It’s hard to follow an act like George Clooney on the opening day of a festival, so what did they do at Venice today? They delivered two mega stars in quick succession. So it was that Kate Winslet, star of Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and Madonna, who directed the Windsors fantasia W.E., arrived on The Lido to wow the crowds and seek favour with the media.
The two movies were screened for the press almost back to back this morning, followed by press conferences, and the timing caused problems. The press conference for Carnage, which screened first, was attended by Winslet and fellow thesps Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly. (Polanski, as you’ll understand, was unavoidably detained.) It started before the W.E. screening was over. I was lucky in this regard. I’d seen a screening of W.E. in London on Monday. But what do you do, faced with such a dilemma? You probably stay and watch W.E., as many critics did. Too bad --among other delights they missed Winslet’s wry description of the logistics involved in an outrageous vomiting scene in Carnage...
It seemed like a misstep on the festival’s part, if a minor one. But festival director Marco Muller is in bullish mood this year, as evidenced in his own press conference. He was asked if it was hard to persuade filmmakers to being their films to the Lido, when they could wait a week and go instead to the much larger Toronto fest. In answering, Muller seemed to aim an indirect swipe at Toronto. “There are films that require being seen in the right way,” he said. “The red carpet in Venice has the power of (presenting) the right image, which gives the possibility of a film going around the world in 24 hours.” He cited a Venice red carpet photo of Anne Hathaway – “in an Italian-designed dress!” which had “added glamour and interest” to the film she was helping to promote in Venice, Rachel Getting Married. Without such a boost, Muller implied, the film would have been just another indie title.
He has a point of course. Venice is glamorous. It’s part of the deal. The Lido is one of the world’s great settings for a film festival. And you certainly don’t often hear the words ‘Toronto’ and ‘glamour’ in the same sentence. Still, they’re two very different events, and one wondered why Muller went out on a limb in this fashion.
And so to today’s films. To say W.E. divided critics would be an understatement. In particular sections of the British press, who seemed pre-disposed to dislike it because of Madonna’s participation, turned vicious. Some US and Australian reactions, among others, were more favourable.
My view on W.E. was that it’s silly and forgettable, but you could choose to be appalled or amused by it, and I chose the latter. It’s rather better than expected; it’s not without its endearing moments. Still, a Madonna film that deals partly with the love affair between King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson is undeniably a strange concoction. Madonna (who also co-scripted with Alex Keshishian) has fashioned a split-level story of two couples: the Windsors, and the growing attraction between Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a contempo Manhattan woman, and Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a handsome Russian working the security detail at Sotheby’s. Wally, unhappily married, has inherited her mother’s and grandmother’s obsession with Wallis and Edward (played by Andrea Riseborough and James d’Arcy). She doggedly researches their lives, seeking clues about how to live her own. In extreme moments, Wallis Simpson actually appears to her, offering advice – including “Get a life!” W.E. skips around in time, tracing the Windsors’ budding romance, the scandal and Edward’s abdication. Meanwhile Wally’s affair with the hunky Evgeni blossoms.
In presenting these intertwined stories Madonna keeps the emotional level on overload. Abel Korzoniowski’s crashingly loud music thrums repetitively. Madonna’s familiarity with pop videos is evident from her focussing on arresting images: a teardrop in close-up, welling from an unblinking eye.
It all looks good, or at least glossy, in the manner of high-end cosmetics commercials. Exotic locations (Portofino, Cap d’Antibes) are visited, and luxury brand names (Moet, Cartier, Schiaparelli) dropped. Wally pays repeatedly visits an auction of the Windsors’ possessions; W.E. often feels like an extended infomercial for Sotheby’s New York. Yet Riseborough and Cornish acquit themselves well, and W.E. may appeal to younger female audiences intrigued by fashion. One suspects Madonna views the Windsors primarily as style icons; her version of their lives is a fantasia that will not trouble historians. (She seems to condone Edward and Wallis’s cozy relationship with the Third Reich.) Yet after a surfeit of dull, dutiful books and stale, plodding TV documentaries about this unappealing couple, this frivolous, over the top treatment almost seems a relief.
Polanski’s Carnage, of course, is a far better crafted film -- a brisk 79-minute adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s French stage play. A Brooklyn couple (Jodie Foster as a human rights advocate and John C. Reilly, a salesman) receive Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz (respectively, an investment broker and a high-powered attorney) to discuss a fight between their sons, in which one was injured. Initially courteous, their meeting lapses into prejudiced attacks and furious rows. As discussed, there’s vomiting and also drunkenness – a vase of tulips, a mobile phone and glossy art books are among the casualties.
Waltz, a phenomenally rude and insensitive character, gets most of the best lines. It’s well-acted and giddily enjoyable, if slightly less so once the characters start to analyze their descent into barbarism.
One brief footnote: with all the star wattage on display today, who do you suppose received the loudest ovation at a press conference? Madonna? Kate Winslet? Neither of them. Take a bow, Mr. Christoph Waltz. Venice loves you.
[Madonna and star Abbie Cornish in Venice, image courtesy of TheGuardian]