Venice 2022: Women on Fire
This article appeared in the September 15, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
TÁR (Todd Field, 2022)
For attendees, every film festival is a jumbled mental mess of notes written on top of each other, about things that happen on screens and off screens, inside theaters and out in the world. For example, I will never entirely be able to think about seeing Andrew Dominik’s Blonde at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival without the accompanying knowledge that, right around the time Ana de Armas’s Marilyn Monroe was talking to her unborn baby (only for the fetus to talk right back), some swine was stealing my bike. That this happened the day the Queen of England died, prompting the Venice red-carpet D.J. to mix the parping solemnity of the British anthem into the usual playlist of upbeat hits, only added to the surreality. If it was absurd, it was also apt to have a day dominated by discussions of two major 20th-century women come at the end of a festival studded with intricate portraits of women contending not only with traditionally feminine roles (like wife or mother), but with professional commitments, public faces, and private egos as well.
The theme emerged on day one with Blue Jean, from the parallel Venice Days sidebar. Marking a confident feature debut by Georgia Oakley, the film follows popular, gay P.E. teacher Jean (Rosy McEwen) as Thatcher’s notorious Section 28 law, prohibiting “the teaching . . . of the acceptability of homosexuality,” threatens her already precarious work/life divide. McEwen’s fine portrayal of Jean’s compromised behavior in the aftermath is an excellent evocation of the damage such legislation can wreak on even an avowedly apolitical psyche.
But one can only imagine the withering scorn that Lydia Tár (a stunning Cate Blanchett) would heap on Jean’s conflicted, self-denying response. In Todd Field’s tremendous TÁR, Lydia is the wildly successful conductor of a major German orchestra. She is in a relationship with her first violinist (Nina Hoss), with whom she is raising a daughter, and is on the cusp of the Mahler recording that will cement her legacy. She is also, put simply, a monster: a rapacious, oblivious serial predator, whose assumption that her genius entitles her to staggering cruelty has never been challenged. For over a decade I’ve wondered, off and on, when we would get a female movie character to equal the ferocity, charisma, and monumental destructive narcissism of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview. Though the two films could not be more different, I think I can stop wondering now. Lydia Tár would drink your milkshake without ever thinking it might not be hers to drink.
Such a colossal portrayal of a woman’s complicated, unknowable relationship with her own ego is rare enough that asking for a second would have been greedy. And yet we got one: Alice Diop’s Saint Omer—for me, the best film in Venice. It occupies a different, lower-key register than TÁR’s, but in its scorchingly subtle long takes, composed with an eerily still camera by D.P. Claire Mathon, a similarly uncanny image of potentially sociopathic womanhood emerges. This time it is Laurence Coly (a riveting Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese Frenchwoman who, accused of murdering of her baby, gives alternately candid and disingenuous testimony in finely polished French, exuding an air of impenetrable self-possession. Based on a real trial, the film is anything but a standard true-crime drama, mainly because we’re supplied with a specific point of view. Rama (Kayije Kagame), based on Diop herself, is a successful novelist, also of Senegalese background, who is in the courtroom to research her latest book. As we see the trial unfold through her fixated gaze, the inscrutable defendant is stripped of her totemic, tokenistic potential. Preconceptions about her ethnicity and sex evaporate, replaced by Rama’s far more fraught, highly personal reaction of incomprehension and simultaneous, horrified identification.
There is obviously no sense that Nan Goldin, the subject of Laura Poitras’s terrific Golden Lion–winner All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is in the same sociopathic league as either Laurence Coly or Lydia Tár. She is, however, a woman whose public profile as an artist is largely derived from the extraordinary intimacy of her work, a fact that the documentary explores in gorgeous, illuminating depth. The film is loosely structured around Goldin’s recent campaign to get the opioid-dealing Sackler family’s name removed from art institutions worldwide. But it was hearing Goldin speak about her life and its intersection with her art, over her beautifully executed slideshows of her photography, that provided the emotional wallop that I, an inveterate crier at movies, had not felt in Venice until then.
A less successful, but no less confessional, artistic self-examination is Joanna Hogg’s slight, silvery The Eternal Daughter. After the lacerating meta-memoir of the Souvenir films, this outing feels like an unnecessarily elongated short film, with its main coup—casting Tilda Swinton as Hogg avatar Julie and Julie’s mother, Rosalind (her Souvenir role)—rather undone by the decision never to have the two occupy the same frame. But ultimately, the film is not so much about the mother-daughter relationship it teases as it is, like Hogg’s previous pair, a disquisition on the difficult, mercurial connection between Julie and her elusive creative muse.
And so, reluctantly, back to Blonde, which, sad to say, I disliked with almost the same intensity that I would later reserve for Lido bike thieves, precisely because it did not do what many of the above films did. Whether it was Field repeatedly affirming that without Blanchett there is no TÁR, or Diop mediating Saint Omer through her own experience, or Goldin’s artistry dictating the shape of Poitras’s film, or Hogg casting her longtime friend Swinton as a version of herself—in all of these works there is an intense dialogue between filmmaker, subject, and film, and a willingness, even an urgent desire, to erase those boundaries. By contrast, Dominik’s Monroe, for all de Armas’s commitment, seems conceived without the slightest personal investment, by a filmmaker with no yen to see himself in her and perhaps a disdain for anyone who would seek to do so. To attend a film festival is to have days and days of blurred edges, between personal experiences, public events, and projected stories—to have the pages of your mental notebook written and overwritten until the result is completely unique to you. My favorite films in Venice—of which Blonde, unfortunately and unexpectedly, was not one—felt similarly like palimpsests, with the impulses of their creators showing through the genres they use, the performances they showcase, and the stories they tell, and becoming richer and rarer with every new layer.
Jessica Kiang is a freelance critic with regular bylines in Variety, Sight and Sound, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone, and is the international programmer for the Belfast Film Festival.