Venice Film Festival 2019

The 76th Venice Film Festival is underway, with an impressive roll-out of movies in the first couple of days. The opener, The Truth, was certainly a prestigious title for the festival’s artistic director Alberto Barbera to scoop. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, it’s the first film he’s made since 2018’s Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. The Japanese maestro can be seen here working for the first time out of his comfort zone, in France, with a script that mixes French and English.

The story of a legendary actress (played by – who else? – Catherine Deneuve) and her testy relationship with her daughter (Juliette Binoche), it’s a typically playful piece from Kore-Eda. Certainly, the director’s change to a European setting hasn’t unsettled his gentle, observational rhythms, and Ethan Hawke, as the husband to Binoche’s troubled character, brings some much-needed levity to a drama about the way memory shapes our own personal truth.

Whilst Barbera has been criticised heavily for programming too few female directors in his competition line-up, there was much love for Haifaa Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, which was unveiled on Wednesday evening. A revealing look at women in Saudi Arabia, it’s a potent story about a doctor (Mila Al Zahrani) who campaigns to be elected to the municipal council, much to the shock of those around her. Rarely has the lid been lifted on Saudi society so blatantly.

On Thursday, two American auteurs – James Gray and Noah Baumbach – were on hand to present two of the strongest films of their careers. They also couldn’t be more different, in scope at least. Set in the near future, Gray’s Ad Astra is a cerebral science fiction drama. Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, a highly capable astronaut sent on a mission to connect with his long-thought-dead father.

Gray, who perhaps has never quite got the recognition he deserves for films like Two Lovers, The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z, excels here with a grand vision of the future, while his Director of Photography, Hoyte van Hoytema – who also shot Chris Nolan’s Interstellar – delivers some spellbinding imagery. The action scenes are also hugely original, using real-world physics where possible to ground the pyrotechnics. 

With its feet firmly planted on terra firma, Baumbach’s Marriage Story could well be the film to beat at the festival. His second film for Netflix, after the patchy The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), this is a much tighter affair, as it deconstructs the unravelling of a marriage between Adam Driver’s theatre director and Scarlett Johansson’s actress, as they go through an increasingly bitter divorce.

Featuring Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as three lawyers who get involved with proceedings, it’s a devastating watch at times, but the performances are first-rate, dialogue is top-notch and the volcanic emotions that erupt towards the end will knock you for six. What is most remarkable, however, is that Baumbach hasn’t created a film that’s cynical about marriage or relationships. Expect to hear much more of this film in the coming months.

James Mottram

The Venice Film Festival runs until 7 September. For more details, visit here.

1. Still from
The Perfect Candidate.