Nudity, sex used to explore important themes at fest

Sexually graphic films are a given at almost any international film festival, to the point where it might seem naive to acknowledge the sheer number and variety of explicit images one has encountered over several days’ worth of screenings.

Still, by day three of this year’s exceptionally strong Venice Film Festival, as I watched a young bride have decorative threads knotted into her pubic hair in the Russian art film “Silent Souls,” I had little inkling that it was the beginning of a particularly femme-fixated trend.

Shortly afterward came black-and-white art-doodle “Promises Written in Water,” directed by and starring Vincent Gallo, which found time amid its general inscrutability to provide lingering closeups of model Delfine Bafort’s lower anatomy. That was followed by Greek helmer Athina Rachel Tsangari’s chilly, assured “Attenberg,” in which actress Ariane Labed examines her body before a full-length mirror.

Things reached an apotheosis at Tuesday’s press screening of Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus,” a riveting account of racism and sexual exploitation centered around 19th century South African emigre Saartjie Baartman, who was famously exhibited as a freak-show attraction across Europe under the stage name of “the Hottentot Venus.”

In handling his subject (played with great dignity and courage by non-pro Yahima Torres), Kechiche proves more sensitive than the scientists who insisted on inspecting and measuring Baartman’s unusually prominent buttocks and genitalia. The violent thunderstorms that occasionally interrupted the Lido’s otherwise gorgeous weather were nothing compared with the galvanizing power of the scenes Kechiche stages here, with their unrelenting focus on the spectacle of an amply proportioned black woman upon whom educated Western society rains down every possible indignity and abuse. “Black Venus” raises thorny questions about the ethics of representation and female objectification that will loom large over this intensely fascinating film as it makes its way through festivals and, hopefully, into arthouse cinemas.

In ways both subtle and extreme, women have held the spotlight in Venice this year, and not simply by presenting their bodies for the camera‘s scrutiny. Notably, there are three female directors in competition (in stark contrast to this year’s all-male Cannes lineup), all of whom — Sofia Coppola, Kelly Reichardt and Tsangari — showed up with films that more than merited inclusion.

A number of competition titles have been particularly focused on stories and themes of female agency and empowerment, from Reichardt’s starkly beautiful Oregon Trail oater “Meek’s Cutoff,” anchored by Michelle Williams’ performance as a spitfire frontier heroine, to Tsui Hark’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame,” a historical whodunit set around the controversial coronation of China’s first and only empress (an imperious Carina Lau). Another epic set in ancient China, Su Chao-pin and John Woo’s out-of-competition “Reign of Assassins,” casts Michelle Yeoh as a skilled professional killer trying (unsuccessfully) to enjoy her retirement in peace and quiet.

Natalie Portman’s emotionally extreme performance as a frigid, hysterical ballet dancer made Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” a potent study of the cutthroat impulses underlying one of the more graceful examples of the female form in motion (as well as one of the few opening-night films at any recent festival to remain a topic of conversation three days in). On a similar note, it would be remiss not to mention Robert Rodriguez’s unexpectedly enjoyable “Machete,” with its tough-girl trio of Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan, donning a nun’s habit and doing her best work in some time.

What it all means isn’t clear, exactly, but speaking as a resident of a country where the box office triumph of “Sex and the City” is considered an encouraging sign, it was refreshing to see so many female stories placed so casually front and center on the Lido’s international stage. In that respect, I suppose, one should also be grateful for “Miral,” Julian Schnabel’s multigenerational paean to Palestinian female unity.

A far more enjoyable girl-power endorsement was Francois Ozon’s delightful comedy “Potiche,” nothing more (or less) than a candy-colored valentine to the wit, elegance and supreme competence of Catherine Deneuve, clearly relishing one of the best roles of her career as a French housewife who refuses to settle for a life of idle bourgeois complacency by taking over her husband’s umbrella factory.

“Potiche” was a happy sunbeam of a movie in a competition otherwise notable for its overall grimness, if also its generally high quality. A bleak tone was set early on by two of the best-received entries here, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s poetic spiritual-cultural odyssey “Silent Souls” and Pablo Larrain’s unnerving “Post Mortem,” a sort of psychic autopsy on Chile’s 1973 military coup.

Both Larrain and Fedorchenko are relatively young filmmakers in a competition whose average director’s age is 47, and fest topper Marco Mueller’s confidence in his fresh talents does not appear to have been misplaced, given their rigorous framing, acute sense of screen space and ability to draw the viewer in without spelling out every last thematic particular. Their work is perfectly representative of the kind of challenging yet purposeful art cinema that warrants greater attention and exposure than it typically receives in this country.

Likely to fare better is Coppola’s “Somewhere,” a dreamy, wistful study of a slackerish actor (Stephen Dorff) drifting through life at West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont. Very much in the key of “Lost in Translation,” though sadder and sparer, the film is already being dismissed by some as slight, attacked by others as a study in overprivileged self-absorption by an overprivileged, self-absorbed Hollywood scion. One is tempted to suggest Coppola wouldn’t be quite so harshly judged if she weren’t, to put it bluntly, a woman. But then, as the 67th annual Venice Film Festival has confirmed, sometimes the films are ahead of the criticism.

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