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theartsdesk at the Venice Film Festival: McQueen, Lanthimos, Arnold | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Venice Film Festival: McQueen, Lanthimos, Arnold

theartsdesk at the Venice Film Festival: McQueen, Lanthimos, Arnold

The best work of newer, younger directors assessed

Rear view: you can't take your eyes off Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen's 'Shame'

This year’s Venice Film Festival has been awash with great directors from what one might call the old guard: David Cronenberg, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Aleksander Sokurov, Philippe Garrel. But when the jury presents its prizes tonight, I hope that it honours some of the new, young film-makers who have been the ones to set this festival alight.

Chief amongst those has been a Brit, Steve McQueen, who follows his extraordinary debut, Hunger, with a second film that has shaken and stirred the critics here. The focus of Shame is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a successful New Yorker whose ordered but emotionally desolate existence – dominated by his obsession with anonymous sex – is disrupted by the arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan), a sometime club singer whose life is as chaotic as his is controlled and who, one suspects, holds the key to his own dysfunction.

They study the life and personality of a dead daughter, or wife, then call round each day and act them out

We have no idea what Brandon does in the midtown office he enters every day, except earn lots of money. We do know that he fills his nights with one-night stands, prostitutes and online porn, exchanges that hardly put a smile on his face, but which are the only ways he knows to connect. The presence of the needy and fragile “Sissy” will either nudge him towards normality, or push him further into his depraved abyss.

Visually the film is mesmerising, McQueen initially mirroring Brandon’s frozen soul in the glass and steel minimalism of his well-heeled milieu, then suggesting an increasingly inner torment through his nocturnal sorties downtown. Fassbender dominates the film; it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, and not just when he shows a commendable lack of inhibition in its raunchier scenes. For her part, Mulligan gives her best performance to date, and her rendition of "My Way", full of simmering hurt, is magical.

alps-photo1Another, sadly rare film to take some chances here was also, coincidentally, a second feature. After the screening of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps, a friend said to me, “Fantastic – a director with a world view.” Lanthimos certainly has that; and it’s pretty bleak. His first film, Dogtooth, was a disturbing portrait of parenting, in which a couple imprisoned their children in a compound, educating and raising them to be strange automata. Here, a group of four friends calling themselves "The Alps" offer their services as “substitutes” to people who have just lost loved ones. It’s an odd sort of home help, as they study the life and personality of a dead daughter, or wife, then call round each day and act them out. It soon becomes clear that this role-playing is providing as important a function for The Alps as it does their customers.

This is an undoubtedly tough watch, with its stilted language, weird and often violent behaviour and bleak view of human relations. But in their perverse way Lanthimos and his brave actors do make one dwell upon the roles we all play within family and society.

wuthering-heights204Another bold auteur is the director of Red Road and Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold; though her Wuthering Heights divided critics here. Arnold’s approach to Emily Brontë’s Gothic romance has been, first of all, to do away with the Gothic altogether; gone are Cathy’s ghost at the window and the demonic older Heathcliff, waiting for his own death. Instead, the director focuses on the pair as children, especially on the brutalised and brutalising childhood of Heathcliff. Her mode is hyper-realist, mixing non-actors (notably in the roles of the younger Heathcliff and Cathy, and older Heathcliff) with professionals, and eschewing music so that her soundtrack can perfectly evoke the windy violence of the Yorkshire moors.

The presentation of this cruel, unforgiving landscape and thankless rural life is entirely convincing. The cinematography is breathtaking. The problem with the film, exacerbated by the bland acting (the casting is nowhere near as successful as in Fish Tank) and truncating of the story, is that the passion of the piece has all but disappeared.

But like Alps and Shame, Wuthering Heights embodies for me what is best about film festivals, which is to showcase directors who are prepared to experiment, go out on a limb, find new ways of telling stories. It would be fabulous if any one of these films wins a prize today.

AFTERWORD All three films featured in this review went on to win awards at the 68th Venice Film Festival. The full list is as follows:

Golden Lion for Best Film: Faust, dir Aleksander Sokurov (Russia)

Silver Lion for Best Director: Cai Shangjun, People Mountain, People Sea (China-Hong Kong)

Special Jury Prize: Terraferma, dir Emanuele Crialese (Italy-France)

Coppa Volpi for Best Actor: Michael Fassbender, Shame, dir Steve McQueen (UK)

Coppa Volpi for Best Actress: Deanie Yip, A Simple Life, dir Ann Hui (China-Hong Kong)

Osella Prize for Best Cinematography: Robbie Ryan, Wuthering Heights, dir Andrea Arnold (UK)

Osella Prize for Best Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, Alps, dir Yorgos Lanthimos (Greece)

Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress: Shota Somentani and Fumi Nikaido in Himizu, dir Sion Sono (Japan)

Fassbender dominates the film; it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. Mulligan gives her best performance to date

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