Strangely akin to this fictional depiction of role identification gone mad was Casey Affleck’s hotly anticipated “documentary” following Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement from acting to become a hip-hop singer, which actually turns out to be his most demanding dramatic role yet — method acting gone out of control to its ultimately confusing conclusion. As the scruffy hirsute hero declares, “My purpose is to bring what is inside me out.” The highly scatological romp through Phoenix’s neurotic and even deranged personality highlights many unflattering moments, including a coke-fueled evening with prostitutes and a scene in which his assistant “Anthony” (tellingly played by actor Antony Langdon) shits on his face after being accused of betrayal. Real or fiction — and probably a bit of both — it is a variously slapstick, painful and fascinating look at the pitfalls of living a life in public. At some point Phoenix declares, “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore.” With the premiere of the film, the gig is up and Phoenix was spotted in Venice dressed as his formerly clean-shaven self. “I’m still here. I’m still me,” goes the song at the end. If we ever had any doubt, do we really care? Maybe not, but it was an interesting conceptual exercise.
In fact, a feature in competition, “Somewhere,” written and directed by Sofia Coppola, made a serendipitous counterpoint: a purposefully banal depiction of a famous young actor living an enviable life at the Chateau Marmont — take your pick whom he might resemble — where gorgeous women offer themselves to him daily, looked more like reality than “I’m Still Here.” With a less-is-more aesthetic, the film focuses on protagonist Johnny Marco, played with the requisite deadpan expression by Stephen Dorff, who realizes his dissatisfaction when he is forced to hang out with his 11-year-old daughter while his ex-wife inexplicably goes away. The most beautiful cinematic moment is an underwater scene in which Marco and his daughter, Cleo, played luminously by Elle Fanning, pantomime a tea party in a pool. There is much that is not explained, and the idea here is that the most significant moments in life are those in which nothing really happens, so that is what we watch. It is not clear whether this understated mechanism translates well to film, but it is an interesting and often enjoyable experiment.
On the other hand, Julian Schnabel romanticizes real life in “Miral,” a chronicle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a beautiful young woman who gets caught in the middle. It is certainly valuable for recounting the history and calling public attention to a tragic situation, covering all the bases, but it is almost too gorgeous and perfectly packaged to seem true to life. For example, a scene in which Miral watches the Israeli military destroy a Palestinian home — an all too common occurrence — is shot in slow motion with emotionally moving violin music.