by Roderick Conway Morris

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Wraps off for a sexually explicit film festival

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 September 1999


Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' will be given its first European, and uncensored, public screening Wednesday evening, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in attendance, as the opening movie of this year's Venice Film Festival.

In fact, several films to be shown at this year's event, which runs until Sept. 11, are unlikely to make it into general release in many countries without undergoing some cuts in their graphic sexual content.

Leader of the pack of the no-holds-barred features is the Italian Davide Ferrario's 'Guardami' (Look at Me), set in the ambience of the local hard-core porno film industry, inspired by the life and death (from cancer) of the porno diva Moana Pozzi. This appears in the Dreams and Visions section of the festival, along with Francois Ozon's tale of seduction, sexual violence and murder, 'Les Amants Criminels.'

At least two other productions promising explicit shenanigans are in competition: Frederic Fonteyne's 'Une Liaison Pornographique' (with Nathalie Baye) and the South Korean Jang Sun Woo's 'Gojitmal' (Lies), the story of a sadomasochistic affair between a famous sculptor and a teenage girl -- which earned the author of the novel on which it is based a prison term in his home country.

Meanwhile, in the Cinema of the Present section is Mark Hanlon's 'Buddy Boy,' the voyeuristic story of a repressed and devout adolescent who begins to spy on the intimate activities of a beautiful woman in a neighboring apartment, and, in the Short and Medium Length category, what sounds like more of a romp, the Australian David Allen's 'Feeling Sexy,' which follows the erotic escapades of an adventurous young married woman.

The new artistic director of the Venice festival is 49-year-old Alberto Barbera, a film fanatic since the age of 5, he says, and for the last decade director of the popular and highly regarded annual Young People's Film Festival in Turin. Barbera and his panel of Italian film critics have viewed about 900 productions, choosing from them 81 full-length features and 39 shorter films.

Barbera has declared his aim to show fewer films and have more screenings of them, so that critics and the public can see a higher proportion, or ('in theory') even all of them. Certainly, he appears to be trying to avoid last year's debacle, when hardly any of the more imaginative and entertaining films were in competition, and the Golden Lion went to Gianni Amelio's dismal 'Cosi Ridevano,' which went on to be a spectacular box-office flop even in his native Italy.

Of the 18 in-competition movies, there are one each from Austria, Britain, China, Iran, Poland, Portugal and South Korea, two joint productions -- Belgium-France and China-Italy -- two from Italy, three from France and four from the United States. This is an unusually large number of American movies in the running for the Golden Lion, although all four are actually directed by foreigners.

Of this quartet, already receiving a great deal of advance attention are the New Zealand-born Jane Campion's 'Holy Smoke,' with Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, about the entanglement of a young woman with a guru and her family's attempts to 'deprogram' her, and the Spaniard Antonio Banderas's debut as a director in 'Crazy in Alabama,' billed as a black comedy set against the background of the 1960s civil rights movement, featuring his wife, Melanie Griffith (in brunette mode), and Rod Steiger.

Mike Leigh, the British director of 'Secrets and Lies,' will be appearing for the first time in competition in Venice, with 'Topsy-Turvy,' about Gilbert and Sullivan and the creation of 'The Mikado.'

Zhang Yimou has twice won prizes here, including the Golden Lion in 1992 for 'The Story of Qiu Ju.' But the central running gag of 'Keep Cool,' his last offering in 1997, turned out to be the speech impediment of the leading character, which audiences here found less than side-splitting. The director is now back with 'Not One Less,' a classroom drama that focuses on Chinese schoolchildren, which should have more universal appeal.

Back again, too, on screen rather than in the director's chair, is John Malkovich. Having featured in a procession of turkeys premiered at Venice in recent festivals -- 'Beyond the Clouds,' 'The Ogre' and 'Rounders' -- he will be starring in Spike Jonze's 'Being John Malkovich,' in which, it seems, a couple (played by John Cusack and Cameron Diaz) find they can enter the actor's mind through a door on the mezzanine floor of a skyscraper. Simply being John Malkovich has not been enough in the past, so one can only hope that this team has managed to build a more soundly constructed vehicle for the star.

Also to be presented in the same Dreams and Visions category are David Fincher's 'Fight Club' (with Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter), about a network of underground places where guys bored with the regular workout can bash the living daylights out of each other; Stephan Elliott's 'Eye of the Beholder,' in which a surveillance expert played by Ewan McGregor forms an ambiguous relationship with a suspected female blackmailer he is detailed to track, and 'Music of the Heart' with Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett, promoted as a heart-warming drama about a woman who moves in to save the kids of East Harlem armed with only her ideals and 50 violins, from the horror merchant and director of 'A Nightmare on Elm Street,' Wes Craven.

The many U.S. productions both in and out of competition should assure the presence of a good number of Hollywood heartthrobs this year, including Uma Thurman and Sean Penn, the leads of Woody Allen's latest film, 'Sweet and Lowdown,' which will, in what has become something of a tradition now, have its premiere at the festival.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023