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‘Gravity,’ ‘Under the Skin’ Stand Out at Venice Film Festival

REARVIEW: Variety critic Justin Chang looks back on the Venice Film Festival and asks, why wasn't Alfonso Cuaron's space odyssey in competition?

VENICE — Alfonso Cuaron and Jonathan Glazer are no strangers to the Venice Film Festival. Cuaron was previously here in 2006 with “Children of Men,” while Glazer turned up in 2004 with “Birth” — two formally sophisticated, richly atmospheric dramas that were underappreciated on their initial release but have aged particularly well over the years. And in a happy coincidence, Cuaron and Glazer returned to Venice this year to stage an extraordinary dual comeback of sorts, with a pair of films that, although they could scarcely be more different, might generically be classified as science fiction.

By now you’ve probably heard a thing or two about Cuaron’s “Gravity,” an electrifying lost-in-space thriller that premiered out of competition as Venice’s opening-night attraction and immediately threatened to eclipse the rest of the lineup. As any programmer will tell you, curtain-raisers can be a tricky proposition: It’s always good to avoid starting off your selection with an outright dud, though commencing on too high a note — and the reactions to “Gravity” have been positively stratospheric — can pose its own dangers as well, akin to serving a mind-blowing appetizer before a mediocre main course.

SEE ALSO: Venice Film Review: “Gravity”

Which is not to suggest that “Gravity” was the wrong choice to kick off the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematographica, as the world’s oldest international film festival is locally known. Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and some of the most sophisticated visual effects the medium has to offer, the film satisfied the usual red-carpet mandates and gave Venice the splashy world premiere of a near-certain awards contender, hardly the worst way to begin a celebration of cinema trying to commemorate its 70th birthday in high style. And if the reactions in Venice and Telluride are any indication (look for the buzz to build further in Toronto this weekend), “Gravity” seems happily poised to earn Cuaron the sort of widespread audience/awards attention that eluded the acclaimed but underseen “Children of Men.”

I doubt that a similarly grand fate awaits Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” never mind that this unsettling and eerily erotic study of a come-hither extraterrestrial (Scarlett Johansson) was far and away the best film I saw in competition at Venice — at once lucid, seductive and mesmerizingly strange. No film since perhaps “Lost in Translation” has made more perfect use of that sly, elusive sexiness that Johansson has, melding her character’s perspective with ours to the point that we wind up regarding our fellow man through a glass darkly, rendering humanity at once familiar and alien. (The movie in some ways suggests a “Gravity” in reverse, another story of a discombobulated space traveler operating well outside her comfort zone.)

Artfully distilled from Michel Faber’s novel, Glazer’s film develops into a free-roaming essay on the human capacity for empathy, vulnerability and predatory behavior in the guise of an alien-abduction saga. Even more than “Birth,” which similarly relied on mood and the power of suggestion while leaving its narrative enigmas unresolved, “Under the Skin” is a tour de force of sensual and sensory filmmaking, with an arresting Mico Levi score that refuses to leave my memory. And so it almost goes without saying that Glazer’s bold, imagistic approach and refusal of easy explanations will prove commercially problematic (yawn), win very few awards (double yawn), and frustrate at least as many viewers as it wins over.

Indeed, “Under the Skin” has easily been the most polarizing picture of the festival season so far, variously hailed as a masterpiece or dismissed as an abomination, depending on whom you’re talking to. Reviewing the film out of Telluride, where it landed with the thud of a hundred Oscar statuettes crashing to earth, my Variety colleague Scott Foundas described it as “torpid and silly,” and although the reactions in Venice have been far more favorable (especially from the British critics), at least one of the film’s press screenings drew a smattering of boos mixed in with enthusiastic applause.

I have written before about what I think of journalists who make a professional habit of booing films at festivals, a practice that irritates not merely because it’s crude and undignified, but because the films that get booed are typically those that deserve it least. Whether it’s Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” or Carlos Reygadas’ “Post tenebras lux,” any movie that dares to deviate from a traditional three-act structure, to break out of narrative confines or to end on a less-than-fully resolved note, becomes an immediate candidate for reflexive sneers and jeers.

The boos were especially dispiriting and unwarranted in the case of “Under the Skin,” which in its boldness and beauty towered over a largely unremarkable competition slate starved for a sense of adventurousness or complexity. There were blessed exceptions, of course: Among the program’s bright spots were Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises,” a gorgeously animated, often piercingly emotional tribute to the Japanese master’s lifelong love of aviation; John Curran’s “Tracks,” a sensitive and beautifully rendered adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s travel book starring a superb Mia Wasikowska; and, unexpectedly, “Tom at the Farm,” a deft Hitchcockian study in psychosexual menace that found director/co-writer/star/costume designer Xavier Dolan working at an incisive new level of control after the excesses of last year’s “Laurence Anyways.”

The inclusion of the 24-year-old Dolan, whose narcissism is as undeniable as his talent, was typical of a competition slate that favored youngish talents and fresh names, including debuting Italian director Emma Dante with “A Street in Palermo” and sophomore Greek helmer Alexandros Avranos with “Miss Violence.” This tendency extended particularly to the U.S. filmmakers selected for competition, from former wunderkind David Gordon Green and prolific multihyphenate James Franco to journalist-turned-filmmaker Peter Landesman, as though artistic director Alberto Barbera were attempting to take the temperature of the up-and-coming American independent scene.

But with the exception of Kelly Reichardt, building on her preferred mode of hand-crafted observational cinema with the flawed but gripping eco-thriller “Night Moves,” the American competition entries all proved wanting in one way or another. Both Green and Franco plunged into disturbing Southern-gothic territory, exploring primitive rural frontiers of violence and social unrest. But despite a fine performance by Nicolas Cage, Green’s “Joe” found the onetime indie wunderkind treading unrewardingly familiar territory, while Franco’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation “Child of God,” starring Scott Haze as a town pariah turned murderous necrophile, adopts a rough and unruly camera style that doesn’t portray a state of madness so much as induce one. Worst of all was Landesman’s “Parkland,” an execrable, ill-conceived ensemble drama that reduces the events surrounding the JFK assassination to cringe-inducing arthouse exploitation fodder. Why this film was made, and how it wound up in competition at a festival as prestigious as Venice, are questions that perhaps only Oliver Stone can answer.

Over the course of the festival, more than one of my colleagues suggested a number of possible shifts and substitutions that might have helped bolster the program. If the festival desperately needed a documentary in competition, it might have done well to program Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie,” a straightforward but authoritative chronicle of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, over “The Unknown Known,” in which Errol Morris sits down with Donald Rumsfeld and barely penetrates the former U.S. defense secretary’s smiling carapace. Although I didn’t see Steven Knight’s “Locke,” by all accounts this deft one-man showcase for Tom Hardy would have made a more satisfying British competition entry than Terry Gilliam’s poorly received “The Zero Theorem.”

And while the tainted victory of Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta” at Venice last year (over the jury’s first choice, “The Master”) may well have led programmers to slot the Korean director’s “Moebius” out of competition, surely the Golden Lion race would have been a more exciting one with this nightmarish cocktail of castration, rape, self-abrasion and incest in contention. Scene for bloody hilarious scene, Kim’s well-acted horror movie/silent comedy was probably the least boring film in Venice, a midnight-movie slate unto itself.

In conversations with my fellow festival-goers, one particular question kept rising to the surface: Why wasn’t “Gravity” in competition? There are, of course, any number of reasons why a studio would want to avoid the risk of putting one of its major releases on the highest international stage, inviting harsher media scrutiny and potentially branding the film a loser right out of the gate, should it fail to win a prize from a Hollywood-averse jury. But as the festival drew on, the yawning chasm in quality between “Gravity,” essentially an art film with a multimillion-dollar price tag, and the middling majority of the movies in competition seemed ever more embarrassingly apparent.

What is the purpose of a competition that purports to offer the best of current world cinema, yet somehow manages to include “Parkland” but not “Gravity”? You might just as well question the worth of a festival audience that values palatability over artistry, that showers a calculated crowdpleaser like Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” with rapturous applause but greets “Under the Skin” with hissing contempt. Regardless of where Glazer’s picture goes from here (and at this point, a major jury prize could only help), I suspect that, as with “Birth” before it, time will be kind to a film that, passionately loved and loathed as it is, has already fulfilled the promise of its title and then some.

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