by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
Anne Hathaway, left, and Rosemarie DeWitt in 'Rachel Getting Married,'
directed by Jonathan Demme.

As Venice wraps up, tales of love, war and a lifetime in film

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 5 September 2008


As the 65th Venice Film Festival drew to a close - the Golden Lion and other prizes were to be announced on Saturday evening - its director, Marco Müller, emphasized that, though there had been fewer Hollywood productions due to the screenwriters' strike and other delayed completion dates, Venice had managed to secure many of the most star-studded films.

The festival got off to a lively start with the screening of the Coen brothers' intelligent 'Burn After Reading,' which then went on to Toronto. This was one of 49 world premieres shown in Venice; 23 of these films will also be screened at the Canadian festival. 'Burn After Reading' was shown out of competition, but at least two of the five American in-competition movies - Guillermo Arriaga's 'The Burning Plain,' shown at the beginning of the 10-day event, and Jonathan Demme's 'Rachel Getting Married,' screened toward the end - were rated serious contenders for prizes in a field that remained open until the jury retired.

Venice is the oldest but also the poorest financially of the top film festivals, with a budget of €11 million, or $15.7 million (as opposed to, for example, the three-year-old Rome festival, which will have €15 million this year, if a fraction of the prestige). Venice has traditionally been friendly to the public as well as to the press and the industry. But this year ticket sales were down by more than 10 percent, mainly because Italians are feeling economically squeezed.

Quite a few fictional films had the flavor of documentaries. 'Rachel Getting Married,' with its nervy, shifting camera-work, was a prominent case. Demme's last production, 'Jimmy Carter, Man From Plains' was indeed a documentary (shown here last year), and he used the same cinematographer, Declan Quinn, to make this movie.

The documentary style is greatly enhanced by the script, written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of the director Sydney, and her first to be produced. In his director's statement, Demme says: 'I loved Jenny's flagrant disregard for the rules of formula, her lack of concern for making her characters likable in the conventional sense, and what I considered to be her bold approach to truth, pain and humor.'

The story takes place over a weekend, that of the wedding of Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), at the house of her father, Paul (Bill Irwin), in Connecticut. Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), a former teenage model and junky, is undergoing another extended period of rehab, but is released for the weekend to attend the nuptials. She is a handful, to say the least.

Obstreperous, touchy and sharp-tongued, Kym is soon squabbling with her sister, demanding Rachel dump her maid-of-honor, Emma (Anisa George), in favor of her. It gradually emerges that some years before, while high on drugs, Kym caused a fatal accident. But as more is revealed, we begin to appreciate that, although she accepts it and bears a terrible burden of guilt for it, Kym was possibly not the only person to blame.

Anne Hathaway became famous almost overnight for her interpretation of Meryl Streep's assistant in 'The Devil Wears Prada.' Kym is a much more challenging role, which she plays with tremendous panache. We often see her face in close-up, and so intense is her performance that she can more than take this kind of attention.

Kym is bitchy but often funny - there was, it seems, a considerable degree of improvisation in the film - and we come to sympathize with her, even if in real life she would likely be the friend from hell.

'Rachel Getting Married' pays homage to Robert Altman's 'A Wedding' (by no means his best film), but is more complex and satisfying. The music, led by Zafer Tawil, which we see and hear being played throughout the film, is a bonus - although (a perennial problem at real weddings) the musicians do sometimes threaten to dominate the proceedings.

While the relationships and tensions between the women of the piece are the primary focus of 'Rachel Getting Married,' 'The Hurt Locker' directed by Kathryn Bigelow - the only woman filmmaker in competition - is a thoroughly male, macho affair. The unnecessarily obscure title is a mistake.

The script was written by Mark Boal, who spent a period in Iraq with a team of bomb-disposal specialists, who operate in constant danger of being drawn into deliberately set traps, blown up and shot by enemy snipers while they race against time to defuse devices. This film, as they say, is their story.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) joins a rapid-reaction trio of specialists, along with Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), all of whom give convincing performances. The reckless behavior of James, virtuoso bomb handler though he proves to be, rapidly freaks out his colleagues, who are coming close to the end of a tour of duty.

Episodic by necessity, as the team moves from one emergency to the next, the narrative keeps us on the edge of our seats. The subject might seem to invite a quasi-documentary approach, but Bigelow goes for a more traditional feature-film style. The movie was shot in Jordan; doing it in Iraq was inconceivable. While the film is a worthy tribute to the extraordinary feats and courage of these specialists, it does not go much beyond telling us that people can find in war an intensity of experience lacking in civilian life.

Curiously, the setting of Mamoru Oshii's 'The Sky Crawlers,' one of the two Japanese animations in competition, is of a future or parallel world where all wars have come to an end. But such is the demand for the 'entertainment' value of war that the service is provided by two private companies - Rostock based in Japan and the Lautern corporations in Europe - who arrange bombing missions on each others' facilities and an endless series of exhilarating aerial dogfights continuously reported in the media.

The pilots are Kildren, teenage replicants who never age and are immortal unless killed in combat. In between, they smoke cigarettes, meet in roadside diners, have joyless sex and are billeted in Cotswold-style country houses of the kind that appear in Ye Olde English World War II films. The graphics are breathtaking, but the French existentialist philosophizing less pervasive than in some of Oshii's earlier productions.

The appearance of Agnès Varda at the festival turned into an event. The lone woman director of the French New Wave in cinema, she has made more than 30 films, documentaries and features, and won the Golden Lion in 1985 for 'Sans toit ni loi' (Vagabond). To mark her 80th birthday, she has made a delightful autobiographical film, 'Les Plages d'Agnès' (Agnès's Beaches), the premiere of which was punctuated with laughter and finally applauded with barely a dry eye in the house. She was also presented with this year's Glory to the Filmmaker Award.

The beaches of the title are the ones she revisits, from those of her Belgian infancy; to the shores of France, to which her family fled in 1940; on to Venice Beach in California in the 1960s, when she went with her director husband Jacques Demy to Hollywood; and the one she recently created on a Paris street to give her production office a holiday.

Along the way, through stills and film clips of her old movies and from her personal archives, we meet Philippe Noiret, to whom she gave his first film part, as a fisherman; Gérard Depardieu, ditto, as a bearded hippie wandering the banks of the Seine; Catherine Deneuve; Jane Birkin; Jim Morrison; and in Los Angeles the young Harrison Ford, whom Columbia refused to let Varda cast in a film, telling her that he had absolutely no acting talent and should find something else to do.

A one-off, a born surrealist, a vivacious imp, possibly a long-term visitor from another planet - Varda confirms with this generous film that she is still firing on all cylinders.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023