If the year in film festivals is a seesaw, then right now the weight is decidedly on the right half of the calendar. Cannes and Sundance gave us a handful of standouts — Eighth Grade, Sorry to Bother You, and Hereditary all premiered at the latter and went on to become indie hits, while Lee Chang Dong’s Burning and Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters made strong impressions at Cannes ahead of their fall premieres. But as far as serving up the One Great Film of the year, if such a thing even exists, or predicting awards-season favorites, there wasn’t a lot to work with.
Which is why I decided to take a flying leap to the Venice International Film Festival, the oldest film festival in the world, and right now perhaps the single strongest bellwether for movies that may or may not be sweeping the world a few months from now. Toronto and Telluride also share some of that burden, but Venice comes first, this year with some of the most anticipated and starry titles of 2018. Some of that is a function of scheduling. (Claire Denis’s much-anticipated sci-fi drama High Life was simply not ready for the Cannes debut it had been expected to make, for several reasons.) Some of it is that Venice is the international festival best positioned to pick up some of the fancier collateral from Cannes’ feud with Netflix. And some of it is Venice becoming an increasingly logical and attractive place for studios to have a splashy world premiere for their out-of-competition fall hopefuls. A strategic arrival shot of your star perched on one of those shiny motorboats could be priceless in the hype market. (Boats seem to be a strong factor in the making of a world-renowned festival.)
One of the splashier of those premieres opened the 75th edition of the festival: Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. My arrival in Venice and general first-day disorientation kept me from seeing that one, but I was up bright and early on day two for the back-to-back press screenings of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, two of my personally most-anticipated films of the festival. Roma, which I reviewed yesterday, is one of the more notable pieces of aforementioned Cannes/Netflix collateral, having been invited and then pulled out of that festival’s competition slate, with much acrimony on both sides.
I was working in the press room during the red-carpet arrival for Roma’s official premiere, which was being simulcast in the room. Seeing stars and first-time actors Yalitza Aparicio and Nancy García walk the red carpet with Cuarón was thrilling, and though an awards push for Aparicio seems unlikely, the incredibly rare representation of a Mixteca character in a major motion pictures feels like a watershed moment. I also can’t get over the film’s use of male frontal nudity — it was technically not alone in a dick-heavy day, but unlike most male directors who dare to show men in the altogether, it wasn’t a punchline. In one scene, a character named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is meant to be admired as he goes through a series of martial arts exertions using a shower rod. Cleo (Aparicio), our heroine, is literally staring at him with gaga eyes from the bed, both as an object of desire and a potentially terrifying vessel of violence. There’s something about his nudity that is timeless, in the same way female nudity is sometimes used as a link to millennia of human art. As initially shocking as the scene is, I didn’t hear a single giggle in the packed theater, and when (Guerrero) sets down his makeshift weapon and moves close to the camera to touch Cleo’s face, I nearly gasped at how intimate and earnest the whole of the scene was.
I’ve seen (and overheard) Roma described as distant and emotionally uninvolving, which seems both inaccurate and unfair; its Cuarón’s ability to pan from the macro to the personal — sometimes in a single, stunning shot — that is the film’s strength. (Cuarón shot the film himself in addition to writing and directing it, and it’s gorgeously composed — Chivo who?!)
The Favourite is perhaps equally, if not more anticipated in the States, aided by a cool cast (Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, and Joe Alwyn, a.k.a I guess the guy who Reputation is about) and a director looking to find his step after last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer turned out to not be quite the crowd-pleaser one might have hoped. Does Yorgos Lanthimos do crowd-pleasers, really? The Favourite might be the closest we’ve seen, this time working with a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The script and its story — about the behind-the-scenes rumored love triangle and battle of wills between Queen Anne (Colman), Sarah Cromwell (Weisz), and Abigail Hill (Stone), is bawdy and absurd. It’s in the vicinity of, but quite a different tone, from Lanthimos’s dry creations.
I wanted to love The Favourite, especially once the nature of the three leads’ involvement comes into the light. We’re so used to seeing women on screen scheme and backbite and leverage their sexuality in competition for men, but rarely for the affections of another woman, and there’s a wild, anarchic feeling that anything could happen through much of Lanthimos’s film. But I couldn’t help but feel a little drowsy during the film’s latter half, and I don’t think it’s all jet lag. Something about Lanthimos’s style of directing actors is too arch for this material; it pulls back when it should dive in. He’s at his best when showcasing the ridiculous exploits of Anne’s court (domesticated rabbits and duck races figure prominently). That’s not to say Weisz, Colman, and Stone aren’t great fun — especially Stone, who is probably the lead here for awardsy purposes. But the whole thing didn’t quite connect in the way I would have liked, and ends on such a head-scratching note that I’m sure I’m not the only one who left the theater feeling a little deflated.
Last for me that day was the premiere screening of The Mountain by Rick Alverson, whose Neil Hamburger–starring The Entertainment was a nichey Sundance hit a few years ago. His latest, a 1950s-set period piece about a psychiatrist who performs lobotomies (Jeff Goldblum) and the surrogate son he takes under his wing as an assistant (Tye Sheridan), was the first real film I saw go over like a lead balloon in the Sala Grande, and with the stars and director in attendance, no less! (Cannes and Sundance premieres tend to be pretty effusive, even for less-than-deserving material.) It was hard to find much to warm to in Alverson’s overstylized exercise in disaffect, and even harder to resist the obvious lobotomy jokes that such ponderous material invites. At times, it felt as if the entire film was structured around a desaturated picture of Goldblum’s wardrobe (he looks fantastic, at least). By the time the film’s young lovers, if they could be called that, are left catatonic in their midcentury house, looking like a couple of Kinfolk cover models, not even a ten-minute screaming drunk monologue from a shirtless Denis Lavant could wake me up.
Tomorrow: Stars are Born and Scruggs are Busted in another big day for American directors.