Venice 2018

Pop Stars, Painters, and Pastorals

The Daily — Sep 4, 2018
Natalie Portman in Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (2018)

The excitement that greeted such films as Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite during the opening days of the seventy-fifth Venice Film Festival has petered out a little as the festival rolls out its mid-week offerings. Some of the films in this batch have split the critics, suggesting that they may give us as much to talk about this season as the ones met with immediate universal acclaim.

Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux was evidently booed at its first screenings, but on the whole, the reviews so far have been strong. “Having established himself in films by Michael Haneke, Ruben Östlund, Olivier Assayas, et al. as the go-to American guy for European art cinema,” writes Jonathan Romney for Screen, “Corbet launched himself as a cineaste in his own right with 2015’s bold but somewhat solemn Jean-Paul Sartre adaptation The Childhood of a Leader. That film had admirers but left many skeptical—yet its follow-up leaves no doubt about Corbet’s audacity, imagination and intelligence.”

Narrated by Willem Dafoe and featuring songs by Sia and a score by the great Scott Walker, Vox Lux opens with a prelude depicting a fictional yet all-too-familiar tragedy, a school shooting. The year is 1999, and the response to the shooting from the young, teen-aged Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a song that propels her to stardom. “Act I: Genesis” tracks her rise in the early 2000s, and the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin finds that Jude Law here “is a grumbling, low-key joy as her manager, while Jennifer Ehle emits a Streepian hauteur as her publicist.” “Act II: Regenesis” brings us to the present, with Natalie Portman taking over the lead and giving us what Variety’s Guy Lodge calls “a riveting performance of fiercely mannered bravado . . . as a kamikaze electropop diva running her Faustian fame off and under the rails.”

The shooting is echoed by at least one more terrorist attack and, writing for the Notebook, Leonardo Goi calls Vox Lux “a merciless autopsy of a bulimic society and its inability to process success and horror . . . It does not seek to understand the reasons behind acts of unspeakable violence—instead, it offers a portrait of the ways they are digested—one seen through the eyes of an utterly deluded superstar whom society reveres, and who acts as its synecdoche.”

Many reviewing Vox Lux can’t help but mention Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, not only because both films are set in the same milieu but also because Portman’s Celeste reminds some of Cooper’s costar, Lady Gaga. No one is as crazy about this fourth version of the story of two journeys on the ladder of fame, one up and one down, as Jim Hemphill at the Talkhouse. He calls A Star Is Born “the most impressive directorial debut by an actor since Robert Redford’s Ordinary People—maybe since Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.” Elsewhere, the praise is more grounded. IndieWire’s Michael Nordine finds Gaga “resplendent as a diamond-in-the-rough singer whose booming voice and subtle expressions would make her predecessors proud.” And for Vulture’s Emily Yoshida, “what keeps the film from feeling like a mere rehash is the gut-level romanticism of it all. Cooper and Gaga’s onscreen chemistry is raw and real.”

Vincent Van Gogh, a pop star of the art world—there have been at least three musicals based on his life, never mind the movies such as Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, or Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo—is played by Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate, directed by another larger-than-life painter, Julian Schnabel. (Dominic West’s character in Ruben Östlund’s The Square is based on Schnabel.) “Defoe often goes full Jesus as Vincent, and even today few actors do beatific better,” writes Glenn Kenny at “And long scenes of the artist in the fields of Arles, showing what Vincent saw when he painted, constitute a form of pastoral that’s increasingly rare in movies today.” Reviews have been solid, with most agreeing with Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who calls the film “a flowingly intuitive and celebratory biopic.” And he adds that, after Before Night Falls (2000) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Schnabel “has stripped down his filmmaking in the most seductive way, all to achieve something audacious and elemental.”

A good number of films premiering in Venice in the past few days have dealt in some form or another with an America undergoing fundamental changes. As Rory O’Connor points out at the Film Stage, Monrovia, Indiana is “quite the departure” for Frederick Wiseman. The documentarian has recently given us “a masterful diptych of New York-set works,” In Jackson Heights (2015), a portrait of “the most diverse neighborhood on the planet,” and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017), which focuses on “what is arguably the crown jewel of liberal, East coast democratic society.” By contrast, Monrovia is a town of around a thousand inhabitants located deep in the heart of Trump country. “Wiseman treats the locale and its residents with just as much respect as he did with any of those recent gargantuan projects,” writes O’Connor. And Guy Lodge adds that “politics lurk politely beneath the lawnmower-clipped surface of Wiseman’s film. As ever, he’s more concerned with impassively documenting the daily social and professional practices that keep the town ticking.” We’ll take a closer look at Monrovia, Indiana in the coming weeks, but for now, note that there’s a brief excerpt online from Nicolas Rapold’s review in the new issue of Film Comment, and a fuller one from Lola Peploe’s interview with Frederick Wiseman in the new issue of the Paris Review.

When Trump was elected, the Italian director Roberto Minervini, who’s been working in the U.S. since 2000, wrote a sobering piece for Cinema Scope in which he explained why he wasn’t taken by surprise. His 2015 film The Other Side was a deep dive into Louisiana swamp country, and his previous feature, Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), is soaked in the culture of the Bible Belt. With What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, Minervini turns to African Americans in the Deep South and tackles, according to David Rooney’s list in the Hollywood Reporter, “ingrained racism, injustice, gaping income disparity, and rapid gentrification.” Rooney finds the new film “talky and didactic, its shortage of raw power making it just as often numbing as stirring, despite its plaintive statements about inequality.” And for Variety’s Jay Weissberg, “the film seems so concerned with its handsome black-and-white aesthetics that it never feels angry enough.” And at IndieWire, Ben Croll suggests that the film “knows exactly where to look and what to ask, but never sticks around long enough to learn anything.”

And finally for now, most critics are finding David Oelhoffen’s Close Enemies not quite measuring up to the bar the French director set for himself with Far from Men (2014), the last film he brought to Venice. In the new one, two men who grew up together as friends in a Parisian banlieue now find themselves on the opposite sides of the law. “While the frictive tension is palpable between [Matthias] Schoenaerts’s bulked-up, doggedly loyal drug runner and [Reda] Kateb’s soulfully buttoned-down, conflicted cop in their few scenes together, for the most part, their destinies run in frustrating parallel, never really entwining in a meaningful way,” finds Jessica Kiang in Variety. “At best,” Close Enemies is “a consummately well-crafted and committed version of a story we’ve seen play out dozens of times before.” Most agree, but at the same time, many also find the unoriginal story well-executed and the performances strong. “Both Kateb and Schoenaerts are masters at underplaying their characters’ emotions without turning into blank slates,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter.

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