Just when I think I have the Venice Film Festival figured out, La Biennale goes and changes the game on us! Instead of a grand spectacle like ‘Birdman’, ‘Everest’ or ‘La La Land’ — the three films that opened the past editions of the oldest film festival in the world, for this year’s 74th edition Artistic Director Alberto Barbera did a bit of ‘Downsizing’ — Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ that is, starring Matt Damon.
Sorry, I really couldn’t help myself, it’s too easy not to make a word game of it and every single critic in Venice has done it.
‘Downsizing’ by Alexander Payne
Touching down at the airport in Venice before schedule, finding my suitcase to be the first on the baggage carousel and having a private water taxi awaiting me at the docks meant I could actually get to the Lido in time to catch the second press screening of Payne’s latest film. While I usually enjoy watching movies with a real audience, one made up of movie-watching real people instead of critics, I knew ‘Downsizing’ required a morning viewing, because I expected it to be jam packed with fascinating messages and important themes. I didn’t want to attend the evening’s premiere, I needed to sit in the darkness of a screening room and not amidst the brightness of cinematic stars.
And that it was, fascinating and important. All wrapped up in Payne’s typical, wonderful sense of humor and his ingrained belief in humanity, I found a film filled with cinematic joy and the vision of a filmmaker who truly seems to relish making movies. Matt Damon is divine as usual as Paul Safranek, and so are all the other actors who surround him, like Kristen Wiig as his wife Audrey, Christoph Waltz as his Serbian party animal neighbor Dusan, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern as the spokespersons of the Lilliputian community where Damon goes to live, Hong Chau as Gong Jiang and so on, I could list everyone who worked on the film.
The premise of ‘Downsizing’ is funny, this idea that a couple would choose to be shrunk down to five inches tall to save money and be able to, as Waltz’s character points out, “buy the things only rich people could afford in the big world.” Like say, a diamond bracelet-necklace-and-earring set Laura Dern’s character shows off and admits to paying a mere $83 for — it’s downsized too, so no need for multiple carats right? But the resulting film is serious too, it outlines our damaging ways on the world, our enormous carbon footprints, and the fact that inequality, the disparities among us, no matter how we may try to manipulate it and shrink it down, remains downright gigantic. And no amount of politically correct wording is going to correct that, as we’re all well aware of.
‘Nico 1988’ by Susanna Nicchiarelli
One of the reasons I wanted to watch the main Competition film during the day was because I craved to have my Venice experience start with the premiere of a film about a rockstar this year. And the rockstar is that muse superstar of Warhol era NYC, former Velvet Underground singer Nico.
Before I even watched the film I knew I would love it. And to live up to that, it had to be extra good. Filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli paints a masterful picture of episodes during the last two years in Nico’s life, a time that goes from 1986 to steps before her death in 1988 on the island of Ibiza. I’ve heard it called a biopic in some of the reviews, and it is that to an extent, because it describes moments in the life of a real person. But that’s where the biopic ends and a wonderfully creative, perfectly in tune and utterly entertaining film begins.
Nico was undeniably fascinating, in all her problematic behavior, and Danish singer/actress Trine Dyrholm plays her with such angst in her eyes and vulnerable power all around that at the end I found myself in the midst of a nearly ten minute standing ovation by the audience, tears falling down my cheeks, thinking the world is such a beautiful place to be, right now. The film is perfectly highlighted by Nico’s music, magnificent songs like ‘These Days’, ‘My Heart is Empty’ and ‘Nibelungen’ and all culminating in Dyrholm’s version of Alphaville’s ‘Big in Japan’, sung soulfully as an ode to times past — another breakdown moment for me. Perhaps because those times remind me of a NYC I grew up in, a Big Apple with a heart, where corner shops existed and Basquiat strolled the streets — way before the age of Starbucks and Apple stores.
Could it be that in this age of struggle and tragedy arising from our genuine misunderstanding of one another, those of us who are not intent on destroying the world are becoming the hippies of this generation? If that’s the case, we’ll need leaders, but also fashion and cultural icons to show us the way and Nico is one such personality.
I know for me, through Dyrholm and Nicchiarelli and the wonderful film they have together brought to Venice, Nico has pointed out an alternate path, a new way to view what we dismiss often by calling it “alternative” or worst, different.