"Lust, Caution" winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival is a shockeroo considering some of the negative reviews it drew from top media like Variety, which dissed Ang Lee's Chinese-language WWII spy thriller as "a largely bloodless melodrama . . . that's a long haul (two and a half hours) for relatively few returns." READ MORE
How did it win? Conspiracy theories are buzzing across the internet, many pointing to the fact that Lee's pal Zhang Yimou, a two-time past winner of the Golden Lion himself ("The Story of Qiu Ju," "Not One Less"), headed the seven-person jury, which also included Alejandro González Inarritu, who previously directed today's winners of best actor and actress, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in "Babel."
Were jurists merely pushing their personal pals? Maybe in the case of Lee, the jury just likes to reward Chinese filmmakers to emphasize how international it is. Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke's "Still Life" won the Golden Lion last year and, considering Ang Lee won it two years ago for "Brokeback Mountain," that means a Chinese filmmaker has clutched the prize for three years in a row. Or, if you like conspiracy theories, here's another one to try on: maybe the Venice fest is just nuts about "Lust, Caution" actor Tony Leung, who also starred in previous Golden Lion winners "City of Sadness" (1989) and "Cyclo" (1995).
Whatever the case, "Lust, Caution" is not likely to be a big Oscar player like "Brokeback." Buzz across Hollywood isn't great. Dialog is spoken in Mandarin. And there's a tricky lil problem about its restrictive adult rating: NC-17. It might do well in some categories, but it's not going to be the next "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Maybe an even bigger surprise in Venice is not that "Lust" did so well, but that "Atonement" — which garnered the most Oscar buzz at the fest — got shut out.
When this year's Oscar race is over, there may end up being many parallels between what happened at the Venice fest last year and this year.
Last year western Oscar-watchers believed "The Queen" would win the Golden Lion, but it lost, just like "Atonement." However, "The Queen" ended up with a nifty consolation prize: best actress for Helen Mirren.
It's rare that the winner of a top acting award at Venice repeats at the Oscars, as Mirren ended up doing, so don't assume that fest champ Brad Pitt is now a shoo-in for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and Cate Blanchett for "I'm Not There." Many Venice winners aren't even nominated by the academy. Four years ago Venice honored Sean Penn just like Oscar voters, but for a different film, "21 Grams," not "Mystic River." Many other Venice champs do reap Oscar noms, however, like Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") and Julianne Moore ("Far from Heaven").
But if parallels to last year are appropriate now, we must wonder about last year's winner of best actor at Venice. Early in the 2006 derby there was some low-key speculation that Ben Affleck might be an Oscar contender for best supporting actor as TV's Superman George Reeves in "Hollywoodland," but there was fear that he might be overshadowed by Adrien Brody in the grandstanding lead role as a anguished detective investigating Reeves' suspicious death. But Venice doesn't have categories for supporting acting and jaws ended up dropping along the Rialto when Affleck won best actor at the fest.
That win helped Affleck reap a nom at the Golden Globes next, but he failed to score an Oscar nom in either lead or supporting later.
Now another Affleck figures into the 2007 derby: Ben's brother Casey, who really has the lead role — or at least the most emotionally expressive one and the most screen time compared to Brad Pitt — while portraying Robert Ford in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Does that matter? Could it mean that Brad drops down to supporting at the upcoming Globes and Oscars, as Affleck did? Probably not. Technically, James McAvoy had more screen time in "Last King of Scotland" than last year's Oscar champ Forest Whitaker and Ethan Hawke was seen more by viewers of "Training Day" than his costar who won the Academy Award: Denzel Washington. Pitt is the center focus of the story. That's what counts. Whether or not he pulls off a nomination will depend on how "Jesse James" performs over the next few months — first, in theaters (Hollywood Reporter predicts it may bomb) and then academy voters (who may agree with Variety that it's "a ravishing, magisterial, poetic epic" deserving kudos). For now film critics remain sharply divided over the film's merits and future fate.
Ditto for Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There," which pulled off that surprising victory in Venice for Blanchett as one of six actors portraying Bob Dylan. Like Affleck, she plans to drop down to supporting after winning at the fest. Reps for the Weinstein Co. confirm that to us. And, frankly, she'd be foolish not to, considering Blanchett is a top contender in the lead race for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," following her previous nom in that category for "Elizabeth" in 1998.
But what about "Atonement"? Its shutout in Venice does nothing to dampen its Oscar hopes. Many top festival contenders like "The Cider House Rules" got snubbed there, but were later embraced warmly by Oscar voters. Let's see what reax will be in Toronto where it debuts to festgoers early tomorrow (Sunday). That will be very telling.
However, Brian de Palma's "Redacted," winner of best director at Venice, that's another matter. Critics are split over it. To have its Oscar hopes heightened, it needs to win top awards from those same critics in early December. It doesn't, like "Atonement," fit the typical profile of Oscar champ.
(Photos: Focus Features)