by Roderick Conway Morris

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Love, Sex and Bickering in the Movies

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 7 September 2011


With 10 English-language films in competition out of a total of 22 (with one 'surprise film' that had still not been announced), many of them with star-studded casts, this year's Venice film festival began to look like not just a competition for the Venice awards but an early airing of several productions and performances with Oscar-winning potential.

Following hard on the heels of George Clooney's festival opener, 'The Ides of March,' was Roman Polanski's film 'Carnage,' an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's French stage play 'Le Dieu du Carnage,' which, after its debut in Zurich in 2006, was a hit in Paris, London and on Broadway.

The director himself did not appear in Venice to attend the premiere; attempts to extradite him to the United States on charges that he had sex with an underage girl in 1978 continue. But Ms. Reza, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mr. Polanski, was here, as were three of the film's four protagonists: Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, who play a financial hotshot and her lawyer husband, who specializes in defending pharmaceutical companies, and John C. Reilly who portrays a cheerful philistine salesman of household fittings married to a neurotic, politically correct bookstore employee (Jodie Foster), who is writing a book about Darfur.

The film opens with a distant shot of a group of boys in a Brooklyn park and the incident that is the mainspring of the plot: one of the boys hits another with a stick. The action then cuts swiftly to an apartment, where the parents of the two boys have come together to agree on a joint version on what exactly happened and to settle any differences in an amicable and civilized fashion.

This fond hope gradually disintegrates in this highly amusing and sharply written comedy of contemporary manners as battle lines are drawn not only between the two couples but also between the partners in both marriages.

Mr. Polanski rehearsed his actors as though for a play and shot the movie as though in 'real time,' so that what we see is continuous action lasting an hour and 20 minutes, as things go from bad to worse. The film was shot at Bry-sur-Marne on the outskirts of Paris, where the 'Brooklyn apartment' was meticulously created by the designer Dean Tavoularis, whose credits include the 'Godfather' movies and 'Apocalypse Now.'

The actors hilariously spark each other off. All acquit themselves with tremendous verve and panache, although in the long run perhaps Ms. Winslet's performance will remain the most unforgettable, for spectacular reasons that it would be unsporting to reveal.

Michael Fassbender has leading roles in two in-competition films: David Cronenberg's movie 'A Dangerous Method' and Steve McQueen's 'Shame,' which between them put him firmly in the front rank for Venice's best actor prize.

'A Dangerous Method' derives from Christopher Hampton's successful stage play 'The Talking Cure.' It revolves round Carl Jung (Mr. Fassbender) and his treatment of a patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), at the Swiss mental asylum where he then worked, and the affair he had with her.

This was also the period when Jung came into personal contact with the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in Vienna. A close friendship developed between the two men but later collapsed in acrimony. Spielrein herself became a psychoanalyst and was a pioneer of the cause in her native Russia (where she and her daughters were killed by the Nazis in 1941).

The rediscovered letters, journals and asylum records that inspired the story are fascinating and suggest that Spielrein was herself an unacknowledged influence on her mentors.

The film is beautiful to watch. Mr. Fassbender is convincing as Jung, Sarah Gadon excellent as his long-suffering wife Emma, Mr. Mortensen again reveals his amazing skills of self-transformation, and Vincent Cassel is a treat as Otto Gross, doctor, libertine, asylum inmate and underminer of Jung's protestant probity. Ms. Knightley's feral Sabina would have benefited from being toned down several notches.

But for all its virtues, the film somehow does not deliver on its promise. The script at times tells you too much and at others too little, and fails to sustain its narrative momentum.

In Mr. McQueen's second feature film, 'Shame,' Mr. Fassbender plays Brandon, a high-achieving young executive in New York who is also obsessed by sex, but solely of the casual, pre-paid Internet and call-girl variety, being chronically unable to maintain normal relationships.

Mr. Fassbender's disturbingly intense interpretation of the role soon makes clear that Brandon's obsession is a compulsion rather than a source of enjoyment. And the true extent of his heartlessness is revealed when his younger sibling Sissy, excellently played by the fast-rising British star Carey Mulligan, drops in to stay and to try to revive this family relationship.

The film is cinematically powerful, with shot after shot framed by an artist's eye. But 'Despair' might have been a better title for this profoundly pessimistic existential vision of a seemingly doomed personality.

'Poulet aux Prunes' (Chicken with Plums), which also appeared in-competition is adapted from the Iranian-born artist Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel of the same name. It is her second celluloid collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud, following their hit animated feature 'Persepolis,' but this time using more conventional sets and actors, although with many colorful, charming and amusing graphic touches.

The opening scene in this fairy tale for adults is a magical, nostalgically recreated Tehran of the late 1950s. A brilliant but disillusioned musician, Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), loses his will to live after his treasured violin is broken and he cannot find another to replace it. To add to his troubles is his harridan of a wife, the teacher Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros), whom his domineering mother, Parvine (Isabella Rossellini), had browbeaten him into marrying. But behind everything is a tragic, unfulfilled romance - happy endings are rare in the old tales of love in that part of the world - with the enchanting Irane (Golshifteh Farahani).

'Poulet aux Prunes' is a feast of a film, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, deeply human and often utterly fantastic in its vision, a whole world in itself, which leaves behind it mixed feelings of pleasure and deep melancholy, as all the best tales in this rich tradition should.

The unprintable gag doing the rounds of Fleet Street as the news flowed in about the Prince of Wales's affair with the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson was: 'It would never do for our monarch to be the third mate on an American tramp.' But Edward VIII did give up the throne 'for the woman I love.'

Madonna's second feature film, the out-of-competition 'W.E.' (for Wallis and Edward), consists of two parallel stories: one of a young woman in modern-day Manhattan, who takes refuge from a loveless marriage by haunting the preview of a Windsor mega-auction at the establishment where she used to work, and in daydreaming about her namesake (her mother and grandmother were Wallis fans); the other, the story of Mrs. Simpson, her affair with the then-prince, and their later life together.

As the modern Wally, Abbie Cornish puts in a creditable performance, but her story is difficult to believe in. And while the stylishly shot historical sequences attempt to rehabilitate Mrs. Simpson, they fail to address the fact that many at the time saw her above all as a convenient excuse for getting rid of a trivial, self-indulgent and weak man who was not up to the job of being king (or anything much else for that matter).

Edward's successor George VI and his consort, Elizabeth, are portrayed as figures of fun - which won't wash with fans of 'The King's Speech,' let alone most historians of the period. Bad timing.

Nonetheless, Andrea Riseborough is sensationally good in the part of Mrs. Simpson, and probably more fascinating than she ever was - unless you happened to be Edward ('David' to his friends).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023