The Venice film festival kicks off awards-season with star power – from Clooney’s Suburbicon to Damon in sci-fi comedy Downsizing – as it fights off competition from Telluride, Toronto and Netflix
Awards hopefuls … clockwise from top left, Mother!, Suburbicon, The Shape of Water and Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno
The Oscars may be seven months away, but speculation over which big names might take home the Academy’s coveted gold statuettes begins in earnest on 30 August with the opening of the Venice film festival. Once seen as a waning force in the film industry calendar, the world’s oldest film festival has regained its status as a kingmaker for award-season hopefuls, with a record of launching films that have gone on to enjoy success at the Academy Awards, including two recent best picture winners in Spotlight and Gravity,and the film that took home the highest number of Oscars this year, La La Land.
While that latter film was already considered a dead-cert for awards-season glory, even before it premiered at the festival, this year’s event boasts no such obvious frontrunner. Instead, the lineup features a clutch of films regarded as possible awards hopefuls. Such uncertainty is reflective of a notably open Oscars race, in which several of the major awards contenders, including the fashion drama Phantom Thread (with Daniel Day-Lewis) and Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers biopic are not set to debut until later this year.
Festival director Alberto Barbera, who is responsible for selecting much of the festival programme, acknowledges the issue, but is confident that several of the films in his lineup will be in the reckoning at the sharp end of awards season. “There will be more contenders for sure, because some of the most interesting films were not ready in time for September,” he says. “But some of the films in our lineup still have a good chance of running for one of the major awards from the Academy next year.”
Chief among these is Alexander Payne’s sci-fi comedy Downsizing, which has the festival’s opening-gala slot. A departure for Payne, known for small-scale character-driven dramas, the film stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as a couple who shrink themselves as a cost-cutting measure. Barbera describes Downsizing as a multilayered crowd-pleaser. “It’s very funny, very surprising, very enjoyable, but then it becomes more and more dramatic. It faces the problems of the future of the planet in terms of climate change.”
There are similarly high hopes for two other American films helmed by prominent directors. Darren Aronofsky, who last appeared at the festival with his acclaimed thriller Black Swan, returns to the Lido with Mother!, a psychological horror about a young woman whose home life is disrupted by the appearance of several unwelcome guests. It stars Jennifer Lawrence and is described by Barbera as one of the director’s “most personal and radical works”. Meanwhile, Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro premieres The Shape of Water, a cold-war era fantasy starring Sally Hawkins that Barbera says is “somewhere between Beauty and the Beast and the Monster from the Black Lagoon. He’s rarely done something so accomplished and beautiful.”
There are other notable selections at the festival also. George Clooney’s Coen brothers-scripted drama Suburbicon, again starring Damon, will premiere in competition, as will Lean on Pete, a new drama by the British director Andrew Haigh and Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, by the Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche. The latter has reportedly struggled to finance his latest film, even attempting to auction off the Palme d’Or he won at the 2013 Cannes film festival for his previous film Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
For its president, the challenges of putting together the Venice lineup are made more pronounced by the presence close by in the calendar of two competitors: Telluride, the Colorado-based event that begins on 1 September, and the Toronto international film festival, which follows a week later. Competition between the events for exclusive titles had grown intense, fuelled in part by a sense that newer festivals are overtaking more established rivals in acquiring major titles. With Venice now considered to be once again level pegging with its rivals, Barbera is happy to play down the competition. “It was quite rough in the past. It was a little war, but I always said that we shouldn’t compete against each other. We’re not there to show our muscles, we’re here to serve the promotion of good films.”
For many major festivals, selecting films has been complicated by the emergence of Netflix and Amazon, which have begun investing heavily in original content for their streaming platforms. Netflix has angered distributors by being reluctant to release its original films in cinemas, a move that led the Cannes film festival to announce that only titles given a full theatrical release could compete for the Palme d’Or.
Barbera has no such plans for Venice to follow suit. “We simply cannot ignore this phenomenon,” he says. “Most contemporary film-makers are going to Amazon and Netflix with projects. If a film-maker accepts the new rules of the game, I don’t see why a festival shouldn’t do the same.”
In further evidence that the festival might be moving with the times, this year the Lido will welcome a virtual reality section, a response to growing interest in the medium. Barbera points to the interest in the technology shown by top film-makers such as Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who premiered a virtual reality exhibit at Cannes, as evidence of its growing importance. “I don’t think VR is the future of cinema, it’s something else. It’s a completely new medium,” he says.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s VR exhibit Carne y Arena. Photograph: Neil Kellerhouse/EPA
While Barbera has broken an 11-year run of male Venice jury heads by appointing Annette Bening as this year’s president, the number of female film-makers at this year’s festival is less impressive, with just one – the Chinese director Vivian Qu – appearing in competition.
Barbera admits that gender disparity at Venice is a “big issue”, but blames the film industry at large. “We made our selection on the basis of the quality of films that we saw, and I really hope that the film industry will get rid of all their prejudices against women, because female film-makers show the same kind of creativity and competence of their male colleagues. I think the situation is changing little by little and the next years we’ll see more and more female film-makers,” he said.