“The smell of Venice suffused the night, lacustrine essences richly distilled. Late summer was hot here.”
So begins Anthony Powell’s Temporary Kings, a novel that rubs gently against Venice Film Festival in the late 1950s. Few such lakey odours greeted The Irish Times on its first visit to the event for more than 20 years. But the mosquitoes were uncomfortably hungry and late summer – early autumn, really – was indeed baking the make-up on the icons’ grinning faces.
The organisers had other things to worry about. Premature histories of the pandemic often fail to note there actually was a Venice Film Festival in 2020. Movie stars came. Nomadland won the Golden Lion. Then the walls came in again. By all accounts, the online booking system – instituted to allow social distancing within venues – worked well, but, with a greatly increased press contingent in 2021, demand exceeded supply.
Hot tickets such as those for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog vanished immediately after becoming available 72 hours in advance. Critics ended up playing endless games of Whac-a-Mole on their smartphones – which is to say constantly reloading the screening in the hope of hitting a returned seat before someone else grabbed it. Normality is still some way off.
There was plenty to savour once you whacked the mole and made it through the often lengthy security queues. It may be vulgar to mention the Oscars, but over the past four years, every winner of the Golden Lion, the festival’s main prize, has been nominated for best picture, and two, Nomadland and The Shape of Water, have won that Academy Award.
Generating ecstatic reviews following its Lido premiere, The Power of the Dog seems the most likely title to follow that established path. It is an extraordinary film, certainly Campion's best since The Piano and maybe her best since An Angel at My Table, back in 1990.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a tyrannical rancher in early-20th-century Montana whose already flinty relationship with his younger brother George becomes properly toxic when George marries a local widow. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, engaged in real life, are differently heartbreaking as the newlyweds – he a decent modern man in a good suit, she turning to drink as Phil becomes more suffocating – but Cumberbatch's apparently closeted, fiercely intelligent despot dominates the action.
Based on a novel by Thomas Savage, the picture, though filmed largely in Campion's native New Zealand, offers a compelling variation on alienation in the face of advancing American civilisation. Kodi Smit-McPhee is crafty as George's new, apparently gay stepson. Ari Wegner's cinematography works cleverly with the hues and structures of Edward Hopper. Jonny Greenwood's score, all scrapes and screeches, powerfully captures the disintegrating psychologies.
Greenwood was back for further sonic meltdowns in Pablo Larraín's mostly fabulous Spencer. This, you will not need to be told, is the one that stars Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana fraying as she contemplates divorce from Prince Charles during a weekend at Sandringham. The themes of the film are echoed in Greenwood's music: formal classical refrains for the establishment rituals; squeaky, snorty free jazz for Diana's private distress. At times Stewart seems to be battling with accent and posture – did we really need a full impersonation? – but the mild stiltedness suits a film so engaged with spectral camp. The ghost of Anne Boleyn appears with an implicit warning. Diana imposes herself between shooters and fleeing pheasants. Relations with the few staff members she trusts cross unexpected boundaries.
The script by Steven Knight, writer of Dirty Pretty Things, is, perhaps, more conventional than the film Larraín has made from it. But this remains a bracingly odd film that, though very much on Diana's side, is not so unkind to the Windsors as we might have expected. Spencer inevitably feels like a follow-up to Jackie, Larraín's film about Jacqueline Kennedy, and many were left wondering what lonely woman might help him complete a trilogy. Britney? Mrs Simpson? Maybe the older Garbo.
Irish interest will turn to performances by Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal's debut as director. Olivia Colman stars as an academic named, a little too archly, for the subject of WB Yeats's Leda and the Swan. While holidaying in Greece, this Leda happens upon a dislocated family of American hoodlums who become concerned when one of their number briefly loses her young daughter.
Based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter is a little too diffuse in its plotting, but, as a vivid character study, it lodges firmly in the brain. Buckley is gripping as a younger version of Leda. Mescal makes something of a puzzling role. Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris are also there to flesh out a starry cast. If Colman had not won best actress here just three years ago, she would probably be this year's favourite.
Few film-makers have remained vital for so long as Paul Schrader. The veteran Michigander, writer of Taxi Driver, returns to his most familiar theme – the existentialist loner adrift in an unfriendly world – in his follow-up to the much celebrated First Reformed. The Card Counter stars Oscar Isaac as a former military interrogator who, after serving time for torturing prisoners in Iraq, takes to life as a successful itinerant gambler.
There is a terrifying cleanness to a film that seems exhausted by the compromises and hypocrisies of the American accommodation. The polish and sheen cannot distract from the corruption that pervades the action. A moronic, flag-draped patriot emerges as the protagonist's greatest rival on the poker table. The man who inducted him into torture has, as a private contractor, evaded arrest and, in the chilling form of Willem Dafoe, now tours the nation flogging security tech. This deeply troubling drama profits greatly from Isaac's superhuman stillness. He does everything by apparently doing nothing.
Yes, we need to talk about Isaac. He was everywhere at Venice. He appeared in two films, The Card Counter and Dune, and in episodes from one television series, Hagai Levi's adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. He was caught up in a social-media sensation when slow-motion footage from the red carpet of that last project – an effective, witty translation of the original to HBO – circulated showing him kissing the inside of his co-star Jessica Chastain's arm. It seemed the two old chums were just having a bit of a lark.
Playing out of competition, Denis Villeneuve's Dune was the noisiest, most attention-grabbing film of the opening few days. Proposed opening section of a two-part take on Frank Herbert's science-fiction fantasy, the film casts Timothée Chalamet as heir to a mighty dynasty caught up in colonial doings on a planet that produces an all-powerful, impossibly valuable substance named melange. Villeneuve approaches the project with the grey earnestness we have come to expect from the director of Arrival and Sicario. Herbert's madly complex plot has been whittled down to an impressively lean narrative skeleton. The sets have a brutalist rigour that could hardly contrast more starkly with the surreal camp of the David Lynch version from 1984. Hanz Zimmer's score, augmented with massed bagpipes, takes his monumental sub-Wagnerian PARP to hitherto unimagined volumes.
Yet, for all that class and all that artistry, the picture is grimly lacking in character. Charismatic actors such as Isaac, Josh Brolin and Charlotte Rampling have little to do while Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson, who plays his mother, fail to generate sparks off one another in the desert. It remains to be seen if box-office returns will be healthy enough to allow completion.
Also playing out of competition was Edgar Wright's agreeable metahorror Last Night in Soho. Like all his work, the film is loaded with references to popular culture, but here the film-making is less frenzied and the tone is less jokey. Thomasin McKenzie stars as a young fashion student who, after moving to London, finds herself magically transported to the 1960s in the body of an up-and-coming singer played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
The film has problems. The core mystery solves itself too neatly. Strong characters – notably one played by Terence Stamp – are dispensed with cavalierly. But it also has a great deal to recommend it. There is as much deromanticisation of the era as there is celebration. The script by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is particularly concerned with how men casually abused women in that era and how such attitudes have not wholly gone away. And it offers a good last role to the much-mourned Diana Rigg.
Attention now moves to the Golden Lion on Saturday night. Will Campion triumph? Might Pedro Almodóvar, who astonishingly has never won at Cannes, Berlin or Venice, break his duck with the well-reviewed Parallel Mothers? Might Paul Schrader finally grab a major gong? Venice still matters.