Venice 2023: Lanthimos, Bonello, Mann, and Fincher

Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things (2023)

Contenders for the Golden Lion in Venice have been popping surprises on critics for a full week now. Yorgos Lanthimos’s “simplistic, scab-picking nihilism” hasn’t done much for Glenn Kenny over the years, and he “almost literally” walked into a screening of Poor Things “with gritted teeth,” but as he writes in a dispatch to, “like quite a few of my critical colleagues, I actually ended up loving it.”

Peter Bradshaw has been “agnostic” regarding the work of Bertrand Bonello in the past, but he’s given The Beast all five of the stars the Guardian has to offer. For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, the first hour of Michael Mann’s Ferrari is “jumbled and staid,” but then suddenly, it’s “as if a nitrous injection has gone off under the film’s hood.” As for the latest from David Fincher, Collin finds that, considering “the complexity of its director’s work since 2007’s Zodiac, The Killer’s relative simplicity comes as a surprise.”

Poor Things

Having retrieved the fresh corpse of young Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), scar-faced Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) creates what Time’s Stephanie Zacharek calls “a Frankengirl with the brain of a just-learning-to-speak toddler. Her motor skills are still developing, too, which means her gait—her slim legs straight and stiff, her windmilling arms like angled doll parts—has the ungainly beauty of a Pina Bausch routine. Stone is so good at these arty-kooky terpsichorean moves that you watch in awe, and though Bella is a little out there—when she’s allowed to play in her father’s surgery, she stabs at a cadaver’s eye sockets with a scalpel, cackling with unhinged delight—Stone is so captivating that you heedlessly put your faith in her.”

Poor Things is “an intensely serious film—a tale of hard-won female emancipation that may be cinema’s most perverse examination yet of the Pygmalion myth,” suggests Jonathan Romney in Screen. “A film that gives pleasure in every fantastical frame—pleasure to the eye, pleasure to the soul—this dazzling suite of dirty minded delights is set in not-quite-reality during an era of never-quite-was,” writes Jessica Kiang for Sight and Sound.

Godwin’s assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), falls for Bella, but having discovered a shortcut to bliss—“Let us touch each other’s genital pieces!”—she runs off with Duncan Wedderburn, a lawyer “played by Mark Ruffalo as a very funny, deliciously over the top caricature of a louche English cad,” as the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney puts it. As the couple humps their way across the European continent, Poor Things becomes, as Guy Lodge writes in Variety, “a vast absurdist odyssey, positively compact at a galloping 141 minutes, that takes in a groaning buffet of settings and ripe secondary characters—all played with relish by a dream ensemble that runs the gamut from Jerrod Carmichael to Kathryn Hunter to Hanna Schygulla—but rests on a single astonishing performance by Stone.”

“Directors theoretically work through their influences, becoming less overtly derivative and more themselves over time,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, but “in his most perverse gesture, Lanthimos has chosen to go the opposite way, leaning harder into Kubrick fetishism to increasingly baffling effect.” Lanthimos is “still a mischievous provocateur daring people to wince in the face of uncomfortable matter,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, “but in Poor Things he finds grace in the profane and the squalid.” For the Los Angeles Times’s Justin Chang, this “may be the first Lanthimos movie in which this unsparing filmmaker doesn’t just slice his characters open but actually likes what he sees.”

The Beast

The International Cinephile Society has been tabulating critics’ ratings of the films premiering in competition, and for a couple of days, Poor Things sat comfortably at the top of the grid with the highest score by far. Then along came The Beast, knocking Lanthimos and Stone down to a close second. Bonello has dedicated his tenth feature to the late Gaspard Ulliel, with whom he developed this loose adaptation of Henry James’s 1903 novella about a man who fritters his life away while awaiting a catastrophe he believes to be his destiny.

In The Beast, that man is a woman, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), who in the year 2040 is encouraged by postapocalyptic AI overlords to become a more productive member of society by purifying her DNA, ridding herself of all emotion, and revisiting her past lives—specifically, two of them. In 1910, she’s a Parisian pianist unhappily married to a doll factory owner but drawn to Louis (George McKay), though her persistent fear of impending disaster keeps her from allowing herself to give in to love.

Vulture’s Rachel Handler finds that Seydoux “really gets to show off her tortured, horny rom-dram heroine chops here, her wide eyes often brimming over with unspilled tears; in one scene, she imitates the expression of a doll for at least fifteen seconds, her face going completely flat for so long that it starts to become terrifying. Though she’s the most social version of herself here, she still registers as alienated, with Bonello often choosing to shoot her close-up as she wrestles with her unnameable fear and her unexpressed lust.”

In 2014, Gabrielle is a lonely French actress in Los Angeles and Louis has become a rich and angry incel. Bonello tells IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio that he lifted Louis’s monologues from videos left behind by the real-life misogynist killer Elliot Rodger because “I couldn’t find a better or more freaky way to express these ideas.” Guy Lodge and the Film Verdict’s Jay Weissberg find this strand to be the weakest of the three, with Weissberg going so far as to suggest that “the 2014 portion feels like a film needing to play out on its own.”

IndieWire’s David Ehrlich disagrees, arguing that “the garish and unbearably suspenseful 2014 chapter is a major swerve for a movie that’s been alternating between staid period drama and ultra-minimalistic sci-fi until that point, but watching Louis stalk Gabrielle around the glass mansion she’s house-sitting is what ultimately galvanizes the various parts of The Beast into a single coherent animal.”


Michael Mann spent more than three decades trying to make a movie about racing legend and daredevil entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari. Writing credits for the finally completed project go to Mann; Brock Yates, the author of the 1991 book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine; and screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin (The Italian Job, 1969), who passed away in 2009. Ferrari focuses on the year 1957, when the company Enzo (Adam Driver) and his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), founded in 1947 is in deep financial trouble. The Ferraris’ marriage is already strained by the loss of their twenty-four-year-old son to muscular dystrophy, but it just about cracks wide open when Laura discovers that Enzo and his mistress, Lina (Shailene Woodley), have a ten-year-old son.

Driver “somehow manages the impossible,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “Some performances are technically perfect but devoid of life: Christian Bale in Vice comes to mind, an uncanny reconstruction of Dick Cheney with zero dimensionality. Driver’s Ferrari is the opposite: technically imperfect, perhaps, but wonderfully alive.” Driver “makes Ferrari—this stolid, strapping wall of a man, towering over everyone around him and always commanding our attention—something indelible, a force not so much of nature as steel, asphalt, and death.”

For her part, Cruz “goes full Anna Magnani here, her smoky eyes both shrouded in grief and blazing with fury over Enzo’s personal and corporate betrayals,” writes Alonso Duralde at the Film Verdict. Writing for Paste, Anna McKibbin finds Driver and Cruz to be “an odd pairing; one explosive and slick, the other elusive and cumbersome, but they relish the challenge of making this relationship feel real, spitting arguments at one another with vitriol steeped in regret. The Ferraris upend any tired notion of ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman.’ Instead, Mann negotiates a harsher interpretation of such infamous marriages, where a great man’s life is built atop the exhausted remains of his heartbroken wife.”

Some critics are enthralled by the familial drama, others aren’t, but all agree that the sequence depicting the big race, the Mille Miglia, is, as Stephanie Zacharek puts it, “an action masterclass.” Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt “trades an observational approach for one that places us right inside these rattling beasts,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook. “Close-ups, POVs, and reverse POVs are swapped for shots that heighten the vehicle’s precarious textures: leaking oil, smut, rocks kicking up. Combined with Pietro Scalia’s editing, the whole segment unspools at a breathless tempo; Ferrari is never more terrifying or majestic than it is here.”

The Killer

“Execution is everything,” Michael Fassbender’s unnamed professional assassin says at one point during his wall-to-wall voice-over in The Killer, and as a colleague pointed out to the Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin, the observation is “arguably the most Fincherian tagline ever.” For Felperin, David Fincher’s twelfth feature, written by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and based on the French graphic novel series by Matz (Alexis Nolent) and illustrator Luc Jacamon, is “a satisfyingly retro, location-hopping genre exercise with fisticuffs, gadgets (albeit ones bought from Amazon), and smooth-talking antagonists that all plays like a tongue-in-cheek spoof of James Bond movies, but with a much more amoral anti-hero.”

Holed up in an abandoned Parisian WeWork office, Fassbinder’s hit man prepares to take out a target and, as Glenn Kenny writes, “articulates his philosophy (a relatively banal quasi-nihilism), lays out his methods, and reassures the viewer, ‘I’ve done my 10,000 hours.’ And then he misses the shot. And we hear him think, ‘This is new.’” His employers rough up his girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte), and the killer is off on a round-the-world tour to exact his revenge on a series of shady characters played by Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard, Kerry O’Malley, and—a favorite even for the film’s detractors—Tilda Swinton.

Bilge Ebiri suggests that The Killer could have or perhaps should have been (and maybe is?) a comedy, because “with the protagonist’s endless blathering, things tip too often towards inadvertent silliness. Leaning further into the comedy might have worked, but Fassbender’s submerged performance and Fincher’s controlled direction are a bit too cool to be deadpan. They should have brought back Leslie Nielsen from the dead for this one.”

Fincher is “hooked on his own obsession with technique, his mystique of filmmaking-as-virtuoso-procedure,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “It’s not that he’s anything less than great at it, but he may think there’s more shading, more revelation in how he has staged The Killer than there actually is.” But Stephanie Zacharek finds that Fincher “seems to be having a great deal of fun with The Killer. Though he takes it seriously as a piece of action craftsmanship, there’s nothing overserious about it.” It’s “all entertainingly absurd,” finds Peter Bradshaw, and yet it’s also “a thriller of pure surface and style and managed with terrific flair and Fassbender’s careworn, inscrutable face is just right for it.”

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