wife and one of his students at the end of the film. How did that come about?

Guerín: It’s a very good scene, no? There was real pain.

Knight: Yes but there is also the troubling idea that these women define themselves in relation to him. His wife says: “I am his editor, I decide on everything that goes into his books”. And the student says: “Yes but his sonnets are dedicated to me, so I’m more important than you”. This was a bit difficult for me to watch. I’m also thinking feminists will have a field day with those statements too. How was this scene born?

Guerín: It came from the women playing those parts. It’s true there are many contradictions.  The girl who says that is also a feminist. I don’t like a cinema that preaches things (in original: “cinéma à thèse”), that propagates certain ideas. Because that simplifies reality, reality is full of contradictions, conflicts between reason and feelings. I was shocked by the pain that was born in this sequence, they went further than I expected. Even if it’s fiction, this story of adultery obviously doesn’t exist, but the scene gained such force. And maybe that’s the advantage of working with non-professionals. Professional actors know how to protect themselves, there is a technique that allows them to use their own feelings, their memory, but they put a distance between them and the role. But these poor women suffered for a week after this scene.

Knight: I have no doubt, we see the pain in their eyes, especially the young girl whose face twitches with grimaces throughout that scene.

Guerín: Yes. And this is an extreme: the scene is fictional but we managed to capture the truth. This is similar to jazz players doing a jam session, no scenario, they start with an instrument then respond to that and everything is the creation of the moment. So I tried to reproduce the conditions of a jam session, I wanted to see how things were going to unfold. It was a bit like fishing: I chose a place, a situation, and then I wait to see what happens.

Knight: Also the idea of filming them behind a window, or other transparent surface, how did that come about? There is usually a surface that mediates between them and us.

Guerín: At the the beginning I chose to do that because I felt they were a bit shy. I was filming the class which is a public space so that was natural. But how do you go from there to the interior of the house? So I found this solution which is also symbolical of the confrontation between the outer and inner life of a character. This juxtaposition of images and their reflection is a metaphor of cinema itself. And the movements of the traffic, of daily life gives birth to contrasts between the characters’ inner life and their outer existence in the same image.

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It’s also a way to define the space, this is a film I made without moving, it’s made of close-ups, therefore you become aware of the space through its reflections. The reflections of the world. And this gives birth to a special emotion I think: the violence of the outer world contrasted with the words of inner life in the same image.

Knight: This also makes the film even more enigmatic. The story is in itself enigmatic but the way you film things, the fact that we can’t see clearly what is going on, amplifies this enigma. The relationship between the professor and his wife is full of enigmatic pauses and allusions.

Guerín: Yes, which makes it very amusing. I initially thought of the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the great idealist and the pragmatic woman who doesn’t believe in love. But interestingly enough, at the end of the film, the woman who truly believes in love is revealed to be her. This was important, I wanted the characters to grow, to change. We discover the characters bit by bit, from one scene to another but also inside the same scene, it is important to have movement from one state to another, motion. Motion is emotion.