Midway through the Venice film festival, the competition is notable for a pair of features by American women: Sofia Coppola's Somewhere and Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff--both minimalist, open-ended exercises in myths debunked and protagonists lost.
Evidently inspired by the filmmaker's childhood, Somewhere revisits the Lost in Translation scenario (and ups its Oedipal ante) with an innocent 11-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) visiting her wildly successful and miserably lonely film star father (masterfully under-acted by Stephen Dorff) in his Chateau Marmont digs. Equally auteurist, Meek's Cutoff is a perverse, discreetly trippy Western road flick in the tradition of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man: Based on an 1845 incident, the members of an Oregon-bound wagon train (include a severely bonneted Michelle Williams) are misled into the desert by their bombastic, wrong-headed guide (Bruce Greenwood) and hence obliged to follow the enigmatic lone Indian they encounter. The political implications are unmistakable.
While Meek's Cutoff (coming soon, without distributor, to the New York Film Festival) was more enthusiastically received by American critics than their international colleagues, Somewhere is among the current favorites in the festival's ongoing critics poll. The two leaders are Post Mortem, Chilean director Pablo Larraín's more overtly political but equally disturbing follow-up to Tony Manero, and, somewhat surprisingly, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, by veteran HK producer-director Tsui Hark.
Also on the NYFF lineup, Post Mortem resembles Tony Manero (about a serial killer infatuated with Saturday Night Fever) as a study in purposefully enigmatic obsessive behavior starring blank-faced Alfredo Castro, this time as a morgue employee drafted to help perform the autopsy on Chile's deposed president Salvadore Allende. Detective Dee is not only a conspiratorial extravaganza worthy of its silent serial title but a cartoonish transposition of China's Cultural Revolution to the Seventh Century--given that Quentin Tarantino is the jury president, Hark's pulp fiction has a shot at the Golden Lion.
The voluble Tarantino has of course been ubiquitous--turning up at John Woo's Lifetime Achievement ceremony in a leather sombrero modeled on the one worn by Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and promoting his own mini-retrospective devoted to spaghetti western maestro Sergio Corbucci. Tarantino told me that he planned to hold forth on Corbucci at a special panel. With my own jury work completed, I regret that I won't be in Venice to hear him, but I'll be watching for his performance on YouTube.