Weekend in Venice: Nudity, Kitsch and Espionage

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “Shame” and “Contagion” among the movies debuting at Venice Film Festival

The frontloaded Venice Film Festival, which opened on Wednesday, had a couple of big premieres ("The Ides of March" and "A Dangerous Method") in its first few days, as well as a you-gotta-see-it entry in Madonna's reportedly awful "W.E."

Things calmed down a bit over the weekend in Venice, though the festival still managed to serve up a menu of nudity, kitsch and espionage.

Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueenThe latter comes from a high-profile film that was held out of the North American festivals: Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of the John le Carre novel "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which stars Colin Firth and debuted in Venice Monday.

At In Contention, Guy Lodge found it quiet and understated, but nonetheless thrilling: "Looking for all the world as if the print has been stewed in black tea before being left to gather a few months’ worth of dust in the projection room — and that’s a good thing, I hasten to add — the film proves a happy marriage between two very different brands of understated precision: the British scholarliness of le Carre’s dense espionage lore and the icier Scandinavian calm that Alfredson brought to his breakout vampire drama, 'Let the Right One In.'"

Matt Mueller, reviewing the film for Thompson on Hollywood, was respectful but not quite as enthusiastic; he thought the two-hour running time truncated the story in the way the 1979 British miniseries version did not, and as a result "'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' settles for being a very good as opposed to a superb spy thriller."

Added Deborah Young, "It is one of the few films so visually absorbing, felicitous shot after shot, that its emotional coldness is noticed only at the end, when all the plot twists are unraveled in a solid piece of thinking-man’s entertainment for upmarket thriller audiences."

The nudity came from "Shame," the new film from Steve McQueen. The British director's debut feature, "Hunger," was stark and unflinching in its depiction of the life of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in a British prison; the new one, according to reports from Venice, is just as unflinching in the way it lays out central character Michael Fassbender's sex addiction. (Photo, above, of Fassbender and McQueen by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.)

David Gritten calls it "a jolting portrayal of a tough subject" at Thompson on Hollywood, noting enough nudity (from Fassbender, co-star Carey Mulligan and many others) to give the film a presumed NC-17 rating.

"All this leaves a huge question mark over its commercial potential in the U.S.," he writes, while admitting that McQueen has turned out to be "a gifted filmmaker."

On the other hand, critic Todd McCarthy thought the kinkiness and built-in controversy would make it "an attractive proposition for an enterprising distributor," and called the film "a real walk on the wild side, a scorching look at a case of sexual addiction that’s as all-encompassing as a craving for drugs."

As for the kitsch, that was reportedly supplied by "Chicken With Plums," the second film from Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, who collaborated to turn Satrapi's graphic novel "Persepolis" into a well-received animated feature in 2007.

The new film, which is also based on a semi-autobiograhical graphic novel of Satrapi's, is largely live action, with animated interludes in between scenes in which Mathieu Almaric plays an unhappy violinist.

The film has clearly divided critics: Lodge found it "excessively frou-frou, "way too kitschy"; Gritten said it was "way too kitschy"; Screen's Lee Marshall wrote that it's "pretty but ultimately empty"; and Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek "something of a disappointment."

Two Hollywood trade papers, though, liked it: Variety saw "the same winning balance of seriousness and humor that made 'Persepolis' such a hit," and the Hollywood Reporter said the film "unfolds like a rich Persian carpet woven of memories and nostalgia."

Jessica ChastainElsewhere at Venice, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (right; photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images) picked up the Gucci Women in Film award in Venice, while Steven Soderbergh has apparently changed his mind about his on-again, off-again retirement again; while he talked of ending his movie career to become a painter last week, he told the Observer in Venice that he's only taking a sabbatical and just needs to "recalibrate."

Soderbergh was in town to screen his virus-run-amok thriller "Contagion," which drew admiring reviews that nonetheless fell right in line with what the film's trailer suggests: the film feels "more like a superior studio thriller than a festival awards contender," wrote Gritten.

Lodge, meanwhile, gave his only four-star review of the festival to "ALPS," the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose "Dogtooth" became the unlikiest and most controversial Oscar nominee (for Foreign-Language Film) in years.

Lodge calls the film "dazzingly dislocated," and "a return that should keep him on the fast-track to Euro-auteur royalty, even as it lashes out at the merest suggestion of acceptable behavior."

And while nothing can rival the delicious pans meted out to Madonna's "W.E.," another film from a performer who's turned to directing seems to be angling for the runner-up position: James Franco's "Sal," his examination of the last day in the life of actor Sal Mineo, has been roundly dismissed by most who've seen it.

Then again, even if "Sal" is dismissed, the multi-tasking Franco no doubt has several other irons in the fire at this point.

As the Playlist's Oliver Lyttleton tweeted on Sunday, "James Franco in next room. Before leaving Venice, he'll also give a poetry reading, restore a cathedral, and do a 4hr shift as a gondolier."