Venice 2018

First Days, First Impressions

The Daily — Sep 3, 2018
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018)

When the seventy-fifth Venice Film Festival opened last week, jury president Guillermo del Toro was asked whether he’d be able to objectively evaluate Roma, the competition entry from his dear friend and Mexican compatriot, Alfonso Cuarón. Del Toro, who won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, last year for The Shape of Water, insisted that, yes, he would. “I am an adult,” he replied. “I am a professional.” And referring to his fellow jury members, he added that “there is great agreement among us that it doesn’t matter if a movie comes from Australia or Mexico.”

One wonders whether maintaining that professional objectivity will be made any easier—or harder—by the fact that, halfway through this year’s edition, Roma is garnering more glowing reviews than any other film screened in competition so far. Or the fact that this is clearly Cuarón’s most personal film to date. “Ninety percent of the scenes that you see in the film come out of my memory,” he tells Deadline’s Joe Utichi. He’s also shot the black-and-white film himself, “as though even his symbiotic connection to erstwhile cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki would not have allowed him to get as close as he needed,” suggests Jessica Kiang at the Playlist.

Roma, named for the neighborhood just west of the historic center of Mexico City, centers on a large middle-class family as seen through the eyes of their maid and nanny. Jonathan Romney, dispatching to Film Comment, finds that the film “achieves a sense of closeness and of the intensely human while using resources that are, by conventional art cinema standards, imposingly expansive. Roma catches both ends of a certain realist spectrum: a sense of historic sweep, as the film reconstructs social conditions in Mexico in the early ’70s, and an insight into the private domestic sphere.”

As happened in Venice last year at the premiere of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, once the credits rolled on Roma, David Bordwell turned to Kirstin Thompson and “asked if we had just seen a masterpiece. Again neither of us had any doubt that we had.” We’ll be taking a deeper dive into Roma and a few of the other films mentioned in this survey of first impressions in the coming weeks. For now, let’s note that, after screening in Toronto, New York, and London, Roma will begin streaming on Netflix on December 14. And Netflix is also evidently considering a limited theatrical run in order to tee the film up for awards season.

Another competition entry from Netflix is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a collection of six tales set in the old west from Joel and Ethan Coen that, according to Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, “starts out at a jaunty canter and becomes progressively more grim, ending with a stagecoach headed, quite literally, for death’s door.” For some, this anthology is a mixed bag. Jessica Kiang, for example, reviews and grades each chapter separately, arguing that two of them are “as funny as any comedies the Coens have made,” and another two are “as offbeat-involving as any of their more dramatic titles,” while the other two “rank among the worst things they’ve done.” But the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin insists that the “scattershot format and by turns bizarre and macabre sense of humor belies a formal ingenuity and surgical control of tone that keeps the viewer perpetually off-guard.” And at Little White Lies, Adam Woodward asks, “Who else but the Coens could so confidently tip their hat to the past masters of the genre while whistling their own inimitable tune?”

The genre movie in competition that’s stirring the most conflicting passions is Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, Suspiria, this time around with Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton. On the one hand, there are those like Leonardo Goi, who, writing for the Notebook, calls the new film “a bacchanalian tour de force that’s as terrifying as it is viciously magnetic.” And for Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf, “it’s a miracle that [Guadagnino] seems to understand Argento’s witch-centric original on an almost molecular level—so much so that he can radically depart from it and still cast his own spell.” On the other hand, there’s the camp that agrees with Stephanie Zacharek, who declares that this new Suspiria is “bland, grisly, boring, and silly.” At, Glenn Kenny finds himself “racking my brain to find another example of an instance in which a director used his complete artistic freedom for the purpose of flaunting his absolute lack of artistic conviction. . . . If you loved Call Me by Your Name, you won’t recognize Suspiria.

At Cineuropa, Kaleem Aftab suggests that “it’s unlikely that there will be a more fun and frivolously executed film in the running” than Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. And most agree. Singled out by many for particular praise is Olivia Colman, who, as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw writes, gives “an uproarious performance as Britain’s needy and emotionally wounded Queen Anne in this bizarre black comedy of the eighteenth-century court.” One of the few outliers so far is Giovanni Marchini Camia, who, writing for Sight & Sound, finds that “although Lanthimos employs fisheye lenses, whip pans, extreme slow motion, creeping dollies, showy dissolves, and other such devices with desperate abandon—not to mention a bombastic soundtrack implemented with Greenaway-levels of insistence and production design Visconti might have deemed too baroque—no amount of ostentation proves sufficient to spruce up the insipid narrative.”

Olivier Assayas’s far more subdued comedy, Non-Fiction, focuses on two middle-aged, middle-class couples in Paris facing imminent changes in their personal and professional lives. The film may at first come off “like a master filmmaker clearing his throat between more significant projects,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, but: “That’s exactly what Assayas wants you to think.” Ehrlich argues that Non-Fiction’s “apparent ephemerality is often used to underline the staying power of the cinema itself.” Writing for Cinema Scope, Jennifer Barker calls the film “an elegantly crafted exploration of society on the cusp: looking towards a virtual future, longing for a material past.” And Variety’s Jay Weissberg particularly admires the performances from Guillaume Canet and Juliette Binoche, who “can toss off their sparring lines with the ease and conviction of stimulating dinner-party conversations, conveying warmth, brains and fallibility in equal measure.”

Early reviews of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, which tracks events that led to British troops attacking tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Manchester in 1819, have been mixed, but most skew toward disappointment. Granted, there are raves out there, such as those from Peter Bradshaw and Robbie Collin, both of whom emphasize the film’s contemporary relevance. But Variety’s Guy Lodge sums up the overall consensus well when he writes that, while Peterloo is “a frequently rousing experience,” there’s also “no denying that the bulk of this 154-minute film is hard, stone-carrying work, bearing relatively little of Leigh’s signature human comedy.” Kristin Thompson suggests that Peterloo “somewhat resembles the Soviet Socialist Realist films of the 1930s and 1940s.” The problem, she proposes, is that “the Soviet films seldom tried for actual realism, and Leigh cannot entirely give up his passion for naturalism. The result is an uneasy mixture in Peterloo’s tone.”

The unique tone of the work of Rick Alverson, director of The Comedy and Entertainment, can rub some the wrong way. “Alverson’s anti-pleasure sensibility seems visionary to many, but I think he’s a tedious prig,” writes Glenn Kenny. At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor isn’t quite as harsh, but he does predict that The Mountain will be “probably the most intentionally–and unwarrantedly–bleak film you’re likely to see in 2018.” Alverson’s fifth feature “is every bit as weird and challenging as his previous work,” writes Tommaso Tocci for Ioncinema, “but possibly even harder to approach due to the fewer opportunities for release.” The film follows a young man (Tye Sheridan) and a lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) as they trek through the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s. Guy Lodge suggests that The Mountain “may take clear stylistic cues from Lanthimos and Lynch, but it’s no mere exercise in oddball arthouse posing: Alverson’s serene affectations serve a stern, stark thesis about our evolving understanding of mental health, as well as America’s dubious romanticization of its heartland.”

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