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theartsdesk at the 68th Venice Film Festival: Clooney, Polanski, Madonna | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the 68th Venice Film Festival: Clooney, Polanski, Madonna

theartsdesk at the 68th Venice Film Festival: Clooney, Polanski, Madonna

New films from big-name directors: report from a stellar Lido

'You've got great hair': George and the jungle at the 68th Venice Film Festival

I wonder if it’s possible for a film festival to kick off with a bigger bang. For your first three competition films to be directed by one of the world’s biggest movie stars, one of its most celebrated (and controversial) auteurs and arguably the world’s most famous woman, is no mean feat. And two of these films are pretty damn good.

Italy’s economy might be down there with the dregs of Europe, but its premier film festival, now in its 68th year, shows no sign of being knocked off its perch.

To call George Clooney a movie star does the man an injustice, of course, since he’s well on the path to becoming the most accomplished actor-director since Clint Eastwood. With his home on Lake Como and his second, Oscar-winning film, Good Night and Good Luck, having premiered on the Lido, Clooney and Venice have a bit of form together. His latest, The Ides of March, keeps the affair in good nick.

Adapted from a stage play, Farragut North, this is a political thriller centred on a presidential primary race, and in particular the campaign for governor Mike Morris (Clooney) to become the Democratic Party candidate. The focus is not the governor himself, but his press aide, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), an idealist who is about to be rudely awakened to the dirty realities of the political process.

IdesFor Meyers and his boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the governor is “the one”, the Real McCoy, a man whose denunciations of the War on Terror and America’s distribution of wealth make everyone’s favourite president that never was (or ever could be), The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett, seem reactionary. But could the governor be too good to be true? During the course of one extremely eventful primary, in Ohio, Stephen is about to find out.   

I couldn’t say that The Ides of March is particularly original or sophisticated in its presentation of the moral mire; indeed, if you’ve seen The West Wing, or Robert Redford’s cracking campaign drama The Candidate, the shocks and insights are rather pat. Where the film does impress is as a short, sharp, very assured presentation of a world of Machiavellian mind games. Dialogue and acting are exemplary, not least in the figures of Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as rival campaign managers, the angel and devil (or might that just be two devils?) hovering over Gosling’s shoulders.

Clooney skilfully positions himself in the background, the figure for and because of whom all the intrigue is played out, the source of inspiration and pain in equal measure. And Clooney’s indelible image as the man women love and men wish to be is played to the hilt. One of the best moments finds Gosling attempting to make love to an intern, but he can’t take his eyes off “Gorgeous George” on the TV. In another, the governor’s wife coos, “You’ve got great hair.” To which Clooney gives his sheepish grin and replies, “You too, baby.”

'The more they talk, the more apparent it becomes that these strangers instinctively detest one another'

 It’s a while since Roman Polanski has made what might seem an auteur’s film, but his reputation endures. Liberated last year from house arrest in Switzerland and perhaps feeling the need to let his hair down, he’s provided an uproarious comedy in Carnage. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much at a festival (and been intended to do so; for unintentional mirth see the next film).  

Also based on a stage play, Yasmina Reza’s West End and Broadway hit God of Carnage, this is a potent little satire on hypocrisy, prejudice and lies amongst the middle classes. Adapting the play with Reza herself, Polanski shifts the action from Paris to Brooklyn; not that it matters, since the real-time shenanigans are confined to a single apartment, whose interior becomes a war zone for two very different couples.

Carnage1After an 11-year-old boy is beaten by another at a local playground, the parents of the victim, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, John C Reilly) invite those of the bully, Nancy and Alan Cowen (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) over to their home, in a bid to deal with the problem amicably. The meeting starts well enough, and the Cohens even prepare to leave, their job of token apology on their child’s behalf achieved. But Penelope wants more; she wants to hear it from the boy. With the elevator in sight, the Cohens return to the apartment. Bad idea.

The more they talk, the more apparent it becomes that these strangers instinctively detest one another, while there’s little love within the couples either; more than that, they don’t even like their kids. As coffee and cake moves on to scotch and cigars, inhibitions fall away and all manner of ghastly truths emerge. The actors are pitch perfect, but Waltz steals the film with his impeccable timing and innate mischievousness. Polanski blocks the action to perfection; and while he often shoots to incorporate all the players, he’ll then switch suddenly to a potent close-up, reminding us that cinema has taken charge of this quarrelsome quartet.

It feels as though we are locked up with these people, until they resolve their issues or, more likely, kill each other. In the meantime, we can’t help but laugh. I couldn’t help thinking of Sartre’s Huis clos. Though this is infinitely more fun. As Michael puts it: "We’re alone when we’re born, we’re alone when we die. That’s it… Who wants a little scotch?”

'To try to work out the logic of the idea leaves your brain frazzled'

 There is the germ of a commendable film in W.E.. This consideration of the “love affair of the century” between Edward VIII and the American divorcee Wallis Simpson is for a change sympathetic rather than condemnatory, in particular from the American’s point of view. I for one was interested to learn more about the development of just another acquaintance on the Royal’s society circuit, into friendship, then love, and the sacrifices that Simpson herself had to make to honour it, the break-up of her marriage and her transformation from socialite into pariah.

WE1Yes, that might have been hunky-dory, heralding the arrival of Madonna as a serious film-maker. If only she had left it there. Instead, Madonna, who co-wrote the script, has constructed a conceit that is horribly misguided. W.E. attempts to view the 1930s scandal through the eyes of a contemporary woman in Manhattan, Wally, who is obsessed with her namesake and reflects on Simpson’s experience while trying to make sense of her crumbling marriage. Poring over the long-dead couple’s belongings before they go to auction in Sotheby’s, Wally imagines Simpson in her mirror, offering advice.

To try to work out the logic of the idea leaves your brain frazzled. It doesn’t work on so many levels, but particularly because it’s hard to gauge whether the director thinks that Wallace and Edward were right to sacrifice all for love, or not. In the festival press conference Madonna said she had identified with Simpson, having herself been a celebrity “reduced to a soundbite”. And therein lies the problem: the film is scuppered by subjectivity.

As one would expect, W.E. is wonderfully well dressed. Though Abbie Cornish suffers terribly in the thankless role of Wally, it’s pleasing to see the young and exciting British actress Andrea Riseborough (pictured above with James D'Arcy as Edward) make Simpson such a flesh-and-blood, appealing character. However, the observations are often trite and the dialogue preposterous. As Simpson tells Wally in one of her phantom appearances, “This isn’t some kind of fairy tale. Wake up.”


Just saw the Ides of March. Great movie, worth the watch.

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