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Venice Reviews: Soderbergh's Contagion, Alps, Chicken with Plums, That Summer

by David Gritten
September 3, 2011 5:43 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Brit correspondent David Gritten reports from Venice:

Traditionally, weekends are the busiest time in Venice, but today has felt quieter -- perhaps because of the lack of high profile competition films on offer.

Steven Soderbergh brought his global virus thriller Contagion to the Lido today out of competition. It was well received, but while Soderbergh's a respected auteur -- and maybe not for much longer, if his recent decision to quit directing for painting holds good -- Contagion felt more like a superior studio thriller than a festival awards contender.

On its own terms, it's satisfying. It’s about the spread of a lethal virus that becomes a worldwide pandemic, killing thousands of people as it gains momentum, and defeating the best efforts of disease control experts to identify it.

If that sounds sensationalist, Contagion is anything but: its story is alarmingly believable and it dwells on the science involved in combating such a virus.

The cast is starry: Gwyneth Paltrow is a businesswoman who returns to America on a long-haul flight from Hong Kong feeling ill, and swiftly becomes the first fatality. To the dismay of her husband (Matt Damon), their young son soon succumbs too.

As the virus spreads alarmingly, key players emerge. Laurence Fishburne, a calm executive at Atlanta’s Centre for Disease Control, comes under immense public pressure. Kate Winslet is a courageous Epidemic Intelligence Service officer who goes out among the stricken, looking for clues about how the virus started. Her counterpart at the World Health Organisation in Geneva is Marion Cotillard, who flies to China to trace the sequence of transmission and is held hostage. Jennifer Ehle is outstanding as a researcher working on producing a vaccine.

Meanwhile, Soderbergh graphically depicts a world falling apart. Whole cities are quarantined; there’s rioting in food queues and looting of banks and offices. Among this director's strengths is a flair for juggling and sustaining multiple storylines in one film. He proved it with his Oscar-winning Traffic, and confirms it with Contagion: it feels like news stories breaking simultaneously from across the world. There's also a nifty, economical sequence at the end in which Soderbergh reveals how the virus started.

The film sometimes feels like a series of public health warnings. Yet it's memorable. And anyone remotely concerned about the risk of infection in crowded public places may regard Contagion as a thoroughly believable horror movie.

Elsewhere, a handful of in-competition foreign-language titles in Venice have been disappointing. Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi's follow-up to Persepolis, held immense promise, in that like its predecessor she adapted it from her own graphic novel. Chicken with Plums, most of which is live-action, concerns a violinist in late 1950s Tehran (Matthieu Amalric), who loses his love for music and decides he wants to die. The story then traces his life and loves in retrospect. It has a few winning moments, but it's way too kitschy for this reviewer.

The Greek film Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos's follow-up to the well-regarded Dogtooth, is as strange as its predecessor, though not as visually striking. It's about a group of people with a complex set of rules who offer themselves as substitutes for dead people to their grieving relatives. Alps lacks the punch and payoff that elevated Dogtooth.

Finally veteran French director Philippe Garrel's That Summer stars his son Louis as a mopey young artist whose movie star girl-friend (Monica Bellucci) dumps him, and he plunges into despair. And, er, that's about it. Unhappily it's devoid of interest or drama.

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