I saw the strangest sight at the 75th Venice Film Festival. In front of the press room, photographers had formed a semi-circle around someone who was obviously a celebrity. (I later realised it was the Italian actor, Michele Riondino.) The lights kept flashing from cameras, but it wasn't like how this sort of thing happens at Cannes. There was no red carpet. (This was Tuesday evening, and the festival hadn't officially begun.) The photographers weren't cordoned off. It was as though Riondino had strolled in, and the photographers had discovered him by chance. A colleague told me this is how things are at this festival: casual. At Cannes, everything is a production staged at several arms' lengths. Here, it didn't seem improbable that you could put an arm around Riondino and take a selfie.
But in other respects, Venice does resemble Cannes. Just like Cannes old-timers refer to the venue as "the Croisette," here they say they are at "the Lido," which is the name of the island where the festival is conducted. And the #MeToo movement that found a major voice at Cannes, under jury president Cate Blanchett, has made its presence felt here, too. People want to know why there's only one film directed by a woman (Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale) in the Competition lineup, for the second year in a row. Are there simply not enough women-directed films out there, or are films directed by women deliberately being overlooked in order to accommodate members of a boys-only club? The festival's artistic director Alberto Barbera said at a press conference that the determining factor was "the quality of the film and not the sex of the director." He added, dramatically, "If we impose quotas, I resign."
People want to know why there's only one film directed by a woman (Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale) in the Competition lineup, for the second year in a row.
But in a Hollywood Reporter article, critics point to "a larger problem born out of old-world Italian attitudes that have stubbornly refused to change with the times." One of the films singled out as proof of this contention is Bruce Weber's Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast, which is being screened in the Classics Documentary section. Weber, the famous fashion photographer and filmmaker, has been accused by a number of male models of putting them through "unnecessary nudity and coercive sexual behavior." And talk of life imitating art: the film is about Robert Mitchum, described in the synopsis as "Hollywood's original 'bad boy'… a man who came from – and for many was the very embodiment of – a bygone era, speaking and enacting its prejudices, its longings, and its charms." Weber has denied all allegations, but… Does a festival do what the publishing conglomerate Condé Nast did (they dropped Weber before you could say "hot potato"), or is someone innocent until proven guilty? Questions, questions.
There's good news, though, from the festival's Venice Days section, which is like the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes. There is a significant female presence in the Competition section. Venice Days' artistic director, Giorgio Gosetti, said that six out of 12 titles in the official selection are directed by women, and added that female characters play a crucial role in all the films. But he insisted that gender did not influence his choice. He said, "We sought the best that we could find and often found this within [the realm] of female sensitivity." I wish he'd expanded on this. For instance, how does he define (and differentiate between) male and female sensitivity?
Take the section's opening film, Graves Without a Name. This documentary is (male) filmmaker Rithy Panh's latest attempt to come to grips with the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime – a 13-year-old boy begins a search for the final resting place of various members of his family. How would a female filmmaker have tackled this? Gaze is a woefully underexplored subject in cinema. We talk about it, yet it's nebulous. The closing film of this section, Nicole Palo's Emma Peeters, promises a much lighter look at death. After years of struggle, the eponymous actress decides she's never going to make it. She decides to end her life on her 35th birthday. And then, she meets Alex, a funeral-home employee and filmmaker, and he offers her the kind of role she has been dreaming of… in the film of her suicide.
The sidebar sections (like Venice Days) look so interesting that I wonder if I will break my rule of focusing more on the main Competition (and out of Competition) entries. It's Tuesday night as I write this. The big event, tomorrow, is the world premiere of Damien Chazelle's First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. Truth be told, this is a film I needn't (and shouldn't) be watching at a festival. It's going to get a wide release on October 12. It's going to be widely reviewed – unlike something like Graves Without a Name, which really could use more publicity. And yet, like almost everyone else, I will be in line for First Man. Who can resist the gravitational pull – if you'll forgive the pun – of a much-anticipated Hollywood movie?