I can hardly believe we’re at that point in the year already, but it’s less than a week until Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” opens the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday — kicking off a long, busy, hype-filled run of fall festivals, and in turn, priming us for the even longer, even busier, even more hype-filled awards season that lies ahead. As usual, I’ll be in attendance at Venice, and this year, we’ve heard your requests for a more detailed festival preview than usual. Time is too short for me to preview the 20 Competition titles individually, as in my Cannes Check series. Each day for the next few days, however, I’ll be casting an eye over a mixed selection of five Golden Lion contenders — beginning today with the latest from Stephen Frears, James Franco, Tsai Ming-Liang, Philippe Garrel and Merzak Allouache.
“Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears: “Philomena,” of course, is one of the more known unknowns in this year’s Competition; the publicity machine is already in motion for this British comedy-drama, with The Weinstein Company having released a trailer that promises a certain laughter-through-the-tears approach. That’s something it doesn’t have in common with 2006’s “The Queen” — the last Frears film that premiered in Venice — but in many other respects, “Philomena” fits the profile of that Oscar-winning biopic with canny precision. Also a true-life story serving as a showcase for a revered British dame (Judi Dench this time, rather than Helen Mirren), the film even boasts a no-doubt-tastefully-understated score by Alexandre Desplat to help the association along. And given that “The Queen” won both Best Actress and Best Screenplay on the Lido, opening a virtually unobstructed path to the Oscar for Mirren, that’s an association “Philomena” is keen to foster.
Dench stars as the title character, an elderly Irish woman who travels to America in search of the son she gave up for adoption as a teenager, when she was forced into a convent. Steve Coogan, meanwhile, stars as Martin Sixsmith, the political journalist who assists Philomena in her quest. Coogan co-wrote the film, too, capping off a good year for the comedian: he received positive notices for his turn as 1970s porn baron in “The Look of Love,” recently topped the UK box office with his NYFF-bound sitcom spinoff “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa,” and also turned up aainst type in “What Maisie Knew.” If “Philomena” really takes off as an awards vehicle for Dench, perhaps he could nab the odd mention as well — especially with the BAFTA crowd.
Looking only as far ahead as Venice, meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see how the film, which appears to trade heavily in matters of Catholicism, plays with the Italian crowd. Advance word is that it’s a small film, but an affecting one, with a gentle comic undertow throughout. Will it prove too slight for festival honors, or could Dench — never before rewarded at a major festival — take the Volpi Cup? We’ll see. Frears has a reputation to recover after such recent misfires as “Lay the Favorite” and “Tamara Drewe,” but Venice has been a happy hunting ground for him this century: in addition to “The Queen,” “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Liam” were also warmly received in Competition. Finally, the presence of cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“Wuthering Heights,” “Ginger and Rosa,” “Fish Tank”) is reason enough to see anything these days.
“Child of God,” directed by James Franco: Another festival, another James Franco joint. Venice, however, is the first of the major festivals to go the whole hog and put one of the self-styled renaissance man’s directorial efforts in Competition. Maybe, then, this will be the first one to justify festival programmers’ ongoing fascination with him (or to persuade distributors to actually release it). Only three months ago, Franco’s ambitious, fussy stab at filming William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” premiered at Cannes to middling reviews: it wasn’t the embarrassment some poison-penned critics were hoping for, but it wasn’t a success, either. Undaunted, he’s hitting the Lido with another attempt at adapting a Great American Novelist: this time, Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God.”
As in “As I Lay Dying,” Franco has been modest enough to cast himself in a supporting role. Instead, it’s little-known actor Scott Haze (also featured in “Dying,” along with co-star Tim Blake Nelson) who stars as Lester Ballard, a social outcast in rural Tennessee whose personal and economic disenfranchisement descends to hellish levels of sin and degradation. It’s one of McCarthy’s bleakest visions (and yes, that’s saying something) and not one of his more cinematically friendly, so Franco has his work cut out for him. He co-wrote the screenplay with actor-producer Vince Jolivette, with whom he also collaborated on his avant-garde but sketchy Sal Mineo biopic “Sal” — which, as it happens, premiered in a Venice sidebar two years ago. Color me curious (again), but not overly optimistic.
“Stray Dogs,” directed by Tsai Ming-liang: It’s been four years since Taiwanese-Malaysian auteur Tsai, a defiantly individual stylist to say the least, debuted his last feature, “Face,” at Cannes; opalescently elusive and beautiful, the film proved decidedly distributor-averse. It was a long way removed from the wistful, humane pleasures of his 1994 breakthrough film “Vive l’amour,” which won the Golden Lion at Venice; he has since returned to the Lido with “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” and “Goodbye, Dragon Inn.”
“Stray Dogs” sounds like it may be a return to more accessible territory, at least by Tsai’s enigmatic standards. Explores his pet themes of social alienation and marginalization, the film centers on a young, homeless brother and sister, and their struggle to survive on the outskirts of Taipei with their father, who works as a human billboard. Lest you be imagining Ken Loach-style urban miserablism, it sounds like Tsai’s mysterious wooziness is still very much at play here. Expect little dialogue, some rapturous imagery and a lump in your throat. If the director is on his best film, this could well be among the jury’s favorites.
“Jealousy,” directed by Philippe Garrel: Venice programmers remain steadfastly devoted to Garrel, but reader, I cannot lie: I walked out of his last film, “A Burning Hot Summer,” two years ago, and nothing has made me regret it since. A dull, muggy assemblage of trysts and tiffs between a selection of predictably languorous bohemians, it found the 65-year-old Frenchman some way off the form of 2005’s Silver Lion-winning “Regular Lovers” — itself something of an acquired taste. I’m willing to forgive and forget, though on paper, “Jealousy” sounds alarmingly like Garrel-by-numbers. Again starring his son Louis, it tells the story of a theater actor caught between two lovers: one the mother of his child, the other an unfaithful, washed-up actress. I have a feeling I know how this is going to go, but I’ll try stay the course this time.
“The Rooftop,” directed by Merzak Allouache: Like Garrel, 68-year-old Algerian director is one of the elder statesmen of the Competition, though he’s a less familiar presence: it’s his first time vying for the Golden Lion, and I confess I’m not well acquainted with his work. In his latest, the director professes to explore the troubled underbelly of Algeria after emerging from a decade of terrorism. The ensemble drama interweaves five narratives — covering themes of torture, prejudice and economic hardship — over the course of a single day, and linked by a single rooftop terrace. It sounds like the kind of socially conscious international fare that often finds favor with festival juries, but that’s pure projection; Allouache has won awards outside of Competition at both Cannes and Berlin.
Join me tomorrow for another roundup of five Venice Competition titles, as we count down to our festival coverage — which kicks off on Wednesday. What films are you most looking forward to?