At 90, the Venice Film Festival looks better than ever

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This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Harry Styles, left, and Florence Pugh in a scene from "Don't Worry Darling." (Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Cinema’s biggest stars just seem to shine a bit brighter at the Venice International Film Festival, which begins this week in the Northern Italian city.

Think of Lady Gaga, a woman who has never shied away from a grand entrance, somehow topping even herself delicately perched over the edge of a moving water taxi and vamping for the cameras like a classic screen siren. Or Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck evoking old Hollywood glamour to make their official debut as a couple just last year.

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Whether you’re a celebrity gliding down the red carpet in front of hundreds of flashing cameras or an onlooker an ocean away daydreaming about Timothée Chalamet’s crystal-studded Haider Ackermann suit, or that electric moment between non-couple Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, it is the kind of occasion that ignites the imagination. And that’s all before you even step inside the theater.

For director and actor Olivia Wilde, the dream of Venice was woven into the fabric of her new film, “ Don’t Worry Darling.” Ending up at the festival became a shorthand for the type of movie she wanted to make.

“We had several studios and streamers who wanted to make this film and I sat down with all of them and I said, ‘The path that I see leads us to Venice. Which one of you understands what kind of movie were making based on that dream?’” Wilde said. “To me, a Venice film is a film that really embraces everything that is ambitious and romantic and beautiful about cinema. And this film is truly a love letter to movies.”

Wilde went with New Line and Warner Bros. and her wish came true: The stylish psychological thriller starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles as a picture-perfect couple in an experimental postwar community will have its world debut out of competition on Sept. 5.

Styles, Pugh and Wilde are just some of the stars expected to pose on the docks outside of the opulent Hotel Excelsior and grace the red carpet outside of the Palazzo del Cinema. Their presence, alongside lifetime achievement recipient Catherine Deneuve, Hugh Jackman, Tilda Swinton, Penelope Cruz, Chalamet and many others, helps transform the Lido, the laid-back beach town across the Venetian Lagoon from St. Mark’s Square, into a bastion of glamour, fantasy and cinema on the Adriatic.

This year’s festival is stacked with highly anticipated films and performances in the main competition slate: Ana de Armas is making her debut as Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s “ Blonde ”; Brendan Fraser’s turn in Darren Aronofsky’s new film “The Whale” is already being hailed as an awards-worthy comeback; and Cate Blanchett is playing a renowned conductor in “ TÁR,” director Todd Field’s first film in over 15 years.

“Todd Field is as major a film artist as has ever been,” said Peter Kujawski, the chairman of Focus Features. “And what Cate is doing with the character, without saying too much, is just something you don’t see executed on this level very often.”

The festival, which began in 1932 and is heading into its 79th edition, officially begins Wednesday night with the premiere of Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s seminal novel “ White Noise,” starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig.

“White Noise” is one of four high-profile Netflix films hoping to make a splash at the festival, which is an important platform not just for the streaming service, but for all Oscar hopefuls. Baumbach’s last Venice film, “Marriage Story,” went on to get six Oscar nominations and win one for Laura Dern, who is also returning this year in Florian Zeller’s “The Son.” It’s the first of many fall festivals that will refine the awards conversation for the rest of the year.

Field, Baumbach, Aronofsky and Zeller are also among a slew of filmmakers with good Oscar track records who are making their first stop at Venice in competition: There’s also Martin McDonagh's Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson friendship drama “The Banshees of Inisherin”; Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s comedy “Bardo, or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”; and Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal romance “ Bones and All,” which reunites the Italian director with Chalamet.

There are also two narrative debuts from documentarians Frederick Wiseman ("A Couple") and Alice Diop ("Saint Omer") that are among the 23 films vying for the Golden Lion. The coveted award will be decided on by a jury led by Julianne Moore and presented at the festival's close on Sept. 10.

Participant Media CEO David Linde, a 30-year veteran of the festival, wanted Venice specifically for the debut of two high-profile documentaries: Oscar-winner Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” about photographer Nan Goldin’s fight against the Sackler family, which is playing in competition, as well as Steve James’ “A Compassionate Spy,” about nuclear physicist Ted Hall.

“The opportunity to bring people to the festival is something I treasure,” Linde said. “This is really about three great American artists coming to Venice: Laura, Nan and Steve.”

Venice may not always produce the best picture winner, though there are some like “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “The Shape of Water” and “Nomadland,” and many more nominees. But it has become a reliable launching pad for the eventual best director winner, claiming nine in the past decade alone including Silver Lion winner Jane Campion earlier this year.

The films go beyond Hollywood too, of course, with the entire slate boasting works from some 59 countries including several Oscar hopefuls, like Santiago Mitre's “ Argentina, 1985 " and Romain Gavras' “ Athena.”

The festival is putting a spotlight on both the war in Ukraine, with a devoted day and the premiere of Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary about the war, as well as plight of persecuted directors around the world, like imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi whose film “No Bears” is among the competition titles.

And the slate is not without some potential controversy either: They will also host the premiere of “Call of God,” from the late South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, a past Venice-winner who was also accused of sexual assault.

But after two scaled back editions, it is mostly excitement in the air. The Venice Film Festival is the kind of place that enchants whether you’re a first-timer or an industry veteran.

Maybe it’s the romanticism of Northern Italy or the sense of occasion that comes with being part of the world’s oldest film festival. It could be the desire to step it up a notch to bid farewell to the bombast of the summer movie season and welcome in the more adult fare of the fall. Or perhaps it's the delightful unpredictability of a festival that one year awards its top prize to “Joker,” helping establish Todd Phillips’ big studio comic book film as a serious awards contender, and another year to “Happening,” a small French drama about abortion.

“You go in both with a sense of purpose and excitement for whatever film you’re bringing, but I think all of us in in the community share the other aspect of it that you also just go in giddy as a fan. Every single thing you might sit down and watch is going to be a thoughtful, meaningful, truly wonderful moviegoing experience,” Kujawski said. “That’s the magic of Venice.”


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