Postcards from the Venice Film Festival: 10 Reviews

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Actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth attend the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy premiere at the Palazzo del Cinema during the 68th Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2011 in Venice, Italy.

Thursday, Sep. 8, 2011

The 3,000 journalists who come to the Venice Film Festival enjoy the friendly vibe, the balmy weather and the splendors of the Lido Beach. That's all fine, but we cherish Venice for the wide variety of its offerings. Among the 50 or so features chosen by Festival boss Marc Mueller are prestige Hollywood product, adventurous European films, Asian melodramas and some unclassifiable oddities. Here are notices on 10 of this year's films, beginning with our two favorites. (Our last Venice report comes this weekend, after the Jury headed by Darren Aronofsky announces its prizes.) Most of these entries will be traveling to the Toronto Film Festival, which begins is own ten-day stand today.

1. Dark Horse
Deep or dreadful neuroses may be the lot of people in Todd Solondz's films — the lonely teenager in Welcome to the Dollhouse, the convicted pedophiles in Happiness and Life During Wartime, the college student who lies her way into a bout of sex with her Pulitzer-winning prof in Storytelling — but damned if the writer-director doesn't find humanity, and the scalding sympathy of wild humor, in their failings. The plus-size misfit at the center of Solondz's Dark Horse is a pretty seriously arrested adolescent. At 35, Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber) works in the industrial real-estate firm run by his father Jackie (Christopher Walken). The term "work" is a loose fit, since Abe is likely to delete a spreadsheet to make room for an eBay sale of ThunderCats merchandise. Still living at home, where he plays backgammon with his indulgent mom (Mia Farrow), Abe has stocked his bedroom with a 12-year-old's detritus: fantasy-film posters and Simpsons action figures. He is less an underachiever than a nonstarter.

At a wedding he is seated next to Miranda (Selma Blair), a pretty, chronic depressive. On the second date, when Abe proposes marriage, Miranda wonders, "You're not being ironic? Performance art or something?" Stabbing at kindness through her suicidal gloom, she says, "I want to want you," and Abe replies, "That's enough for me." It happens that his newly betrothed has a few health issues, and a vivacious boyfriend, Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi), from whom she may have acquired her clinical condition. But Abe's very haplessness is a magnet for the protective instinct of lonely women: if not for Miranda, then for his mother, and for Marie (Donna Murphy), Jackie's office assistant who does most of Abe's work for him and might offer so much more. You'll have to decide for yourself, since Dark Horse exists simultaneously in the real world of Rockland County, N.Y., and a dream world of Abe's longings.

Abe is a role of snarly-bear surfaces and a soft, pitiable center. "We had interest from a number of name actors who would have fit the part well," said producer Ted Hope, most likely referring to such stars of the schlub variety as Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Zack Galifianakis. But Solondz had decided that his perfect leading man would be the little-known Gelber, whose previous film roles include Agent #2 in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Commuter in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Man on the Bridge in the TV series Rescue Me. Fat and unprepossessing, Gelber slides magically inside Abe, as Michael Stuhlbarg so neatly occupied the main role in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man.

The whole cast is splendid, from Blair, who played Vi the vamp in Storytelling (the closing credits ID her character as "Miranda, formerly Vi"), down to the stubbornly smiling Toys"R"Us clerk (Tyler Maynard), who refuses to accept return of one of Abe's busted toys. Best is Murphy, who may be a wallflower or a cougar or the love of a loser's life. She sits at the side, then moves into the heart, of Solondz's most waywardly endearing film, his gentlest triumph. —R.C.

2. Café de Flore
Montreal, in the quarter-century leading up to today: Antoine (Kevin Parent), a club DJ, is "a man who had every reason to be happy and the lucidity to realize it." In the first rapture of passion with his blond girlfriend Rose (Evelyne Brochu), he feels his ecstasy is contagious: "Total strangers would look at me, as if they could read the joy inside." Antoine is divorced from Carole (Hélène Florent), his wife of some 15 years and his sweetheart from their early teens. For all that time, these two had seemed fated to a lifelong love, together forever. Carole is not so much resentful at Antoine's departure as stunned; it is outside the natural order, the betrayal of destiny. "I've never kissed another man," she tells a friend. "I've had one love in my life." How could her twin flame not see her as his twin flame?

Paris, 1969: When Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) gives birth to a boy with Down syndrome, her husband leaves her. That's fine with her: she can now devote every moment of her life, every ounce of her energy, to loving Laurent (Marin Gerrier), a precious child who adores her as much as she does him. Her love is exalting and exclusive, a room with no view, only two blissful inmates. So when at seven he finds a soulmate in his blond schoolmate Véro (Alice Dubois), also with Down syndrome — and tells his mom, "I love her like I love you" — Jacqueline feels no less betrayed than Carole. She reacts as if her son has committed adultery. She removes Laurent from the school and announces, with the lucidity of obsession, "I will make you forget her."

In this astonishing Franco-Canadian romance, writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée intercuts these two stories, on the theme of women who love not wisely but too well, then unites them in a daring leap of faith. The viewer will have to leap with him, but his film is so sure-footed, emotionally and cinematically, that that risky step seems like walking on air in a beautiful dream. Each major character and many of the minor ones — Antoine's father, who'd almost rather have lost his straying son than his beloved daughter-in-law; or Carole and Antoine's elder daughter, so similar in looks to her mother than she also feels deserted — are as fully drawn as friends we have known for ages. Taking its deep resonance from the ardor and anguish on Jacqueline's and Carole's strong faces, and from the undeniable bond of two children, or two adults, who find each other against the odds, the film is generous to all its besotted creatures, and to the audience as well. Viewers who fall in love with Café de Flore will find that it loves them back. —M.C.

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