The City of Absurdity   INLAND EMPIRE


I'd happily lynch Lynch ...

By Jason Solomons, The Observer, September 10, 2006

... so thank goodness for star performances from Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine

Yet again, a major European film festival has managed to go its entire length without a laugh. Comedy is not considered a serious business when it comes to awards but, my goodness, how I longed for a smile after 10 days in Venice.

Instead, we got David Lynch's Inland Empire, the most miserable three hours I've ever spent in the cinema. Before its screening, hacks on the Lido had jokingly dubbed it 'Inland Revenue' and it quickly became evident that a visit from the taxman would be more enjoyable. I hated all 172 minutes of this murky, digital dirge about Laura Dern starring in a cursed movie directed by Jeremy Irons and going on an agonising mental journey to ... I know not where.

There are Polish gangsters, humansized bunny rabbits ironing, girls in silky shorts doing the locomotion, a dancing monkey and Dern being put through the wringer, beaten up by her husband, her lover and his wife before collapsing in a pool of blood on Hollywood Boulevard. This is dark stuff, by which I don't mean nightmarish. I mean dark as in turn the bloody lights on. I could hardly see the actors (Harry Dean Stanton, Justin Theroux, Laura Harring and Mary Steenburgen) and, although the final credits mention Nastassja Kinski, I lost her completely in the gloom.

Trying to amuse myself, I thought I'd stay to boo the fi lm, the fi rst time I've done so in nearly a decade of covering festivals. To my surprise, I did so alone, although there was, thankfully, only a smattering of applause. Perhaps everyone else had expired.

Many works at Venice this year were self-regardingly concerned with films and film-making, with capturing celebrity and iconography. Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Frank Sinatra popped up everywhere. There were films about Princess Diana, John Lennon, Bobby Kennedy and Brazilian footballer Garrincha.

Curiously, the search for immortality is the topic of The Fountain, a pile of timetravelling kabbalistic balderdash by Darren Aronofsky, in which Hugh Jackman plays a surgeon, a conquistador and a bald astronaut. In the present day, he is trying to save Rachel Weisz from a brain tumour. In the 16th-century section, Weisz's Queen of Spain sends him to Mexico to discover the secret Mayan tree of life. In what is apparently the 26th-century section, Hugh travels the galaxy in the lotus position. Devoid of establishing shots, the film is laughably well-intentioned but hopelessly executed. 'Imagine if you could live forever?' says The Fountain's poster. Life would still be too short to watch this again.

Woody Allen, when asked if he would like to achieve immortality through his work, replied that he would rather achieve it by not dying. Still, death didn't harm the immortal image of James Dean, Elvis or Diana. The princess dominated Venice, nine years after her death, with a starring role on the TV screens and mockedup front pages of Stephen Frears's The Queen. Blessed with a cracking, witty script from Peter Morgan, this was the festival's most enjoyable film, almost anti-Lynchian in the pleasure it wrings from every shot, cleverly judging its tonal blend of Spitting Image-style satire with moving, humanising moments, all crowned by several remarkable performances, particularly from Helen Mirren.

Another dead icon had a starring role in Bobby, set at the Ambassador Hotel in LA leading up to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and directed by Emilio Estevez. The Nashville meets California Suite-type structure allows room for Anthony Hopkins, who plays the hotel owner, to mumble on about all the greats he's seen at the Ambassador - Hayworth, Sinatra etc. There are Mexicans (Freddy Rodriguez) in the kitchen arguing about race with the black chef (Laurence Fishburne), while Sharon Stone delves into the wardrobe from Casino to play the hotel's hairdresser, giving nightclub lush Demi Moore a comb-out.

All the while, TV images of Kennedy flicker on, replaying footage from his charismatic campaign trail and several speeches. The film is fun for an hour, mainly in anticipating which celeb might turn up next and which wig they'll be wearing, but it's naively idealistic about Bobby, ambles toward its climax and needs a trim. Don't put the scissors away, Sharon.

The coolest fi lm was Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, a vague adaptation of a PD James novel, set to an eclectic soundtrack and the fi rst fi lm score from John Tavener. It is 2027 and the world has gone infertile while immigrants are kept in cages. It's the sort of beginning that usually has me running for cover, but Cuaron, drawing attractive performances from Clive Owen, Claire-Hope Ashitey and Michael Caine, has a guiding humanism in his work. He's on the side of the angels, which makes this dystopian vision a soulful one.

The Italians had a strong performance to cheer from Sergio Castellitto in Gianni Amelio's touching film of one man's journey to China, The Star That Wasn't There, while I was impressed by Austrian director Barbara Albert's Falling, a beautifully photographed, elliptic story of five women reuniting at the funeral of a highschool teacher.

But it was another icon who provided most pleasure, as the festival presented a beautifully restored version of the documentary Garrincha, Alegria do Povo (Hero of the People), a monochrome Cinema Novo classic shot by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade about the crooked-legged Brazilian winger of the Fifties and Sixties who provided the young Pele with crosses, the Rio public with unbridled joy and me with indelible memories of dazzling footwork.

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