By Cathryn Drake
A first look at the festival’s films, from the arresting “Black Swan” to the atmospheric “Somewhere” to Schnabel’s controversial “Miral.”
VENICE – The venerable Venice Film Festival is the oldest in the world, but it looks younger than ever this time, with the average age of its directors at 48. With maverick Marco Mueller at the helm it also seems to be evolving into a less mainstream, more artsy and experimental event, with a wide range of fascinating, if spotty, offerings — which is good news for those looking for diversity and something new. In the wake of the economic downturn, some of the hotly anticipated Hollywood films, such as Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” resembled low-budget efforts this time around, focusing on innovation rather than glitz. In fact, although the big-name star factor is down, a slew of world premieres are drawing the international press, and audience numbers have reportedly increased by nearly 20 percent so far this year. So while competitors like Berlin and Toronto continue to emphasize market share, Venice is emerging as the winner in terms of prestige and originality.
The “Orizzonti” prize competition, with a jury headed by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who won the Silver Lion last year, includes films by visual artists such as the explosive “House” by Douglas Aitken, “Better Life” by Isaac Julien, and “K.364 a Journey by Train” by Douglas Gordon. But thankfully it is not just a highbrow menu: Mueller has close ties with Asian film, so a selection of martial arts features — including a restored version of John Woo’s masterpiece “The Killer” and the world premiere of “Jianyu (Reign of Assassins),” as well as a Korean remake of his “A Better Tomorrow” and Andrew Lau’s “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen,” an homage to Bruce Lee — is being screened to accompany the award of a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement to the Chinese director. One of the 23 films in competition is Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins.”
Speaking of alter egos, on opening night viewers were sucked into the vortex of obsession and female hysteria depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller “Black Swan,” in which Natalie Portman plays a ballet dancer vying for the dual lead role, both the good and the evil protagonists, in an avant-garde production of Swan Lake. Reality and hallucination merge in the dizzyingly intense film, a gritty close-up look at the backstage of the New York ballet world that resembles more Polanski’s “Repulsion” than “The Turning Point.” In what may be her best performance yet, Portman depicts a sensitive young woman subjected to the pressure of her mother’s failed career, who in a neurotic attempt at perfection blurs the line between personal and stage identities with horrific results — but perhaps not edgy, or ironic, enough to make it great. To wit, for example, many in the audience lamented that a hot sex scene between Portman’s Nina and her rival, played by Mila Kunis, turned out to be just a dream. The ruthless ballet company director, played wonderfully by Vincent Cassel, tells the dancer: “I never see you lose yourself,” and advises her to let go and give into her dark side. It could be that Aronofsky did not take that advice enough to heart.