Continuing our preview of the 20 titles in the running for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which kicks off next week. Today’s selection includes new films from Jonathan Glazer, Kelly Reichardt, Xavier Dolan, Amos Gitai and Philip Gröning.
“Under the Skin,” directed by Jonathan Glazer: Regular readers may well have worked out that this is my most anticipated title of the Venice Film Festival — if not the entire remainder of 2013. Impatiently, I held out a sliver of hope that Glazer’s long-awaited third feature would show up in Cannes, but it was always likeliest to premiere on the Lido — where the British director’s last feature, “Birth,” was unveiled a full nine years ago. The eerie reincarnation drama was an immediately polarizing title. Some denounced it as overreaching twaddle; I’m in the camp that deems it one of the films of the new century. Nothing about “Under the Skin” suggests that Glazer, in his long absence, has grown any more inclined to play it safe.
You may well have heard the premise by now. Adapted from a critically acclaimed, unremittingly dark sci-fi novel by Dutch-born, Scotland-based author Michel Faber, the film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human form, sent to Earth by her employers at a rich extra-terrestrial corporation; there, she prowls the backroads of rural Britain, preying on hitchhikers for decidedly sinister purposes. If you haven’t read the novel, it’s best to curb your knowledge going in; suffice to say it has a wickedly satirical streak that I hope is delicately handled in the adaptation by Glazer and Walter Campbell.
The supporting cast includes Scottish actor Paul Brannigan, who made an auspicious debut last year in Ken Loach’s “The Angel’s Share.” Below the line, it’s interesting to see Glazer, who worked with the late Harris Savides on his last film, reteaming with cinematographer Dan Landin, who shot many of the visually arresting ads and music videos that were Glazer’s calling card in the 90s. The frosty, pristine aesthetic sensibility that is Glazer’s trademark is perfectly suited to this material — as, for that matter, is Scarlett Johansson’s cool allure.
The film has been tightly guarded by its British producers, despite it having been ready for some time. Now, buzz is building that it could be something special: an auteur genre piece with good reason to keep its secrets secret. Early festival reactions will determine whether it’s strictly an art house venture, or has the makings of a classy crossover item in the “Black Swan” vein.
“Night Moves,” directed by Kelly Reichardt: Another of my most anticipated. Reichardt’s last film, the remarkable trail western “Meek’s Cutoff,” played in Competition at Venice three years ago (after being turned down by Cannes, say some sources). So it’s not a surprise to see the defiantly independent American — one of two women vying for the Golden Bear this year — return to the Lido with her latest. What may be a surprise to those who haven’t checked in with Reichardt lately are the new film’s baby steps toward the mainstream. That could work in its favor with the jury: Reichardt has never wanted for passionate advocates, but there are those who find her previous work a little sparse for their taste.
After easing into the practice of name actor collaborations with Michelle Williams, Reichardt has picked her starriest ensemble to date for “Night Moves”: Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard and Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg star as a trio of eco-terrorists whose plot to blow up a dam has severe, unexpected consequences for all three. It’s a premise that reportedly grazes thriller territory while accommodating Reichardt’s regular thematic preoccupations of environmental and human integrity.
Though it’s her largest-scale project to date, the director’s regular below-the-line team, as well as usual co-writer Jon Raymond, is still intact. That’s particularly good news in the case of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who did something approximating magic on “Meek’s Cutoff” (and also distinguished himself this year on “The Bling Ring”).
“Tom at the Farm,” directed by Xavier Dolan: Dolan is probably tired of hearing the word “wunderkind,” but with four features under his belt at the age of 24, the lavishly coiffed French-Canadian actor-director won’t stop hearing it for a good few years yet. Patience is not one of his strengths: he was said to be greatly peeved last year when his third feature, the near three-hour transgender drama “Laurence Anyways,” failed to make the Cannes Competition lineup. The festival’s decision was justified by the intermittently brilliant but precociously overblown film, but Dolan has packed his bags regardless: “Tom at the Farm” will be his first film to premiere outside Cannes, and Venice has duly obliged with a Competition slot.
Still, perhaps he noted some of the “Laurence” criticism: “Tom” finds him taming his vision to a compact 91 minutes, though I rather wish he’d followed his last film’s lead by not casting himself in it. Swings and roundabouts, I guess. Dolan plays the title character, a young urbanite who travels to the countryside for the funeral of his male lover, only to find himself physically and psychologically cornered by the dead man’s violently homophobic brother. Described as a psychological thriller — fresh territory for Dolan indeed — this has the potential to be his simplest, most piercing work since his first (and, I say, still his best) film, “I Killed My Mother.” An unexpected name in the credits is that of Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”), which proves Dolan’s sway these days. Will the jury think he’s ripe for a major award, or deem him still a bit unseasoned?
“Ana Arabia,” directed by Amos Gitai: Prolific Israeli auteur Gitai is a veteran dramatic chronicler of ongoing political and cultural conflict in his native land, and has been in Competition three times before at Venice. His latest continues both traditions, following a young female journalist as she observes and interviews a community of Jewish and Arab outcasts living a deserted rural territory. Perhaps more intriguing than the vague synopsis is the way it’s filmed: Gitai set himself a challenge to tell the entire story in a single unbroken shot lasting over 80 minutes: “It”s also somewhat of a political statement,” he explains in his director’s statement, “commenting that the destinies of Jews and Arabs on this land will not be cut.” Formal ambition plus political relevance — it’s a combination that has impressed other juries, and Venice has been good to Israeli cinema in recent years, with prominent wins for “Lebanon” and last year’s “Fill the Void.”
The Police Officer’s Wife,” directed by Philip Gröning: Eight years after wowing critics and various festival juries with his three-hour monastery documentary “Into Great Silence,” German director Gröning is back, this time with a return to fiction filmmaking. “The Police Officer’s Wife,” however, promises to be as detailed and observational as one of his docs: coming in at 175 minutes, the film tells the story of a young family descending into abuse, following the titular wife as she fights for her child’s soul. Gröning’s cryptic director’s statement says “I shoot better films without a script,” again reminding us of his documentary ties, and he describes the film’s simplicity as “precious.”
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?