It is far easier to forgive a film for a weak first half than a weak second half. The films I’ve been seeing at Venice this week almost all pass the two-hour mark — a lot of big, long movies that beg a joke about the nearly all-male competition lineup that I am just going to let you make for yourself. But it should be noted that some have had an easier time sustaining themselves through that run time than others. Two of the most anticipated titles of the festival had their premieres on Friday, and you could feel the security tighten on the Lido in preparation for Lady Gaga’s plumage to land on the red carpet (it was not a victimless frenzy).
The first half of A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s remake of Hollywood’s favorite story it tells itself, are among the most exhilarating of any film you’ll see this year; unabashedly wish-fulfillment porn but through an electrically intimate, contemporary lens. Lady Gaga, famously made-under in her feature film debut, is Ally, a food service employee who moonlights as a lounge singer at a gay bar somewhere east of Los Angeles. Cooper is Jackson Maine, a country superstar who can still sell out arenas but is clearly past his golden years. Fate crosses their paths when Jackson, on the road back to L.A. from a festival gig and out of booze, has his driver stop off at Ally’s bar, just in time to witness her rendition of La Vie en Rose, complete with stick-on Edith Piaf eyebrows. He’s enchanted, and soon he’s taken her under his wing both as a protégé and lover. So far, so Star Is Born.
What keeps the film from feeling like a mere rehash is the gut-level romanticism of it all. Cooper and Gaga’s onscreen chemistry is raw and real, even if it shows all the telltale signs of unsustainable infatuation. I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s less-successful attempt to capture heightened, bleeding-heart love affairs between musicians in last year’s Song to Song, as well as Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cannes stunner Cold War (due out later this year,) and how “music people” are such ready vessels for our most romantic aspirations, the most likely people to make all the grand gestures and leaps of faith that we wish we were brave enough to do.
Gaga’s acting debut is impressive, especially, as is to be expected, in the musical sequences (several of which are stunning, a couple of which are, I suspect, purposefully terrible). There are hints of her stamp throughout the film, from her drag queen friends (RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Willem and Shangela have minor but memorable roles) to Ally’s songwriting style, which ranges from towering arena-rock choruses to horny dance pop. But I’m with Variety’s Guy Lodge in suspecting that this is more Cooper’s Oscar play than hers. The titular transformation is Ally’s, but Jackson has the unhappy task of the mirroring fall, and the pill popping and wailing drunkenness are far more compelling fodder for that Oscar clip. I don’t particularly love that aspect of Cooper’s performance, or the second half of the film where it really takes center stage. But it just might be the ammunition that’s needed to get this often-nominated leading man his trophy.
I would be hard pressed to make any awardsy predictions for the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, another big-name Netflix release making its debut on a busy first few days in Venice. The film, which was originally intended as a series, is comprised of six individual tales, ostensibly meant to be episodes. The first two — the titular tale of a singing cowboy played by Tim Blake Nelson, and Near Algodones, starring James Franco as a twice-unlucky bank robber — were rapturously received at the press screening I attended, and I include myself in that rapture. There were two — two! — applause breaks within that first hour, one of them for a “kill” so absurd my jaw quite literally dropped open. I started to wonder, with pleasant but not unwelcome surprise, that I might be watching a new Coens classic unfold before my eyes. A lot of it was their old bag of tricks: the peculiar nooks and crannies of American dialects, the acknowledgment of an uncomfortable closeness between Dudley Do-Righters and serial killers. But their capacity for Looney-Tunes-esque slapstick had been made flat and abstract and pliable, which was kind of exciting.
Unfortunately, it could not be sustained. Not that such madcap energy need continue for two hours, but once it’s time to switch tones, the Coens don’t seem to have much to say other than pointing to the well-documented fact that the American frontier was a violent place. And the look of Scruggs stays oddly flat and poreless even as it explores more ambiguous, moody territory. The rest of the tales — one starring Tom Waits as a prospector, one starring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a couple of traveling showmen, and one starring Zoe Kazan as a pioneer on the Oregon Trail — are both overlong and oddly cut short. They are unsatisfying taken together, and it is hard to imagine how poorly they would work as individual episodes.
But maybe don’t ask me — I admittedly have an ax to grind and Buster Scruggs is currently sitting at a 76 percent on Metacritic. More than one review has thrown out the word “masterpiece.” I’m reminded that as much an oracle as Venice can be, it just as frequently loses its collective shit over a Downsizing (a far better and more interesting movie, for my money, but one that generated more controversy than accolades once it reached domestic audiences). I’ll be very interested to see how it’s received in its land of origin when it makes its North American debut at the New York Film Festival this October.
The Coens are Venice veterans, but Mike Leigh is the first Golden Lion winner to debut a film this year (the other will be two-timer Zhang Yimou, whose Shadow premieres at this year’s edition). The same breathless buzz was perhaps not in the air for Leigh’s Peterloo on Friday as it was for Buster Scruggs and A Star Is Born, but Leigh’s 154-minute historical epic might have been the the biggest accomplishment of the day. Leigh is fully inhabiting his stately old-master phase, having won accolades with 2014’s Mr. Turner, and that (literally) painterly quality is used to sweeping effect in his telling of the events leading to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which a peaceful working-class demonstration was charged upon by cavalry and 15 people lost their lives.
I was able to catch Peterloo when screened for critics in advance of the festival, and also made its premiere on Friday. I went in expecting to be pleasantly enlightened by a chapter of British history they don’t bother with in American high school. I left ready to light my torch and eat the rich. Leigh’s film takes patience — it’s almost entirely comprised of speeches, many of which I suspect are directly transcribed from historical records, and it is a true spectacle of Capital O Oration. The rolled “r”s are out in full effect, many a cane is shaken, and the wig quota is off the charts. It is less the kind of naturalistic character study Leigh has made his name with, and more an artfully recited (and beautifully shot by Dick Pope) history lesson.
This might sound like a drag, and yet once I realized that Leigh was committing to this form, of giving voice to the speeches and correspondence that make up a brewing revolution, letting us observe its development through the written word, a chill of admiration went through me, and I was all in. And those with the patience and attention span are rewarded; the last 30 minutes is perhaps the most visceral filmmaking Leigh has ever pulled off, a huge, spectacular scene of chaos and humanity made all the more real for how long we have spent with everyone in the ensemble. There’s a grand, operatic, Les Miserables–esque feeling as we follow every character making their way to Manchester’s St. Peters Field, and despite two centuries’ difference, the feeling of optimism and excitement in the crowd will feel intensely contemporary to a 2018 audience.
Between the massive crowd spectacles of Peterloo and Roma and this year’s Sorry to Bother You, some of 2018’s most memorable film images are of the assembled masses, both raising their voices in unison and devolving into chaos. The people may have flocked to starrier titles at Venice Friday, but fusty, stately old-fashioned Peterloo felt more of the times than either of them.
Note: This post originally referenced an unsubstantiated rumor about Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga not speaking to each other on the A Star is Born press tour. We regret the error.