Venice film fest launches with ‘toxic event’ satire

The Venice Film Festival kicked off on 31 August with a powerful message from Ukraine’s president and a topical opening film starring Adam Driver about a deadly health crisis and misinformation.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sent a recorded message for the opening ceremony on Lido island, telling the audience “not to remain silent, not to be afraid… not to remain neutral to the war in Ukraine.”

He described it as “a horror which is not 120 minutes but 189 days long,” and followed his speech with a list of 358 names of children killed since the Russian invasion.

The world’s longest-running film festival is marking 90 years since its first edition, with celebrities including US politician Hillary Clinton walking the red carpet.

Opening film “White Noise” is the first of four Netflix productions competing for the top prize Golden Lion, as the streaming platform seeks to bolster its artistic credentials.

It stars Driver as a Hitler studies professor in a small college town, which experiences an “Airborne Toxic Event” that leaves the community desperate for reliable information — while his wife (played by Greta Gerwig) has her own struggles with prescription meds.

A sharp and funny satire of US consumer culture and academic navel-gazing, “White Noise” reunites Driver with director Noah Baumbach following their lauded “Marriage Story.”

Though based on a famous Don DeLillo novel from 1985, Baumbach told reporters he “couldn’t believe how relevant it felt” when he reread it in 2020.

Driver joked that he got carried away fattening up to play a middle-aged dad: “I put on weight and we had a back-up stomach — and then we didn’t need the back-up stomach.”

Not looking backwards

“La Mostrá,” as the festival is known, is held annually on the beach-lined Lido island and is well-timed to launch Academy Award campaigns.

Eight of the last 10 Best Director Oscars have gone to films that premiered at Venice, including the most recent winner Jane Campion for “Power of the Dog” — another Netflix production.

Also gracing the Lido on 31 August was French actor Catherine Deneuve, who wore a Ukrainian flag pinned to her jacket as she arrived to pick up a lifetime achievement award.

An icon in France since the 1960s, the notoriously frank Deneuve seemed non-plussed by the accolade.

“One doesn’t look backwards,” the 78-year-old told AFP. “It’s not a refusal, it’s just that one doesn’t have time. I was filming in Paris a few weeks ago and starting a film in English in Belgium in less than a month.”

Cannibals and whales

Hollywood and Western Europe dominate the selection of 23 films competing over the next 10 days for the hearts of a jury led by US actor Julianne Moore.

Fans of Timothee Chalamet are ravenous for his new road movie “Bones and All,” premiering 2 September, in which he plays a lovelorn cannibal — reuniting him with “Call Me By Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino.

There is early buzz, too, for “The Whale” starring Brendan Fraser as a morbidly obese man trying to reconnect with his daughter, directed by Darren Aronofsky who won the Golden Lion in 2008 for “The Wrestler.”

Still hunting its first Best Picture Oscar, Netflix has become a key backer of more intellectual directors as traditional Hollywood studios fixate on superhero and franchise blockbusters.

Later in the festival, Netflix is premiering the highly anticipated “Blonde,” a dark retelling of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life, with rising star Ana de Armas in the lead role.

It is also behind “Bardo,” the latest from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who launched his previous films “Birdman” and “The Revenant” in Venice on their way to Oscar glory.

But the movie most likely to get tongues wagging is “Don’t Worry Darling,” playing out of competition on 5 September which features music megastar Harry Styles in his first leading role, directed by his girlfriend Olivia Wilde.

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