Venice Fest: Roman Polanski Gets Mean, Keira Knightley Gets Hysterical

First three days of the fest feature a handful of respected movies, plus Madonna's fancy flop

Madonna suffered a death in Venice at the hands of the critics, George Clooney survived with his reputation intact if not burnished, and Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg found admirers but didn't exactly light up the canals.

Those are some of the lessons from the first three days of the Venice International Film Festival, an Italian holiday at which a batch of awards hopefuls showed up and were met with what, so far, is a notable lack of the kind of enthusiasm that Oscar contenders dream of receiving at the fall festivals.

Madonna's "W.E.," of course, is the disaster du jour, with even admirers of the film admitting that her take on the Wallis Simpson story is pretty silly and insubstantial. TheWrap compiled reactions on Thursday, to which add this take from indieWIRE: "Not since Lee Daniels’ 'Shadowboxer' have I seen something so utterly wretched on every level, yet so absolutely compelling."

Also read: Madonna's New 'W.E.' Film Ripped by Critics: 'Simpering Folly'

Screening on the same day as "W.E." – and smelling like roses by comparison – was Roman Polanski's "Carnage," an acidic comedy based on Yasmina Reza's 2006 play "God of Carnage," with the director replacing the original and acclaimed Broadway cast (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden) with Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet.

Guy Lodge of In Contention thought that Waltz steals the show (others went for Foster), but concluded that Polanski fell short by remaining too tied to a play that is dark fun but narrow in focus. "Swift and savage and so sparing in generosity that it risks selling its smart world-view a little short, the ample pleasures of 'Carnage' … are those of its source, but it might have found more of its own."

Elsewhere, the Playlist called "Carnage" "a film of very little ambition, a minor entry in the director's canon," while David Gritten's report for Thompson on Hollywood concluded, "It's well-acted and giddily enjoyable, if slightly less so once the characters start to analyze their descent into barbarism."

(Reilly, Winslet and Waltz in Venice, above; photo by Frederic Nebinger/Getty Images)

At a Venice press conference, the actors were reportedly effusive in their praise of Polanski, with Winslet even admitting to some fright: "We were working with the great Roman Polanski. We are only human beings and we are still perfectly capable of being terrified, whoever we are."

But the consensus — it's solid, it's nasty, it's fast (78 minutes) and you never forget that it's a play — is not, let's face it, the stuff that Best-Picture dreams are made of.

Another director whose films have often proved to be too dark and perverse for the Academy, David Cronenberg, brought "A Dangerous Method" to Venice on Friday. The film, with Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, is by most reports one of the most reserved works in its director's filmography, though many were left buzzing about the flamboyance of Keira Knightley's performance as a troubled and initially hysterical young woman.

Guy Lodge wrote, "Handled by Cronenberg with characteristic fastidiousness but a surprising lack of perversity, 'A Dangerous Method' will delight lovers of highbrow adult cinema of discussion and mildly disappoint those hoping the subject matter augured a return to the deranged, physicality-obsessed kinkmeister of old."

Overall, the film seems to have drawn more respect than love. And it's drawn lots of triple-adjective descriptions: "precise, lucid and thrillingly disciplined" (Todd McCarthy), "talky, cerebral and intensely complex" (David Gritten), "dry, cerebral and lugubrious" (Xan Brooks).

Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen(Knightley and Mortensen at the premiere, left; photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

In a way, the reception was similar to that received by George Clooney's "The Ides of March" when it opened Venice on Wednesday: lots of critics like it and admire it, but nobody's rushing to put it at the top of any Top 10 lists.

Also read: George Clooney's 'Ides of March' – Is It a Contender?

Due for a weekend bow in Venice is Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," which on the surface is an odd entry in the festival circuit. A virus-themed thriller seemingly made more for the multiplex than the arthouse, the film opens on Sept. 9, an imminent date that'll keep it out of every fest except Venice.

But taking note of the good buzz the film has enjoyed from advance screenings so far, Nicole Sperling finds precedent for the Venice-to-the-multiplex strategy: it's what Warner Bros. did last year for "The Town," another commercial film that became an Oscar candidate (though it didn't land a Best-Picture nomination).

Meanwhile, on the subject of Venice but off the subject of movies, indieWIRE's Shane Danielsen sums up the festival's apparently infuriating modus operandi:

"Year after year, Venice exhibits the kind of chronic mismanagement you might expect from some African republic in an Evelyn Waugh novel. The pointless bureaucracy. The weird mix of officiousness and thoughtless disregard. The rules made for no reason, serving no discernible purpose …

"And yet we come back. Why is that?"

Why? To see the Madonna movie, of course.