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In Venice

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Carey Mulligan in Steve McQueen's Shame.

The Venice Film Festival still trades on its glamorous reputation, but the truth is a little more tawdry. The Lido’s legendary Grand Hôtel des Bains, where until recently stars would lounge on the verandas, is now boarded up, pending refurbishment as luxury apartments. The festival itself takes place in a decidedly unswanky enclosed compound, much of it sectioned off as a building project in never-ending progress.

Nevertheless Venice sustains its prestige through stars. Cannes is these days unassailable as the auteur event, where films and their directors count; in Venice it seems tacitly understood that the quality of the bigger films matters less than the collective presence of Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Madonna, George Clooney et al. It’s the only festival where I’ve seen press conferences end with a massed rush to the podium with iPhones to get souvenir pictures of the talent.

This year’s Mostra had its share of prestige follies. Madonna’s W.E. – a tribute to, rather than a biopic of, Wallis Simpson – is a gauche, overdressed vanity piece, too solemn to qualify as the kitsch guilty pleasure some critics saw in it. But star indulgence isn’t necessarily to be disparaged. I couldn’t pretend that Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome is a good film, but it’s not a bad one either; it’s unimpeachably honest, if nothing else, and was certainly the most enjoyable thing I saw in Venice. Pacino directed this documentary about himself playing Herod in a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome in Los Angeles, and spends the entire film breathlessly reminding us that he’s making a movie while acting in a play, and what a crazy undertaking that is. The film is less a documentary proper than an enthusiast’s rambling blog, with interpolated wisdom from such experts as Gore Vidal, Tom Stoppard and Bono (Morrissey, pop’s pre-eminent Wildean, no doubt declined).

Pacino’s stage Herod is terrible, the ripest ham in old Judea, and the LA theatre critics rightly give him the thumbs down – all credit to him for showing us the headlines (‘Pacino goes too far’; ‘What was he thinking?’). But you’re riveted rather than alienated by his excess, and it seems to bring out the best in others – notably in Jessica Chastain (the levitating mother in The Tree of Life), whose Salomé is galvanising.

It seemed at Venice that this was the year of female performers pushing the boat out. Keira Knightley plays Freud and Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, and her very theatrical performance – rolling eyes, contortions, thrusting chin – showed that she was courageously testing her acting abilities to their limits. But to pull off such extremity, you really need to suggest that it’s effortless, and Knightley’s performance appeared too conscious an attempt to explode her reputation for English poise.

The surprise in that respect was Carey Mulligan, the star of An Education (2009). In Steve McQueen’s Shame, she plays the sister of a sex addict (Michael Fassbender). From the moment she emerges from a shower – naked, frazzled and squinting – Mulligan proves you don’t have to raise the volume to suggest psychic turbulence. That’s partly thanks to McQueen’s controlled, austere directing, and Mulligan’s commitment to the part is bold and thrilling (her nightclub scene proves she can hold a tune too).

The two performances that really held me spellbound, though, were from two completely unknown names. In the French film Louise Wimmer, Corinne Masiero – a middle-aged actress with a track record in theatre and TV, but no major film credits – is on screen almost continuously as a 50-year-old woman who has lost everything, and now lives in her car while doing a poorly paid cleaning job. Fiercely resisting social contact, she occasionally sleeps with a man to whom she refuses to tell her name. Masiero casts off any shred of vanity, and attacks the role with an almost terrifying ferocity.

In the Russian film Twilight Portrait, directed by Angelina Nikonova, her co-writer Olga Dihovichnaya plays a middle-class woman, who is raped by a group of policemen and later enters into an intense sexual relationship with one of her assailants. Both the controversial theme and the downbeat visual style reminded me of a recent British film, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. Like Kate Dickie, the lead actress in Red Road, Dihovichnaya plays a woman pursuing her confusion into dangerous and contradictory areas, and she is mesmerising not least because her performance is so contained. Twilight Portrait wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but along with Shame was one of the most compelling and troubling films at the festival. I hope there’s a British distributor willing to take a risk on it.

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