Venice looks to top Cannes with sex, war and aliens

The Venice Film Festival is set to kick off August 28 with a competition line-up dominated by American and British films including dark stories of crime, war, politics, and sex. FRANCE 24 film critic Jon Frosch offers a look at what’s in store.


If Cannes is the king of international cinema events – imperious, puffed up with protocol and prone to favouritism – the Venice Film Festival is something of a prince: looser, more adventurous, less influential, but royalty all the same.

Kicking off a week before the massive Toronto Film Festival, and premiering works from internationally renowned auteurs, it is also the unofficial start of the period the US press refers to as “awards season”; at least a few titles unveiled at the festival each summer invariably find their way onto critics’ year-end lists and Oscar ballots.


Bernardo Bertolucci (president), Italian filmmaker

Andrea Arnold, English filmmaker

Renato Berta, Swiss-French director of photography

Martina Gedeck, German actress

Jiang Wen, Chinese actor and director

Pablo Larraìn, Chilean filmmaker and producer

Virginie Ledoyen, French actress

Ryuichi Sakamoto, Japanese composer, musician and producer

Carrie Fisher, US actress and writer

This year’s “Mostra”, to take place from August 28 to September 7 on the sun-kissed Venetian island known as the Lido, will try to make its mark with a competition line-up that looks strikingly different from the strong Cannes 2013 crop.

Whereas the Cannes slate flaunted six movies by French directors, this year’s Venice roster is decidedly Anglo-flavoured. There are five US films (“a sign of the vitality and richness of American cinema,” festival head Alberto Barbera told reporters in July), including new works from indie “darling” Kelly Reichardt, documentarian Errol Morris and the ubiquitous James Franco; three British titles, including the latest from Stephen Frears and Terry Gilliam; and an Australian epic starring the leading man from the hit TV series “Girls”.

Moreover, while Cannes was dominated by dramas of sex, love, and family, Venice 2013 is more politically and historically oriented, with competition films about the JFK assassination, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the economic crisis, the Iraq War, World War II and eco-terrorism. The Mostra line-up also appears more varied in genre and form, featuring two documentaries, two works of sci-fi and one animated film.

James Franco, Zac Efron…Donald Rumsfeld?

The Americans in competition are an eclectic bunch – not exactly the heavyweights (Coen brothers, Soderbergh and company) who were at Cannes last May, but a mix of promising new talent and more seasoned, off-the-beaten-path directors.

From the latter group, Kelly Reichardt will present “Night Moves”, starring Jesse Eisenberg (left), Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as environmentalists plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Reichardt previously gave us “Old Joy” (2006) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), tightly focused, low-budget films of great feeling and visual precision, before broadening her canvas to slightly less persuasive effect in “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010).

David Gordon Green is vying for the coveted Golden Lion with “Joe”, in which Nicolas Cage plays an ex-con who befriends a teenager. Green started his career making dreamy, lyrical Southern indies like “George Washington” (2000) and “All the Real Girls” (2003), then lurched toward more crassly commercial fare (2011’s “The Sitter”) before finding a pleasing middle ground in this summer’s “Prince Avalanche”. It will be interesting to see where along that spectrum Green’s new movie lies, as well as whether Cage can find a role worthy of his talents after a seemingly endless string of duds.

And Errol Morris, whose “The Fog of War” (2003) was a fascinating portrait of former US defence secretary Robert McNamara, will compete with “The Unknown Known”, a documentary about a more recent ex-Pentagon head, Donald Rumsfeld.

US politics are at the heart of another American entry, Peter Landesman’s debut “Parkland”, which recounts the days after JFK was shot dead in Dallas in 1963. Heartthrob Zac Efron leads an ensemble cast, playing a young doctor on call when the president is rushed in – and hopefully proving that his terrific turn in Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” (2012) was no fluke.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited US film at Venice is James Franco’s “Child of God”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel about a violent necrophiliac in 1960s Tennessee. Franco’s previous stab at literary adaptation, “As I Lay Dying”, left many a William Faulkner fan cold when it screened at Cannes in May.

British cinema makes a comeback

Despite the prevalence of American cinema at Venice this year, “The real novelty is represented by three British films in competition”, according to festival head Barbera – who added that “British cinema does not always produce films of such great interest”.

Two of the UK’s most erratic directors, Stephen Frears and Terry Gilliam, are on the main slate – the former with “Philomena”, in which Judi Dench plays a woman searching for the son she gave up, and the latter with “The Zero Theorem”, a futuristic farce about a computer genius, his mysterious boss and the woman he loves. Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon and Mélanie Thierry star.

The third British movie, and the one most likely to set festival-goers’ pulses racing, is Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”, a Scotland-set sci-fi road movie whose protagonist is an alien played by Scarlett Johansson. Critics swooned over Glazer’s début, the snappily directed gangster flick “Sexy Beast” (2000), but unjustly snubbed his follow-up, the creepy, atmospheric Nicole Kidman thriller, “Birth” (2004).

A final Anglophone entry, “Tracks”, hails from Australia and is directed by John Curran, who has a few solid movies under his belt (including a restrained adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Painted Veil” in 2006). But the main draw of his new film, based on the true story of a woman who trekked across the Australian desert with a National Geographic photographer, will surely be its rising young stars: Mia Wasikowska of “The Kids are All Right” and Adam Driver, the magnetic goofball stud from HBO’s “Girls”.

Surprisingly, there is only one French film in competition: Philippe Garrel’s “La jalousie” (pictured right), headlined by the director’s son, Louis Garrel, about an actor’s romantic entanglements.

The other francophone heavyweight in the main slate is Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan (whose last film was the extraordinary cross-dresser epic “Laurence Anyways”) with “Tom at the Farm”, a drama revolving around a young man who attends his deceased boyfriend’s funeral only to discover that no one there has heard of him.

Also screening in competition are new works from prestigious auteurs like Israel’s Amos Gitai, Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, Taiwan’s Ming-Liang Tsai and Italy’s Gianni Amelio.

The main out-of-competition attraction – and biggest shot of star power – is festival opener “Gravity”, Alfonso Cuaron’s long-awaited space thriller, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play an engineer and astronaut whose first shuttle mission goes disastrously wrong.

If the trailer is any indication, the film looks like a suitably unsettling start for a line-up that, in the words of Venice director Barbera, reflects “a dark and violent reality”.

Here is the complete list of films in competition.


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