by Roderick Conway Morris

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Frolics, Higher Maths, American Nightmares and Korean Psychos

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 September 2005


Disney family movie and 'Proof' lead American entries

The hottest ticket at this year's Venice Film Festival was an invitation to the post-premiere party of Disney's 'Casanova' at the Doge's Palace. The special effects, thanks to an electric storm, were spectacular. Thunder rolled and lightning zigzagged across the night sky, as the tables were hurriedly moved by a small army of flunkies into the crowded colonnade surrounding the courtyard. A torrential, feature-length downpour followed, making for an unexpectedly intimate evening for all.

The mind boggles at the notion of Casanova's life as family entertainment. But the director, Lasse Hallstrom, and his scriptwriters have pulled it off with considerable verve by turning it into a romp, firmly in the tradition of British Christmas pantomime, or in film terms, a kind of 'Carry On up the Grand Canal.' Fellini in his 1976 'Fellini's Casanova' made the mistake of treating the old roué as seriously as he treated himself, although Fellini did manage some presumably unintended comedy by casting Donald Sutherland as the great seducer, whose modish laid-back manner and lugubriously flattened Canadian vowels lent a sense of spaced-out lack of urgency.

In this version, shown out of competition at the festival, Casanova (Heath Ledger) falls in love with the one woman who despises everything about him, the bluestocking Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), a secret writer of pseudonymously published feminist polemics, who appears in and out of male disguise. There are mistaken identities, jolly japes and double-entendres aplenty, the naughty jokes calculated to tickle adults and pass over infant heads.

The film was shot in Venice and the Veneto and makes the most of the locations. Ledger is an infinitely more likable Casanova than the man who emerges from the original memoirs. Jeremy Irons, as the Grand Inquisitor Bishop Pucci, reveals hitherto hidden depths of frivolity, the perfect pantomime dame in his copper-wire wig. The American Oliver Platt as the sad-funny fat man Paprizzio does a superb nouveau-rich British accent, but the director's wife, Lena Olin, beautiful, sexy and spirited as Francesca's widowed mother, practically runs off with the show.

David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'Proof,' could not have found a better director (John Madden), cast and adaptation. The film, shown in competition, tells of a young mathematician, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has dropped out of college to nurse her father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a mathematical genius now with severe mental problems. Upon his death, Catherine is haunted by fears about her own sanity and also has to contend with an insistent young doctoral student, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), who believes Robert's notebooks may contain major unpublished work, and Claire (Hope Davis), Catherine's bossy sister, who is determined to reorganize her younger sibling's life. There are multiple interwoven themes in this absorbing and moving story. All the acting is first- class, and Paltrow simply mesmerizing.

The American out-of-competition fare by the midpoint of the festival was less satisfying. Steven Soderbergh's 'Bubble' was billed as 'a romantic tragedy in which a bizarre love triangle between three doll factory workers in small town Ohio turns to murder,' but was not so much bizarre as grindingly banausic. Made with nonprofessional actors, it has the feel of an amateur improvisation class. When the murder does take place, there is little mystery as to who has committed it or why (even if junk food is the real culprit).

More lively, but ultimately lacking in firm direction, was Cameron Crowe's 'Elizabethtown,' which takes place mostly in a real Kentucky burg of that name. Unbeknownst to the world at large, Drew (Orlando Bloom) has designed a training shoe for his company that has proved a ruinous failure. Out on his ear and facing imminent public humiliation, he plans a drastic solution when news comes through that his father has died suddenly while visiting his birthplace, the town of the title.

On the way there, Drew encounters a pretty and rather wacky air attendant, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who takes a fancy to him. In due course, Drew's mother (Susan Sarandon) turns up to join the proceedings. The film never quite gets off the ground, despite an engaging performance from Dunst. And tacked on to the end is half a road movie that looks as if it belongs somewhere else altogether.

A great deal of anticipation was aroused when it became clear that the unnamed in-competition 'Surprise Film' in the program was to be Takeshi Kitano's 'Takeshi's.' He won the Golden Lion in 1997 for 'Hana-Bi' (Fireworks), and his samurai comedy 'Zatoichi' was enthusiastically received here two years ago. The new film rehearses some of Kitano's worst nightmares, and follows the fortunes of a downtrodden Takeshi doppelgänger, who works in a convenience store. There are some good moments, but the story becomes extremely repetitive. One of the public wrote for 'Ridateci i soldi!' (Give us our money back), the wall where festival-goers are invited to post their comments: 'We love you, Takeshi. But we are not your psychoanalysts!'

Kitano's violence tends to the ritualistic, often comic, but Korean filmmakers frequently go for more graphic gore, and Park Chan Wook's in-competition 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance' is no exception. The story is of a captivating young woman (played with psychotic conviction by Lee Young Ae), who emerges from 13 years in prison for her part in a kidnapping that has ended with the murder of a young child. With the help of a rogues' gallery of ex-female cons now also released, she sets out to avenge herself on her former accomplice, who has got off scot-free. Park maintains that he is dealing with real social issues, but this work, although skillfully made and containing some striking images, is sensational, exploitative of the issues of domestic violence and child murder. It is, in the final analysis, implausible.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023