Filmed in three weeks during June at the Venice Biennale and in the villa belonging to Venetian aristocrat Count Volpi, “The Venice Project” earns full marks for getting to the screen in near record time. A last-minute noncompeting addition to the Venice film fest program, pic is a genuine curiosity, a playful item about the past and the future of art, decked out with an alluring cast plus a few celebrities from literature, the visual arts and even politics. Result is a highly specialized item that will appeal to a limited section of art lovers, indicating a very spotty theatrical career — ancillary, though, looks to be very promising.
Cluttered with characters, some of whose dialogue appears to be improvised, “Project” has the feel of one of those Henry Jaglom films in which the sum total is rarely as interesting as individual components. There are treasurable moments here but also long stretches of indulgence. Flitting back and forth between 1699 and 1999 adds to the interest.
Pic begins quite charmingly with Dennis Hopper addressing the camera: “If you can see and hear me now, we made it to the next century.” Well, not quite, but probably by the time most of the audience for the film see it, the millennium will be upon us. Hopper plays Roland, who lives in Venice, Calif., and dabbles in way-out art while his older sister, Countess Camilla Volta (Lauren Bacall), lives in style in the family’s ancient palazzo in Venice, Italy. Amazingly, the viscount (John Wood), father of the siblings, still lives, but barely: Before slipping into a coma he donated, most annoyingly for his children, his home and art treasures to the Italian state.
Roland has arrived to attend his sister’s grand party, which is to be held in conjunction with the last Biennale of the millennium, and he brings with him his most daring piece of art — a so-called Art Confessional, a gold-colored edifice into which celebrities and others are encouraged to sit and talk to a video camera about their theories on art — with the guarantee that their ideas will not be seen publicly for 100 years.
Meanwhile, in flashbacks to 1699, an ancestor of Roland and Camilla, Count Giaccomo (Linus Roache) asks his advisers, including Salvatore (Hopper again), to predict the future of art; his jester, Gippo (Stuart Townsend) proposes that future art will be abstract and experimental — like that currently created by lunatics — and he’s thrown into the Grand Canal for his pains. Roache and Townsend also both appear in the modern scenes, the former as a relative of the family, the latter as the fun-loving Lark, who’s having an affair with the pert family maid (lovely Mia Maestro in a Louise Brooks haircut). Lark predicts a future for invisible art — if you can’t see it, he says, you can’t buy or control it.
Also involved are Stockard Channing as an art dealer, Dean Stockwell as a U.S. senator, Hector Babenco as a film director and Anna Galiena as the palazzo’s beautiful chef, plus many others. A running gag has Cheech Marin, playing himself, constantly denied entry to the palazzo by a snooty doorman.
Script by Nicholas Klein (“The End of Violence”) is decidedly patchy, with many of the points made in labored fashion. Of the confessors who speak directly to camera, Lauren Hutton contributes one of the best comments: “Art makes me high, and it’s legal.”
Ultimately, pic is a plea for open minds when it comes to new directions in art, and director Robert Dornhelm (whose previous work includes “Echo Park” and the excellent “Requiem for Dominic”) states his case quite amusingly. But for too much of the film the viewer is like an uninvited guest at a very elegant party, not quite privy to what’s being said, and made to feel a little self-conscious about it.
Technical credits are fine, given the rushed post-production schedule.