VENICE, Italy — Though the biggest headlines of the 78th Venice Film Festival emanated from its lengthy red carpet—a smoldering Oscar Isaac’s inner-arm kiss, Kristen Stewart bedizened in Chanel or an elated Bennifer becoming red-carpet official—the movies themselves signaled a long-overdue sea change. Whereas past iterations of the glamorous film fete allowed for hideous men to resuscitate their careers, the 2021 edition was all about the women.
L’Événement, a French film by director Audrey Diwan providing an arresting portrait of a young woman in 1963 Paris seeking out a clandestine abortion, took home the Golden Lion, the fest’s top prize. The Silver Lion for Best Director went to the great Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog, an acutely rendered examination of performative masculinity and female forsakenness in the American West, while Maggie Gyllenhaal was awarded Best Screenplay for The Lost Daughter, her filmmaking debut exploring the hidden travails of motherhood. That the fest jury was chaired by none other than Bong Joon-ho, the man who gave us Mother, was surely a contributing factor to the liberality of these selections.
“My dream now is to go on,” Diwan said upon accepting the award. “Before I came here, I started working on my new film. It was also a way to protect myself, to be sure about the direction I want to go. I feel very grateful for what happened tonight.”
Over the past decade, no film festival has provided a stronger platform for a Best Picture Oscar run than Venice, which has hosted the debut screenings of Birdman, Spotlight, The Shape of Water and Nomadland, as well as near-misses like Gravity, A Star Is Born and Roma. Recent years have seen the annual event dominated by Netflix, since Cannes has, in rather outdated fashion, continued to blacklist the streamer. Both the aforementioned The Power of The Dog and The Lost Daughter, along with È stata la mano di Dio, a coming-of-age drama from Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino that won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize, are all Netflix Originals.
“It’s like working with the Medicis,” Campion remarked in Venice.
The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter will both have uphill climbs toward Best Picture nominations—their deliberate pacing, inconsistent performances and overall intimacy may not attract a plurality of Academy voters—though Netflix’s coffers will certainly provide a decent push. Far likelier to factor into the race are Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s supersized and star-studded adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel about interplanetary conquest, messianism and ecological plunder (his previous Arrival also unspooled in Venice), and Spencer, Pablo Larraín’s handsomely-helmed study of Princess Diana’s alienation and psychological torment by the frosty, domineering British royal family, anchored by Kristen Stewart’s most delicate and emotionally charged performance to date.
“The idea of somebody being so desperate for connection—and somebody who’s able to make other people feel so good, feeling so bad on the inside, and being so generous with her energy—I just think we haven’t had many of those people throughout history,” Stewart said of Diana in Venice. “She really sticks out as a sparkly house on fire.”
While Stewart is the current frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar, a cultural corrective of sorts for the Academy overlooking her César-winning turn in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria—becoming the first American actress ever to win France’s Oscar equivalent—and that of a spiritually assaulted young woman in Personal Shopper, she will have stiff competition from a pair of previous Oscar winners in Olivia Colman, for her despairing mother determined to find common ground with her wayward daughter in The Lost Daughter, and Penélope Cruz, whose portrayal of a mother haunted by her country’s colonial past and the indeterminate origin of her baby in the present in Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar’s Madres paralelas earned her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress in Venice. Meanwhile, Oscar Isaac may garner some notice for his fiercely committed take on a former Abu Ghraib torturer-turned-card shark in Paul Schrader’s ambitious (if uneven) The Card Counter.
But most importantly, amid a global pandemic that’s claimed the lives of over 4.5 million people worldwide, this year’s Venice Film Festival provided a protected space for cinema lovers to indulge in inspiring works from some of the finest directors and actors around. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test was required to gain entry to screenings, that were spaced out with every other seat blocked off; attendees were made to wear masks throughout screenings, and abided by the rule; and temperature checks were performed prior to entering the festival’s main hub, which was littered with tents providing free rapid-PCR COVID tests. Drinking in a film at the cinema is one of life’s miracles, and there are few settings more idyllic than this.