The press room at the Venice Film Festival has to be the most beautiful film festival press room in the world. Taking over the third floor of the imposing Palazzo del Casinò, the main atrium is a gargantuan, triple-height space carpeted in soft cream, with columns clad in marble extending up past Murano glass chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling windows hung with gold-sheened drapes giving way to a sparkling blue sea. On a clear day — which it almost always is — you imagine that, were it not for the curvature of the earth, you could see forever. Or at least to Croatia.
It is an eternal contradiction that this lofty space should be peopled with dozens of perspiring journalists hunched over their laptops, hammering away at their keyboards like birds beating their wings against the bars of a particularly gilded cage. Or maybe such dark thoughts in a such a light-filled structure — designed by the architect Eugenio Miozzi in 1938 to embody the monumentalist fantasy of Mussolini’s fascist regime — are a symptom of a festival lineup that, this year, features a profusion of stories about women similarly chafing against the restrictive, but often luxurious, enclosures built by controlling men.
Some of these men were towering real-life figures. Penélope Cruz turns in the standout performance in Michael Mann’s “Ferrari” as the long-suffering wife of the Italian motoring magnate (Adam Driver), and Carey Mulligan does much the same as Leonard Bernstein’s wife Felicia in “Maestro,” directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. In both these cases — and arguably to the detriment of both well-made but strangely evanescent films — the portrayal of genius pales in comparison to the portrait of a woman who supported and nurtured that genius, even when it threatened to engulf her.
Of two memorable scenes in “Maestro,” only one — Bernstein’s performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony at Ely Cathedral in 1973 — is about his music. The other is a lacerating domestic argument in the couple’s bedroom, during which, in every shaking nerve, Mulligan embodies the resentment of a bright, ambitious woman whose devotion to and indulgence of her famous spouse has cost her so much of herself.
The life-draining capacity of egocentric men is even more strikingly literalized in Pablo Larraín’s mordant, monochrome “El Conde,” in which the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) is recreated as a 250-year-old vampire. In Larraín’s scabrous, grisly alternate history, Pinochet is a decrepit immortal, drowning in self-pity since faking his death to evade justice. And Pinochet’s wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) is imagined as his equal, or even his better, in sheer perversity; much of the misery the terrorized nation experienced under the dictator is suggested to have been at her behest.
But although that gives Lucía, who constantly petitions her husband to bite her so that she too can live out her depravities forever, a degree of apparent agency, that is robbed from her in one brief scene where “The Count,” as he likes to be called, casually trades her off to his obsequious Renfield-style butler (Alfredo Castro). The Count is then free to pursue an affair with a nun, including fantasy play that involves her dressing up as Marie Antoinette. (The Count has been obsessed with the ill-fated Queen of France ever since, in one of the film’s most provocatively gruesome early scenes, he licked the guillotine blade that severed her slender neck.)
Marie Antoinette is perhaps the ultimate emblem of decorative married womanhood. And of course, she was the title star of a previous film from Sofia Coppola, whose Venice-competing “Priscilla” is yet another tale of a woman’s tentatively self-engineered escape from the influence of a dominant man.
Based on, and clearly in deep sympathy with, Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me,” the film follows the famous couple’s relationship, from their first meeting when then-Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) was just 14 years old and living on a U.S. Army base in Germany, to the moment, almost a decade-and-a-half later, when Priscilla Presley drove through the gates of Graceland for the last time as the house’s mistress.
This is unmistakably a Sofia Coppola movie, in its luxuriant feel for fabrics and facades, but as in “Marie Antoinette,” here the surfaces become the substance. It is a story about how, especially to a naïve teenager, the trappings of an outwardly tantalizing lifestyle can be sprung upon you like a trap.
During their first tearful goodbye in Germany, Elvis (Jacob Elordi) makes the schoolgirl Priscilla promise to “stay exactly the way you are.” But the banner film investigating the icky desire on the part of some men to keep their womenfolk infantilized is Yorgos Lanthimos’ joyously macabre “Poor Things.” The biggest hit of Venice so far, it is deeply — if twistedly, and often hilariously — concerned with the idea of female emancipation, as Bella, played by a riveting, inventive and highly physical Emma Stone, shucks off the psychological bondage first of her adoptive father (Willem Dafoe) and then of her caddish, pompous lover (Mark Ruffalo).
Even the film’s hyperreal aesthetic, in which Lisbon and London are depicted by intricate, steampunky set-builds with lurid computer generated skies and seas, reinforce the concept: The film’s self-consciously airless and artificial universe makes the vigor of Bella’s adventures in sex and self-discovery all the more striking.
There are still more women trapped under the thumbs of domineering men dotted throughout the lineup, most notably in two black comedies that both feature contract killers (another feature of Venice 2023, if you also take David Fincher’s “The Killer,” Harmony Korine’s “Aggro Dr1ft” and the Liam Neeson thriller “In the Land of Saints and Sinners” into further account).
Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” stars and is co-written by Glen Powell, who deserves to leap up to major-league stardom on the back of this effervescently amoral exaggeration of a real-life story: Gary, a diffident English professor who moonlights as a fake hit man, finds love getting in the way of his mission when an abused wife, Madison (Adria Arjona), tries to enlist his services. She is driven to it as a means to escape. But the murder-solicitation in Woody Allen’s French-language “Coup de Chance,” is far less morally defensible, prompted by jealousy and again, a loss of control, as the possessive rich-guy Jean (Melvil Poupaud), discovers that his young, vivacious wife (Lou De Laâge) has taken a lover.
“Coup de Chance” is, in some respects a return to form for Allen, even if one suspects that some of its breeziness is down to the attractive cast compensating for the staleness of Allen’s recent English-language quippery by mercifully speaking in French. (Native French speakers of my acquaintance tell me that the dialogue, to their ears, sounds similarly unnatural.)
But it does feel more current than most of Allen’s recent output, not least in how it syncs up neatly with this Venice edition’s chief preoccupations: hit men and trapped women, and all the poor things who find themselves in plush Central Park or central Paris apartments, in press room palaces or fantastical Lisbon hotels, surrounded by luxury, but longing to be free.