Venice Film Festival, the world's oldest, is back in the lagoon city with its 74th edition. It’s a steal-scener of a show in the city that is, for better or worse, a superior film set. It’s as surreal as Venice itself. Come and sleep in George Clooney's bridal bed, unless he's already in it.
At the Venice Film Festival, the setting often upstages the stars. Not that George Clooney, Matt Damon and Julianne Moore will be complaining. Being eclipsed by the legendary St Mark’s waterfront is a privilege almost on a par with picking up a Golden Lion. Venice is the oldest film festival in the world and almost everyone who is anyone has been here.
Where else can stars sail in, by boat, not limousine, and be lit to great effect by the moody light glinting off the lagoon. Whatever the failings of the films, the city always shines. During the September festival, the Lido recovers a little of its turn-of-the-century lustre. For ten days, the Lido is awash with stars scurrying from the Stalinist Palazzo del Cinema, where most films are screened, to `intimate’ suppers on hulking mega-yachts, or dinners in palatial Gothic piles on the Grand Canal. At night, motor boats ferry sleek stars to the glamorous hotel bars, the setting for glittering `private’ film parties.
The lagoon’s distorting mirror
Venice can play cultural one-upmanship better than most cities. Every other crumbling palace is a would-be film set or grande-dame hotel awash with famous ghosts. Adding to the surreal setting is the chance of stumbling across a film in the making. The Aspern Papers, a lush period drama based on Henry James’ novel, is currently being shot in the Venice backwaters. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, the film will presumably be a contender at next year’s Venice Festival, such is the incestuous nature of the city.
What sets the Venice Film Festival apart is the sense that acting is in the DNA of the lagoon-dwellers. As one local aristocrat says: “Everyone is Venice is acting. When we approach a bridge, we don't see it as just another set of steps to climb. A bridge is a transition and as we go over, our role changes and we go into another reality." The cliché of Venice as a stage-set for our celluloid fantasies is never truer than at festival time.
With each screening and star-sighting, the city’s sense of unreality is heightened. In this ghostly water-world, we slip like sleepwalking character-actors between glittering Gothic porticoes, sumptuous ballrooms and slightly sinister bridges. Even the stars can't quite believe it’s not a set. The lagoon city delivers the dream, with peachy Bellinis sipped in Baroque bars, and streaming sun glinting off Murano glass mirrors.
As the festival swirls by, the distorting mirror of the lagoon turns visitors into voyeurs and stars into unwitting performers. The public nature of Venice means that the simplest strolls are seen as a series of exits and entrances. Even stepping out of a boat creates waves. Conscious of myriad eyes, the stars play to the gallery and to Venice itself, the greater stage. Waves create waves and the effect is a subtle shift in sensibility that goes beyond dissembling. Forget star-spotting: a connection has been forged.
Founded as a showcase for Fascist Italy, the festival’s success belies its unpromising origins. The ten-day jamboree provides a more romantic visual backdrop than Cannes, conducive to `secret’ celebrity assignations in seductive dowager hotels, and stirring speedboat chases across the lagoon, designed to ensnare any lurking paparazzi. Still, as Spielberg says: “More than anything, we are in show-business – this is the show part.”
The Film Festival is centred on the Lido, the long strip of land sandwiched between Venice and the Adriatic. In spirit, the Lido is a place apart, belonging neither to Venice nor the mainland. After the time-warp of `real’ Venice, the island feels like a restful summer resort and a superior film set. In this faded fantasy, neo-Gothic piles vie with Art Nouveau villas and a mock-Moorish castle. It’s the perfect setting for a film festival.
This island became the world’s first lido, with imitators across the globe. The best beaches lie along the Adriatic side of the Lido, stretching along the Lungomare into the sand dunes beyond. Snooze in style by colourful cabanas on Bagni Alberoni beach, where Death in Venice was filmed. Or eavesdrop on movie deals conducted in the Moorish Hotel Excelsior, whose domed exterior is undermined by the dated décor.
As for the business bit of showbusiness, the 74th Venice Film Festival opens with an exceptionally strong line up. Annette Bening, the four-time Oscar nominee, is President of the jury, following on from Sam Mendes, the James Bond director. La La Land opened last year’s festival to plaudits and film fans are expecting a great showing from the latest contenders. Highlights include Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Suburbicon, with George Clooney directing Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in a Coen brothers' crime comedy, set in a manicured-lawn suburbia. Other films in and out of competition should lure Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Penélope Cruz and Javier Barden to lend their star power. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda will pick up Golden Lions, prized lifetime achievement awards, before the screening of their latest film, Our Souls at Night. Director Stephen Frears will snaffle an award for contribution to cinema before the premiere of Victoria and Abdul, his Queen Victoria biopic starring Judi Dench.
Unlike in Cannes, few stars can resist the urge to escape their palatial cocoons and sashay along the Lido promenade to mingle with the crowds. A few who spurn the mega-yachts will moor close to San Giorgio to admire the view across the water to St Mark’s. (Oligarch-style floating palaces are forced to moor in less scene-stealing spots).
The Giudecca waterfront, a mixture of raffish and stylish, is a vantage point for spotting celebrities out for a late-night stroll and nightcap. The canalside bars draw partying stars, with the polished Cipriani hotel in prime position. The views are better from its Cip’s Club pontoon restaurant, next-door to Elton John’s surprisingly discreet ochre-coloured Venetian pad. Just along the waterfront awaits the Bauer’s Villa F, a ravishing retreat with glorious views across the Giudecca Canal to St Mark’s. To drink in a sunset over an Aperol Spritz, seek out the starriest view at the Skyline Bar. Set in the Hilton Molino Stucky, the rooftop of this former flour mill surveys the Palladian waterfront - conceivably lined by hulking cruiseships but that's a battle that belongs in the real world, not filmland.
The curious mix of privacy and intimacy, matched by the grandeur of the setting, are why celebrities fall for the Venetian film set. Festival fans include Woody Allen, who periodically toys with buying a Grand Canal palazzo, and George Clooney, who has a home on Lake Como but treats Venice as his personal showcase. His pals, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, also add lustre to the event and contribute to its `Hollywood-isation.’
Less status-conscious actors, such as Al Pacino, who played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, might slip into a bacaro, a rough-and-ready wine bar, on the Rialto, or indulge in a Venetian `wine crawl’. Once, at Do Forni, a warren of a trattoria behind St Mark’s, I found myself star-struck, dining close to a pensive Nicole Kidman, whose air of hard-won composure ensured she was left undisturbed by respectful Venetians.
Second only to Cannes in prestige, Venice is quirkier, more unpredictable, more open to the public, and often outshines Cannes. Venice Film Festival is also artier, although it straddles both mainstream and art-house camps. Actor John Leguizamo signals the importance of film festivals: "They remind Hollywood, or tell Hollywood, what they should appreciate. Festivals are the guardians, the protectors of quality."
The Venetian audiences bask in the presence of the stars, but then bring them down to earth. Thwarted in his attempt to pilot his plane onto the Lido beach, John Travolta once had to slum it in Missoni’s yacht, moored by St Mark’s. Festival chaos has left stars standing at their own premieres, while delays once led to a Johnny Depp premiere finishing at 4am. Nor are catcalls by Italian film critics uncommon, anymore than booing by the home crowd. But it all adds to the festival’s reputation as an event passionately followed by Venetian residents.
At best, plentiful public screenings turn this into a genuine city festival. The `movie village’ feel of the Lido is enhanced by giant screens and festive food stalls competing with mounds of movie memorabilia. The Golden Lion (Leon d’Oro) ceremony is staged in the resplendent La Fenice opera house. (The lagoon city awards lions, the triumphal symbol of St Mark and La Serenissima, the old City State, for the best performances).
Despite the star quotient, the Venetians treat the jamboree as a people’s festival, as a reward for putting up with tourism. This year might be rather different as tensions over mass tourism make the festival a litmus test for the city administration’s plummeting popularity. Beyond the film razzmatazz, Venice is once again mired in impending doom, facing issues of over-crowding, underpopulation, invasive cruise ships and a once serene way of life increasingly under threat. But this is showbiz so doom and gloom are banished until the film caravanserai decamps.
Beds are a big deal in Venice. Come the Film Festival, you can wake up in palaces that welcomed Doges. You can even sleep in George Clooney’s wedding bed - unless he, Amal and the twins have got there first. Aman Venice, home to Clooney’s bridal suite, oozes movie-star romance, with gilded cherubs and an art collection amassed by the dynastic owners. George and Amal married from the charming Alcova Tiepolo suite, with its cascade of cavorting cherubs and ornate stuccowork. The Aman’s secret is that, at heart, it’s both a show-stopping palace and a quirky private home. Dinner takes place in connecting dining rooms, with the fusty family portraits, frescoed ceilings and Grand Canal vistas rather overpowering the delicate Venetian dishes. Instead, the palatial bar is more than a match for a peach-infused Bellini, the Prosecco-based cocktail invented in Venice.
On the far side of the Grand Canal, the Bauer Palazzo is a glitzier celebrity bolthole, with Settimo Cielo still the loftiest breakfast terrace in town. With its darkly glowing bars, Bauer Palazzo summons free spirits to the party. Daniel Craig has celebrated at the clubby B Bar while Jeremy Irons is a fan of the waterside Canal Bar. You could even imagine Casanova in residence. The lothario liked to have a spare girl to hand, preferably an uninhibited nun who enjoyed a messy oyster lunch.
For style at non-celebrity prices, slip into Splendid Venice, a discreetly splendid hotel tucked into the medieval maze of alleys behind St Mark’s. The romantic canalside rooms reveal scenes that feel too contrived to be real, such as a bridal couple sailing past in a gilded gondola, tossing white roses at passers-by. Bring yourself back to reality in Le Maschere, the hotel’s good-value courtyard restaurant, equipped with both a removable roof and a glowing fire, as if expressly there as props in a Venetian film set.
Partying, privacy-conscious stars will be booking Palazzina G, the Philippe Starck-designed pad on the Grand Canal. This sultry, saturnine Grand Canal hideaway was made for dangerous liaisons and appeals to all bad-boy stars. This palazzo fantasy faces Ca’ Rezzonico, one of the greatest Venetian palaces but is equally Baroque in a boutique way.
If the bedrooms are budget-breaking, come for drinks in PG’S Bar, the decadent designer den. From the sea-monster Murano glass chandeliers to the animal-pelt chairs, this moody, mahogany lounge bar is made for people-watching. The barmen are more fun than my friends, recounting tales of partying with Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Madonna. My lips are sealed for fear of public execution between the twin pillars on San Marco, as used to happen in the days of the Doges.
The decadent setting is so enticing you might be tempted by supper beside the show kitchen. Venetian clams, salted cod and sweet and sour sardines compete with Alba truffles, velvety borlotti bean risotto and rum baba, all washed down with top Veneto wines. Then ask the barmen what Madonna did the night she really let loose.
Sophisticated Grand Canal pile in the San Marco district complemented by Bauer Palladio, its sleepier sister hotel over the water, set in a Palladian convent on the island of Giudecca, close to the starrier retreat of Villa F.
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