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Helen Mirren’s Best Actress award at Venice for her role as Elizabeth II in The Queen was awarded just as Australians watched her play Elizabeth I on ABC TV. But the critics were unimpressed by most of the other prizes, even booing some, reports Helen Barlow, as she elbows her way through the Lido jammed with people like Stephen Frears, Spike Lee, Meryl Streep, Clive Owen, Scarlett Johansson, Brian de Palma and Nick Cave.

“Which film?” was the near-unanimous refrain in the crowded pressroom of the Venice Film Festival as the Golden Lion for Best Picture was awarded to the Chinese film Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) last Saturday night. Few of the attending critics had seen Jia Zhang-Ke's winner as it had screened at midnight as the surprise film just as the festival was winding down. Last year’s surprise movie, Takeshi Kitano’s Takeshis, hadn’t made much of an impact, as is often the case with these unheralded entries. So the top award came truly as a surprise.

At a post awards press conference Jury President Catherine Deneuve said the jury had been impressed by “the beauty of the cinematography and the quality of the story, which without getting political, said a lot about China and its people.”

Shot documentary-style, Still Life tells the story of a man and a woman (played by Jia’s real-life partner Zhao Tao, a dancer who's been in his three previous features) searching for their partners as villages and towns are submerged by the Yangtze River to make way for the giant Three Gorges Dam Hydroelectric project. Started in 1993, the project is the biggest in the world and involves relocating more than 1.2 million people.

“I’m trying to show the changes in daily life in China through my film, and I want to continue to explore the problems of the weaker social class,” Jia said. “I will continue to make films for the next 10 to 20 years with the same actors and crew.”

"the assembled critics did not approve"

The 36-year-old director, who had a second film, Dong, screening in the Horizons sidebar, is a popular choice in the Venice program. His films Platform (Zhantal) and The World (Shijie) screened in competition in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

With the exception of Helen Mirren’s win for her sublime performance as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen, the assembled critics did not approve of the major prizes. When Ben Affleck’s name was read out as best actor for his portrayal of Superman television star George Reeves in Hollywoodland, the decision was booed, and that Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door should only receive an exceptional Revelation prize, seemed like a missed opportunity to commend a truly exceptional Italian film.

Tullio Kezich, from the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, even suggests the jury has maligned Venice's reputation at a time when the new Rome Festival is looming. From all reports however, it will be difficult to instil a festival feel into such a bustling city, as the venues are so spread out. The Rome program will be announced on September 16, yet it’s doubtful the event will be able to have the industry confidence of Venice artistic director Marco Mueller, who two years ago had half of Hollywood at his inaugural event. Meryl Streep, in town to promote The Devil Wears Prada, went out of her way to commend him, for “turning the festival around” in the past two years.

The festival’s technical contribution prize went to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for Children of Men, the screen adaptation of P.D. James sci-fi novel directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. The skilfully shot film, telling of a world where children can no longer be born, is however not always a pleasure to watch. Ultimately it left critics divided, rather dramatically.

The screenplay prize, awarded to Peter Morgan for The Queen was also truly deserved. It focuses on the squabbles between the British monarch and Tony Blair in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death and re-creates the private events that propelled her to make a public appearance at Princess Diana’s funeral. Morgan was dryly humorous in his acceptance speech. “I’d like to thank Stephen Frears, Helen Mirren, Andy Harries our producer and Tony Blair for timing your political disintegration with the release of our film.”

Nobody was doubting, though, that Helen Mirren was the belle of the ball. Glimpses of her youthful trailblazing provocateur came to mind as she glided along the red carpet in a sapphire blue floor-length dress with a low cut neckline that revealed her cleavage, a host of diamonds and a deep suntan. She was sexier than ever on stage as she insisted on sitting beneath a towering golden lion for the photographers to snap her with her prize, looking like a kind of nymph. She later said she wanted to look as different from the Queen as possible. She succeeded.

"the worst movie he has made"

Alain Resnais, the revered 84-year-old French auteur, took out the directing award for Private Fears in Public Places, a stilted film (based on Alan Ayckbourn’s play) which I failed to sit though. Somewhat ironically David Lynch had received his lifetime achievement award at the festival earlier in the week while presenting Inland Empire, the worst movie he has made. Spike Lee at least came up with the goods. His emotional Hurricane Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts won the best film prize in the Horizons sidebar section.

Even if the Venice Film Festival had no official Australian entries this year, a perennially cool Nick Cave was the recipient of the first Gucci Award, awarded by a jury including Jeremy Irons, Moby and Alexander McQueen. Dressed in his usual white open-necked shirt and black suit and boots, the tall Australian had flown over from London with his wife Sussie to accept the award for his screenplay for The Proposition. In his acceptance speech he thanked the film’s director and his good friend.

“John Hillcoat bullied me into writing the screenplay and dragged me kicking and screaming into the film world,” he told the assembled press. “I’d also like to thank my beautiful wife Sussie for all she does. “All’s well in the garden,” he added, quoting one of his favourite films, Being There.

Afterwards he told me he was pleased with how The Proposition’s international success “just keeps on going and going”.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain starring Hugh Jackman as a man struggling over a thousand years to find the woman he loves met with no such success however. In fact in the Italian media it was put forward as the festival’s worst film. Jackman’s performance was however deemed the best aspect of the film, and in our festival interview Aronofsky told me how Baz Luhrmann requested to view The Fountain and had been so impressed by Jackman’s dramatic ability that he cast him in his next untitled film (replacing Russell Crowe).

A very jet-lagged Kate Beahan was quite a trooper conducting interviews for The Wicker Man all day when straight off a plane. The Perth-born actress who lived in Sydney for several years before moving to Los Angeles, admits that the film, directed by Neil Labute and where she stars alongside Nic Cage, has been the biggest role so far of her burgeoning career. She does however miss the land of Oz and comes back regularly. As for The Wicker Man the consensus was, why make another film from Anthony Shaffer’s novel (after the mildly successful 1973 version) when you are going to do an inferior job? Labute said he wanted to offer a different interpretation.

Holland’s leading young actress, Carice van Houten delivered a riveting performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch Resistance World War II movie, Black Book, which is the Dutch Oscar entry. Los Angeles-based Verhoeven exceeded all expectations by returning to his homeland to film this riveting story where the lines become blurred as a Jewish Resistance fighter falls in love with a sympathetic Nazi (rising German star Sebastian Koch). The forthright Basic Instinct director does not disappoint with his ability to show how things really are, and unlike Sharon Stone he says that van Houten can act.

"notorious Hollywood murder"

On the younger front Scarlett Johansson exerted her usual stylish presence when she walked the red carpet to promote the Festival’s opener, Brian De Palma’s James Ellroy adaptation, The Black Dahlia. Still the 21- year-old beauty refused to be photographed with her real-life boyfriend, Josh Hartnett, whom she’d met on the film. Unfortunately Johansson has little to do other than look beautiful in the film, while Hartnett is more impressive as a cop trying to solve the notorious Hollywood murder from 1947. Overall the film was disappointing and seemed a pale comparison to Ellroy’s previous screen adaptation, LA Confidential.

As with The Queen, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center attracted a huge crowd at its Festival screening, even if the film itself does not seem to fit in with the director’s oeuvre. This is partly because he worked from Andrea Berloff’s emotive screenplay about the two Port Authority officers survivors and their wives. The intelligent, straight-talking Maria Bello, who plays the wife of police Sargeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) is a stand-out it the film.

Ethan Hawke’s semi-autobiographical The Hottest State, based on his book, proved a pleasant surprise. Starring Mark Webber, (Bill Murray’s son in Broken Flowers) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) the film recalls an early failed romance in Hawke’s life before he managed to stuff up his marriage to Uma Thurman.

Happy couple Sting and wife Trudi Styler looked like spring chickens with their matching bleached blonde hair as they promoted A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, directed by Bronx-born Dito Montiel, who like Hawke draws strongly on his own life in the film. In her role as producer Styler had been trying for five years to finance the film, which ultimately stars her good friend, Robert Downey Jnr. Still, the film only went ahead when she convinced her well-heeled husband to cough up the $US2.4 required. “Trudi can’t sing and I can’t act, so at least producing is something we can do together,” the former Police singer mused in our interview.

Published September 14, 2006

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Helen Mirren - The Queen

Director Jia Zhang-Ke - Sanxia Haoren (Still Life)
Winner Golden Lion

Ben Affleck - Hollywoodland

Children of Men

The Black Dahlia

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