With the 76th Venice Film Festival drawing to a close tomorrow night, the jury – led by director Lucrecia Martel – has some tough decisions to make. The standard in the competition has largely been high, whether the films have come from the independent sector, Hollywood studios or streaming outfit Netflix. Animations, documentaries, dramatic features…it feels like artistic director Alberto Barbera struck an excellent balance in his overall selection.
Among the highlights of the second week, Hong Kong director Yonfan’s return to filmmaking for the first time in ten years with No. 7 Cherry Lane. The first animation of the veteran’s career, this beautiful evocation of 1967 Hong Kong is a love letter to cinema, romance and literature, with a story that feels a kinship with Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. The very fact it also features the pro-Communist riots of the era struck a resonant chord, given the current turbulence in Hong Kong.
Another strong Asian film was Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction, which starred Gong Li in a story of espionage and deception set in 1941 war-torn Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Shot in black-and-white, Lou’s storyline, playfully slipping between fiction and reality, left some baffled. But it’s a wonderful nod to films from the era, without ever lurching towards pastiche, and in Gong Li, Lou’s leading lady is in the best form she’s been in for many years.
If there was an award for the most emotive film of the festival, it would go to Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth. The Australian theatre director, making her feature debut here, was just one of two women in the competition. Ben Mendelsohn, also appearing this week in David Michôd’s historical cod-Shakespeare drama The King, plays a psychiatrist father whose terminally ill teenage daughter Milla (Eliza Scanlen) brings an entirely unsuitable older man into her life.
Raising questions about a world where people are self-medicating with prescription drugs, it’s a wildly unpredictable drama in so many ways, driven by a phenomenally free-spirited performance by Scanlen, who previously featured in the HBO drama Sharp Objects alongside Amy Adams. Essie Davis, who starred in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, also appears as Milla’s drama queen mother in a story that manages to cleverly evade the clichés of both the coming-of-age and disease-of-the-week dramas.
Documentary-wise, Alex Gibney’s return with Citizen K was most welcome. An illuminating tale about Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who made his fortune in oil only to come a cropper after crossing Vladimir Putin, Gibney’s film is a fascinating examination of power and wealth. With so much of it set in Britain, not least with reference to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury last year, it has a lot of homegrown interest. But more than that, Citizen K beautifully distils post-Soviet-era history, filtering it through the lens of one man.
The Venice Film Festival runs until 7 September. For more details, visit here.
Lead image: Still from Babyteeth.