The 2023 Venice Film Festival was a platform for bold, conversation-starting films—many of them from emerging talents, but many more still from established directors making a triumphant return to the big screen. As the 80th edition of the showcase comes to a close, these are the five best releases to have debuted on the Lido.
From Emma Stone’s bafflingly brilliant embodiment of a Victorian woman with the brain of an infant, to the mind-boggling costumes, Tony McNamara’s hilarious script, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s virtuosic direction, everything about this madcap picaresque is dazzling. We follow our heroine, the precocious Bella Baxter as she escapes the home of her guardian and creator (a typically eccentric Willem Dafoe), and sets off on a continent-spanning adventure with a swaggering lothario (a foppish, ridiculous, side-splitting Mark Ruffalo). Cue wild sex, punch-ups on the dance floor, an eye-opening cruise, destitution and, eventually, a rebirth via a Parisian brothel run by a tattooed, corseted, earlobe-biting madam. Even after that, once Bella returns home, the twists keep coming, and the rug is repeatedly pulled from under us from every different direction. It makes for the weirdest and most joyous coming-of-age saga you’ll see this year.
In the hands of a less ambitious filmmaker, this Leonard Bernstein biopic could have been a respectful, sedate and somewhat stale rundown of the prolific conductor and composer’s countless accomplishments, but its director and star, Bradley Cooper, blows our expectations to smithereens, presenting a ravishing black-and-white epic that takes a surreal and impressionistic approach. The music legend’s early years are woven together into breathtaking set pieces and the plot moves at a breakneck pace until he meets his wife-to-be, the captivating and enigmatic Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan, in what might just be her best performance to date). They fall madly in love, but their marriage is studded with landmines, many of them on account of Bernstein’s all-consuming work as well as his passion for and frequent affairs with younger men (something his wife is fully aware of when they wed). It’s then that the film transforms into something else entirely: a heartbreaking domestic drama with intimate moments of crushing disappointment, explosive arguments, and a masterfully executed denouement that will leave you utterly devastated.
Evil Does Not Exist
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning masterpiece Drive My Car was always going to be one of the hottest tickets at Venice, but, as to be expected from the meticulous auteur, it’s the total opposite of grandstanding awards bait. Our setting is an idyllic, sun-dappled hamlet close to Tokyo, where the stoic Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) lives with his young daughter (Ryo Nishikawa). He spends hours in the woods fastidiously collecting spring water and chopping wood—the camera lingering on the pristine snow and sprawling branches—but his picturesque existence is disrupted by the arrival of a talent agency hellbent on constructing a glamping site in the area. Two of its employees (Ayaka Shibutani and Ryuji Kosaka) arrange a town hall meeting and grievances are aired, but it’s clear the decision has already been made—despite the fact that the new construction will pollute the groundwater and increase the risk of forest fires, the company only has profit on its mind. But, despite the cold corporate sloganeering, this isn’t simply a satire on capitalism—we get to know these interlopers, they return to the community with compromises and then, when tragedy strikes, their fates become intertwined with that of the village’s residents. The film’s ending—genuinely gasp-inducing considering the gentle and meditative nature of the first 90 minutes—was the festival’s most widely discussed and hotly debated.
In her latest fiercely intelligent and emotionally-charged interrogation of social and racial injustice, Ava DuVernay does the seemingly impossible: namely, reimagining Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s seminal non-fiction bestseller, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents—an impassioned study of racism in the US which draws parallels between the treatment of African Americans and that of the so-called “untouchables” in the Indian caste system and the persecuted communities of Nazi Germany—as a highly personal tale of loss and, eventually, a renewed sense of purpose. King Richard’s Oscar-nominated Aunjanue Ellis is deeply affecting as Wilkerson herself, still reeling from the passing of her mother (Emily Yancy) and husband (Jon Bernthal) when she throws herself back into work. Distressed by the killing of Trayvon Martin, she reexamines her nation’s long history of violence and persecution; finds global connections that take her to Berlin, and then Delhi; and begins writing the book that’ll soon change her life. It’s a bruising, unflinching indictment of the structures that we continue to uphold and live within, and a fervent appeal to break away from them.
It’s a thrill to discover that one of the festival’s most anticipated releases is also one of its best: Sofia Coppola’s candy-coloured dramatisation of the early life of Priscilla Presley (the rosy-cheeked Cailee Spaeny), which takes us on a whirlwind ride from the 14-year-old’s first meeting with the then-24-year-old Elvis (a magnetic Jacob Elordi), at a party while he was in the midst of his military service in Germany, to her stint as a bored Catholic school girl living with him in Graceland, her marriage, motherhood, and the slow disintegration of her relationship with the king of rock and roll. The costumes are predictably swoon-worthy; the cinematography hazy and dreamy-eyed; and the sets gloriously detailed, eliciting comparisons to both Marie Antoinette and The Virgin Suicides. But, it offers more than just aesthetic pleasures: it’s also a terrifying look at the control the musician exerted over his bride, allowing us to see a seemingly familiar story in a whole new light.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.