Thursday, September 16, 2010

Venice Film Festival 2010: A Review of "Black Venus"

Black Venus (Vénus noire)
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs, Olivier Gourmet, Elina Löwensohn, Jonathan Pienaar
Grade: B

While some will attest that the armless Venus De Milo is a work of art, actual physical faults are treated with considerably less vigour – even when they’re a result of nature itself. The Venus in Abdellatif Kechiche’s biographical drama never comes close to attaining the stature of a God, but nevertheless provides the basis for a fascinating meditation on how one can be judged by the sum of their apparent parts.

The Venus in question is one Saartije ‘Sarah’ Bartman (Torres), who has been brought to England by Hendrick Caezar, a entrepreneur who believes he can find a niche within London’s entertainment industry in the early 1800’s. He markets the woman, whose sagging breasts and abnormally huge buttocks (as well as her African descent) turn heads, as the “Hottentot Venus”, creating a show around her alien features and exploiting his public’s general fear of the unknown. This vision extends to incorporate Saartije as a star, but does so by compromising the grace of the woman for an approach that emphasises her as a dangerous freak of nature.

Kechiche’s depiction of nineteenth-century London successfully brings the squalor of the city to the fore, gaudily presenting the low-brow tastes of working class, pre-Victorian England, and all of its sensationalist hypocrisy. In the very first scene there we sense that this is an ugly place to reside, the folk attracted to businessman Caezar’s star attraction tangibly beying to be entertained, and gladly feasting on the novelty of an unusually-shaped African woman. Saartije is playing along with the theatrical aspect of the turn, engaging in tribal-style dancing, and behaving like an aggressive animal whenever a member of the audience dares to approach her.

Even if the unsightly deformities and circus escapades suggest that “Black Venus” be some feminised form of The Elephant Man, Saartije is at least aware of the meretricious aspects of the production, and appears to neither want nor need rescuing. The film addresses the implications of Caezar’s use of Saartije (whether she is his slave or his colleague) early on, profiling this case in a lengthy, over-staged courtroom scene that lathers tabloid-style brushstrokes onto the argument. It’s rather surprising that Saartije’s issue is held so firmly within the public sphere at all, an observation noted by the British bravura of a court official; “It is a credit to this country that it protects the interests of even a Negro woman.” As well as demonstrating a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the indefinitely flawed logic behind moral hierarchy, Kechiche asserts that individual accountability is a peripheral concern within his film, and as he formally deals with the motives behind Caezar’s governance of Saartije “Black Venus” becomes much more of an indictment of society’s failures than anything Caezar does personally.

The film’s primary theme of exploitation unravels slowly, Saartije’s iconisation as the “Venus” shrewdly de-humanising her as a commodity to indulge in. This is a completely different world from John Hurt’s refined surroundings, as Saartije has to contend with Parisian sex parties rather than formal dinners, but their journeys follow the common trope of the outsider’s need for acceptance. Black Venus stresses how one can become so dependent upon habitual pleasures, and bound by the constraints of a circle of friends, that we can so easily conform to a lifestyle that we haven’t chosen for ourselves. Social indoctrination can occur on a multitude of levels, and in this story Kechiche finds a way to demonstrate how a person’s unique qualities and attributes can be modulated to accommodate a certain gaze.

The richness of "Black Venus" and its assured sense of the period extends (and “extend” really is the key word here) to several lengthy scenes in which Saartije is on display, gyrating her hips and bearing her teeth. As a debilitation of her dignity and condition the surfeit of spectacles serve a purpose, but Saartije’s fetishisation leads to a disconnection between her and the audience. Kechiche seems short on ideas to demonstrate the effect that British life has had on her, opting instead to distract with displays of degrading 19th century pornography. “Black Venus” and its prolonging of the inevitable is a torturous emotional device, which pads out the film to a dauntingly overlong 160 minutes and produces a dawning sense of the anti-climactic.

In the Venus role Yahima Torres – who, to my knowledge, doesn’t even have an IMDB page – gives a display that is so introspectively devastating that it defies belief. Often an escalating vessel for the film’s thematic presentation, rather than an active proponent within the narrative study, her moves to suggest Saartije’s ideological shifts (both past and present) add valuable substance to the character. As she gives a personal account to a packed courtroom she states, “I am an Actress,” with such an inflected sense of motioned duty, realising just as she utters the words that they are ridiculous. Torres reveals Saartije’s sense of performance, ensconced in a culture that shuns any real esteem, her bemusement with science reflecting that, on some level, she has accepted what she has become.

Although the film opens with a scientific lecture about the Black Venus and the cultural derivation of her various bodily intricacies, it then veers to a much looser, freer tone, almost mythologising the concrete knowledge already offered. This is not a well-known pocket of history, and so its sudden shift into a detached world reads as a way of spurning encyclopaedic technicalities and proclaiming that there was more about this woman than her female form. The sad truth about Saartije is that few people in the film realise this, her objectification in the five or six years of her life that “Black Venus” covers maintaining that the woman was never treated as anything other than an ephemeral study: her legacy defines her.

The film’s value lies in its ability to interconnect human sciences with medical science, genuinely accessible as an historical biopic of sorts, but never exclusively tied to a timeline. In avoiding becoming too self-righteous towards his subject Kechiche achieves a lot with his ambitiously-scoped examination of cultural ignorance, and integrates conventional biopic stamps into his outlandish topic. Even if a chunk of “Black Venus” could acceptably be consigned to the cutting room floor, it’s difficult to condemn its unrelenting vision, and the level of interest in its unique appeal makes for a thoroughly worthwhile experience.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Venice Film Festival 2010: Prize Winners

In the last few minutes, Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" unanimously won the Golden Lion for Best Picture at Venice. I'm fairly surprised that it stuck out enough to warrant the big award, but there we go. Ariane Labed's Best Actress win for "Attenberg" is also a little out of the blue, given the vast amount of competition. Still, it's good when things aren't so predictable.

The full list of winners is as follows:

Golden Lion: "Somewhere" by Sofia Coppola
Silver Lion: Álex de la Iglesia for "A Sad Trumpet Ballad"
Special Jury Prize: "Essential Killing" by Jerzy Skolimowsi
Volpi Cup - Best Actor: Vincent Gallo for "Essential Killing"
Volpi Cup - Best Actress: Ariane Labed for "Attenberg"
Screenplay: "A Sad Trumpet Ballad" by Álex de la Iglesia

Venice Awards Speculation (2): Oscar Potential

Of the dozens of films shown at the Venice Film Festival this year, few will make it onto US cinema screens at all, never mind in 2010. Even those that do are often much too tiny, obscure, or hard work for industry bigwigs and media pundits to truly get behind. These are the main films that might have had a chance at Oscar attention.

Black Swan

Natalie Portman's dynamite performance in "Black Swan" could and should receive awards attention, but if the film is mauled by critics in some quarters (as I suspect it may be) then it and her could be entirely dismissed. Portman is the perfect age to break into the established Best Actress nominee mould, and her profile is still very lofty, but she needs people to take her seriously even if they don't do the same for the production as a whole.

Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt's film is too minimal to capture enough backing for major nominations, but its period pull may prove fruitful for the experienced, overlooked costume designer Victoria Farrell. Sadly, I'm inclined to believe that it'll probably be released in very few theatres and make a pittance, since it admirably doesn't flaunt what it has.

I didn't feel that "Miral" was doing enough in any sense to upset a portion of the Academy, but my Jewish, part-ambivalent friend thought otherwise. If the film is indeed seen to be pro-Palestine, as she felt it came across, then the Weinsteins may have a difficult job in getting it a Best Picture nomination. Still, while "Miral" is dull and misguided, it does fit perfectly into the AMPAS realm of the middle-ground ("We want peace for both sides" etc.), and so it's the kind of movie that can manage awards attention without great international acclaim.


I think that Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" is finished in terms of awards opportunity, even in the Original Screenplay category. It doesn't appear to have the support of "Lost in Translation", and certainly doesn't have the same comedic impact. Destined to be drowned out by the post-Toronto flurry.

The Town

If "The Town" makes a big enough splash stateside then it may benefit from an early-ish release. Ben Affleck has the respect from "Gone Baby Gone" (and is an Oscar-winner after all) to command call for a Best Picture nomination, but probably only if similar films follow it and falter.

From the Rest:

One can make a case that if Catherine Deneuve wins Best Actress here, and should "Potiche" turn into a box-office hit in the U.S., then we could be looking at a sentimental nomination for its star. I think that that's very far-reaching, especially since the Actress race is looking particularly crowded at the moment. "Potiche" is also a possibility for France's Foreign Language submission, although they have a history of going against the grain in that regard.

Other Foreign Language submissions may emerge from Antonio Capuano's "Dark Love" (Italy), which is very good. I also think that Colombia would be wise to submit "Little Voices", an animation about the difficulties of children growing up with the threat of Guerilla warfare on their doorstep. It's very baity, and can probably coast a little on the animated, war-themed success of "Waltz With Bashir" a couple of years ago.

Venice Awards Speculation (1): Festival Prize Predictions

Having only just recovered from yesterday's delayed slog back to the North of England, I'm now ready to provide some reaction to the Venice trip. As well as speculating on where the festival's awards may go (Guy Lodge has already stuck his two cents in), I'm also going to be discussing the Oscar potential of some of the films. I don't pretend to be a shrewd Oscar prognosticator, but talking about some of Venice's awards hopefuls in greater detail will hopefully convey my doubts about their ability to appeal to the Academy collective.

First to the anticipated festival prizes, which are even more difficult to judge given that it's essentially decided by seven people locked in a room until decisions are made. Add to that the fact that the head of those seven people is the off-the-wall auteur Quentin Tarantino, and things become even hazier.

Predictions as follows:

Golden Lion: "Black Venus"
Alternate: "Post Mortem"

A film that commands respect for a fascinating and hard-to-depict subject matter, even as it prolongs so many similar scenes and doesn't evolve to the state that one feels it should. Hard to argue with as a showcase piece.

Silver Lion: Kelly Reichardt for "Meek's Cutoff"
Alternate: Darren Aronofsky for "Black Swan"

Perhaps this is wishful thinking as I felt that these were the two most assured pieces of Direction. Reichardt's Western is sparse and delicate, even as it brings up difficult subjects. In any case, her film is a Director's film, and despite the less-than-enthusiastic overall response, I don't think this coup is out of the question.

Special Jury Prize: "Essential Killing"
Alternate: "Post Mortem"

I have a feeling that "Essential Killing" may be popular among the male-dominated jury, but that it won't win the top prize. I found it tiresome in the worst ways.

Volpi Cup - Best Actress: Yahima Torres for "Black Venus"
Alternate: Natalie Portman for "Black Swan"

If I was on the jury I'd be fighting tooth and nail for a Torres victory here, since I felt her performance was one of the most impacting, introspectively devastating things I've witnessed in a cinema for a long while. Her role is certainly the most sympathetic, and so I'd suggest that she be a strong favourite for this.

Volpi Cup - Best Actor: Vincent Gallo for "Essential Killing"
Alternate: Bruce Greenwood for "Meek's Cutoff"

Involved in three films at the festival; two of which he directed, and two of which he starred in. He's also rather handy in the Skolimowski picture, and has a no-dialogue gimmick that may work in his favour.

Screenplay Prize: Athina Rachel Tsangari for "Attenberg"
Alternate: Denis Osokin for "Silent Souls"

Two films that may fly in a tad under the radar, and that I've heard trusty positive word about. Again, if you're spreading the wealth (as so often happens), then these may even pop up in the above prizes.

Coming Up: Judging the Oscar potential of the Venice crop.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Venice Film Festival 2010: Notes on "Potiche"

Directed by François Ozon
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Jérémie Renier
Grade: B+

It's hard to believe that François Ozon's "8 Women" was released as far back as eight years ago, the then-58 year-old Catherine Deneuve its frothy bourgeois star. The repeat adventure of this Director-Actress pairing, "Potiche", taken to mean "trophy", as in "trophy wife", represents Ozon's return to the world of high-camp comedy, chronicling the escapades of high-class housewife Suzanne Pujol and her unfaithful husband.

Even if its unrelenting revelations deem this particular brand of comedy rather throwaway, the consistency of characterisation and the rewarding family dynamic enhance the film's incessant silliness. Deneuve wonderfully adapts to the tone of the picture, her comic delivery and extension of the character a joy to watch.

"Potiche" is a breath of fresh air, packed to the brim with snappy, hilarious dialogue and a refreshingly brisk style. From the quirky, uplifting opening credits it becomes clear that Ozon is going to give us a good time, and judging by the raucous reaction of the audience, I'm fairly certain that he delivered.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Venice Film Festival 2010: A Review of "Somewhere"

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius, Michelle Monaghan, Benicio Del Toro
Grade: B -

Sofia Coppola's work frequently requires you to delve into the minds of her characters, and of her four feature-length productions, "Somewhere" is the film that most guiltily holds back on emotional expression. The story of the disillusioned celebrity is hardly a new concept, but Coppola finds a way to tell a story that doesn't play up to conceits or formulae, crafting a genuine father-daughter relationship and maintaining a rather scathing stance on "celebrity", and its tendency to distract from real-world connections.

Sparsely-shot scenes litter the first act, curbing the film's accessibility considerably. For instance, there are two separate pole dancing scenes within ten minutes of each other, and don't contribute enough to our view of Stephen Dorff's Johnny enough to warrant inclusion. The film feels wallowing and suspended before the entrance of Chloe (Fanning), and at only 90 minutes more scenes between them is needed to fully grasp the looseness of their relationship. One feels that Coppola is selling this story a little short.

Still, there are many moments where she effectively conveys the distance and distortion a life of luxury can create, and in a tenderly different way to the dislocation in "Lost in Translation". This film is more about the dangers of taking things for granted, and the denouement of Coppola's film somewhat atones for the overall slightness of its scope.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Venice Film Festival 2010: A Review of "Miral"

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring: Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Elmasri
Grade: C -

Although the film is titled "Miral", after the Palestinian revolutionary, it's over an hour before Miral herself -- a plucky Freida Pinto -- makes an appearance. Much of the film's first half is made up of flimsy exposition (some of which isn't even relevant), and the story becomes somewhat of a burdened timeline representation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"Miral" doesn't work as an overview because it is so uniformally-written, with a definitive solemnity about the middle-eastern battle and its talking points over the past sixty years. This would be much easier to take were Julian Schnabel able to connect his characters to their surroundings and create a tight enough bond between the four principal women that he highlights. Instead, "Miral" suffers from a lack of focus, historically-aware but hesitant about whether to centre itself around Miral or her mentor Hind Husseini. In terms of time, the span between them is rather great, and resultantly the plot becomes far too strained and indeterminate. Key shifts in Miral's political and emotional attitudes are bypassed to accommodate a progressive trawl through the history books.

Schnabel's unorthodox method of filmmaking aids in richening the appeal of "Miral", well-shot for the most part and even occasionally moving. Nevertheless, the script's early misgivings lead to a disjointed and uneven feel; there may be a lot to say about this subject, but "Miral" isn't the film to say it.

Venice Film Festival 2010: Day 2

A strenuous day 2 began with the harmless "Machete", Robert Rodriguez's latest idea for a movie, adapted from the spoof Grindhouse trailer of the same name. While occasionally hilarious the film is a strong rival to "The Expendables", in that its fatefully lazy plotting emphasises both the good and bad of its manic tone.

My second viewing was altogether different, the tender Italian film "Dark Love", about a girl who is gang-raped and her psychological post-struggle, as well as the struggle of one her incarcerated assailants to cope with what he has done. Director Antonio Capuano deals with the subject modestly, and successfully avoids any offensive contrivances.

I then made a brief return to my hotel room to freshen up before the evening's double-screening of Julian Schnabel's "Miral", and Anh Hung Tran's "Norweigan Wood". The former constantly frustrated me with its tepid approach to a heavy subject matter, and a wildly miguided narrative structure. By contrast, "Norweigan Wood" is a much more sincere, gripping take on adolescence, as well as being profoundly beautiful. While it gets a tad bogged down in repetitive teenage exchanges about love, and depicts an over-reliance upon sex as a cure for solitude, it proves remarkably fruitful on an emotional level.

Coming Up: A Review of "Miral"

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Notes on "Black Swan"

Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Grade: B+

In 1948 Moira Shearer's red shoes led her down a path to destruction, shaming the ambitions of its dancing devotee. Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" is a fairy-tale all about self-reflection, reverent of ballet's expressionistic qualities and ambiguities, and the dark promise of a dancer's modus operandi.

"Black Swan" is extraordinary in its frenetic, close-capture sense of spectacle, maintaining an ornateness through all of its gruesome attempts to rattle and drastic character escalation. Natalie Portman as Nina suffers for her art, visibly strained from the duality of the character, and evolves from meek to precocious to jealous to erratic, effectively shading Nina's arc with glimpses of unpredictable self-loathing and scrupulous behaviour.

Aronofsky is often as impulsive as his heroine, exercising some really blatant creative license, with an admittedly coursed fable, but his film gains such boundless energy as it moves and transforms in our minds, that I hardly cared. "Black Swan" is tremendous, and not to be missed.

Venice Film Festival 2010: Day 1

While many folks profess that the worst part about going overseas is the flying, I don't subscribe to that mode of thought. Sure, airports can be stressful, but once you're past all of the rigmarole and protocol a flight can actually feel like a euphoric wave. My flight from East Midlands to Marco Polo proved to be a handy transition, a chilled prep for the buzzed atmosphere of Venice and its lavish Lido.

On the flight there I met a well-to-do, elderly couple, oblivious to the fact that a Festival is even going on in the city for the next eleven days. It puts things into perspective somewhat - we aren't all slaves to cinema, and the isolationist feeling you get when attending the festival isn't solely psychological.

Days like this confirm to me that the film industry is one of the greatest in the world, and even as I lounge in my hotel room, wondering whether tonight's premiere of "Black Swan" will be special or backfire somewhat, I realise that it doesn't matter a great deal. For now I'm a romantic, and I highly doubt that bi-curious ballerinas and their flamboyant psychosis can truly spoil that.

Coming Up: Reaction to "Black Swan"