This article appeared in the September 14, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

AGGRO DR1FT (Harmony Korine, 2023)

With the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in full swing, restricting the presence of stars at festivals, the Venice Film Festival managed to put together a program of big-name directors for its 80th edition. Call it serendipitous, but the lack of actors on the Lido (or at least most actors; some signed interim agreements in order to attend) put the focus on the movies and their makers rather than the red carpet, a welcome change of pace for a festival that in recent years has become something of a glorified launchpad for awards season. It helped that the most notable films in the lineup weren’t the ones angling for Oscars, but those of more personal, idiosyncratic design, which in most cases, refreshingly, didn’t denote modesty or lack of ambition, but something bolder and more untamed. Even Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, which won the Golden Lion and will surely garner its share of Academy consideration—not least for its eye-popping reimagining of Victorian England—is, despite its occasionally awkward and anachronistic gestures toward a very au courant form of feminism, an undeniable vision. A weird, warped, and commendably horny tale of a resurrected woman (played by Emma Stone) working her way through life with a baby’s brain, it’s a film that, if nothing else, plants a flag for auteurism in 2023.

In sheer aesthetic audacity, Poor Things was superseded only by Harmony Korine’s out-of-competition entry AGGRO DR1FT, a work that, to hear the director tell it, marks a conscious step away from cinema, a medium that can no longer accommodate his outré stylings. Inspired by video games, scored by cult electronic producer AraabMuzik, and shot entirely with infrared cameras (by cinematographer Arnaud Potier), it moves with the fluidity of an RPG and the vividness of a particularly intense acid trip—a feeling only enhanced by the appearance of rapper Travis Scott in a fittingly lascivious supporting role. But while its unique thermal imaging techniques and absurdly threadbare narrative—centered on an existentially conflicted hit man played by Spanish journeyman Jordi Mollà—appear to reinforce the director’s rebuke of film form, AGGRO DR1FT still looks and operates thematically something like Trash Humpers (2009) by way of Spring Breakers (2012)—which, I must admit to the potential chagrin of Korine, may be one platonic ideal of cinema.

To say it was unexpected to see a few clips from Trash Humpers appear on a character’s computer screen in the middle of Bertrand Bonello’s competition title, The Beast, would be understatement. But then nothing about the French filmmaker’s stupendously ambitious, gender-flipped update of Henry James’s 1903 novella, The Beast in the Jungle, is less than surprising. Starring Léa Seydoux and George MacKay as doomed lovers Gabrielle and Louis, the film shuttles through genres as fluidly as it does time periods, following the couple in various incarnations in 1910, 2014, and 2044. In each, Gabrielle is haunted by premonitions of some unknown catastrophe, which she’s forced to relive when, in the latter section, set in a dystopian France overtaken by AI, she decides to cleanse her DNA of past-life traumas in order to better compete for a job. Unfolding in a slipstream of memories, the film hurtles from Belle Époque Paris, where, on the eve of the Great Flood, Gabrielle and Louis strike up a clandestine romance despite the former’s anxieties, to a Lynchian version of contemporary Los Angeles in which Louis, here a murderous incel, stalks Gabrielle, who’s arrived in town to pursue acting. Suitably tense and destabilizing, this chapter acts like a vortex from which the narrative can barely escape, literally glitching and troubling its trajectory back to the future, where Gabrielle and Louis’s buried pasts soon come flooding to the fore. Bringing his longstanding interest in the historical present to bear on a fable of futuristic intrigue, Bonello has, with The Beast, opened a new dimension in his artistry, one where passions and personas collide as freely as temporalities.

A beast of a different kind appears in Pema Tseden’s Snow Leopard, one of several late—or, along with William Friedkin’s expertly staged judicial drama The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, posthumous—works by veteran directors presented at the festival. (Of these, only Ferrari, 80-year-old Michael Mann’s most broadly accessible movie in two decades and a tremendous piece of big-canvas storytelling, managed to make it into competition. Meanwhile, 93-year-old Frederick Wiseman’s exquisite culinary study, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, was relegated, like Tseden’s and Friedkin’s films, to a non-competitive slot.) In Snow Leopard, completed by the trailblazing Tibetan filmmaker before his untimely death in May, a regional television crew comes to rural Qinghai to report on a situation involving a farmer (Jinpa) who has taken a snow leopard captive after it killed nine of his sheep. As in many of Tseden’s films, the story resembles a parable: The farmer’s father (Losang Choepel) wants to set the endangered animal free, while his brother, a monk (Tseten Tashi), seems to share a spiritual bond with it. When the authorities arrive, they ignore the farmer’s pleas for recompense and demand that the creature be freed. Working with Belgian cinematographer Matthias Delvaux, Tseden alternates between elegant passages of the snow-capped Himalayas, where the monk often retreats to photograph snow leopards in the wild, and more chaotic scenes of the ongoing conflict on the farm, which are frequently shot from the perspective of the TV crew. With its dynamic sense of scale and some skillful CGI, the film productively situates Tseden’s career-long preoccupation with the plight of China’s ethnic minorities against a larger allegorical backdrop of man versus nature, and the fraught relationship between tradition and modernity.

Of all the films to be awarded in competition, surely the most surprising and satisfying was Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist, which took home the second place Grand Jury Prize. The 44-year-old Japanese director’s follow-up to Drive My Car (2021) is a smaller and far subtler film than its Oscar-winning predecessor; it is also a less conceptual work than either Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) or Asako I & II (2018), but is all the more potent and unsettling for it. Set in the rural village of Harasawa, it centers on single father Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his young daughter Hana (Ryô Nishikawa), who do odd jobs for locals, like cutting wood and gathering spring water. All seems rather idyllic until one day a pair of representatives (Ryûji Kosaka and Ayaka Shibutani) from a Tokyo corporation arrive with news that the company plans to construct a “glamping” site for tourists near Takumi’s home in the forest, an initiative the community fears will adversely effect the ecological health of their surroundings. With typically deft command of tone and rhythm, Hamaguchi turns what in other hands could be a pro forma eco-drama into a metaphysical mystery with thriller-like undercurrents. Full of ominously uneventful scenes (punctuated on occasion by distant gunfire) and moments of transfixing beauty—including a bookending pair of skyward tracking shots of jutting tree branches accompanied by Eiko Ishibashi’s haunting electro-acoustic score—the film takes shape slowly but with sinister precision, maintaining its meditative aura until a last-minute act of violence quietly reshapes its moral and ethical framework. Amid a festival with no shortage of astonishing visuals, it’s that stark, unsparing climactic image that may prove to linger longest.

Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in ArtforumCinema ScopefriezeThe Los Angeles Review of BooksSight and Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.