Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" and Joaquin Phoenix from Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" were both booed at the Venice Film Festival in the last two days, but those are hardly danger signs for the two movies.
For Phoenix (left), for instance, the catcalls came when he refused to spend more than 14 seconds (somebody timed it) posing for photographers on his way into the premiere of "The Master."
He did, however, spend more time signing autographs for the fans outside the premiere, which puts the boos in the category of pique from a European paparazzi contingent feeling slighted.
As for "To the Wonder" – as one review pointed out, booing Malick movies "has become a badge of pride for a certain section of the [European] press corps." Which is to say, the movie is a Malick film, and the boos were par for the course – or, as Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw tweeted, "the usual storm of sneering, jeering and booing, I'm afraid, for Terrence Malick's flawed, passionate, idealistic 'To the Wonder.'"
"Films aren't booed at festivals simply for being bad, you know," pointed out Guy Lodge of In Contention, who liked "To the Wonder." "[A] year ago, Madonna's 'W.E.' heard not a one."
So Phoenix and Malick will survive the Venice boos, no doubt. Of course, Phoenix has other issues to deal with – namely, whether his occasionally off-putting manner and clear disdain for the usual publicity chores will serve him well during an awards season in which he might well be one of the Best Actor frontrunners.
He showed up for the press conference, then abruptly left without explanation, then returned. He barely spoke, except to answer a question that dealt with how he approached his character, a World War II vet and aimless drifter who is essentially rescued by Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic cult leader (right).
"I'll just say, I'll say I don't think, maybe Paul gives, or gave me, the impression I had leeway," Phoenix said. "But I don't think I ever did. I don't know where it comes from and I don't care."
If the leading man needs to tune up his soundbites (or, more likely, stay off the campaign train altogether), the movie continued to receive reviews that are admiring, sometimes rapturous and often a little confused.
Bradshaw at the Guardian came down on the rapturous side: "It's an arresting and utterly absorbing psychological drama of marginal lives, an emotional history of charlatanism and gimcrack philosophy, a world of snake-oil truth salesmen offering self-medication of the spirit, all set in a postwar America realised with superb flair and confidence, utterly without cliché."
At the Telegraph, meanwhile, Robbie Collin dubbed the film a "landmark American movie," and compared it to the rest of the Venice field:
"Many of the pictures in competition at this year’s Venice International Film Festival have been a touch flavourless, so thank heavens for 'The Master,' which goes down like a gut-scorching slug of firewater, and has left critics’ heads swimming and their extremities tingling."
Matt Mueller at Thompson on Hollywood wasn't quite so ready with the superlatives: he said "The Master" is "majestic and masterly if not a masterpiece," and raved about its visuals but found fault with a narrative "perhaps less crisp and dynamic" than the director's previous film, "There Will Be Blood."
And has there ever been a film where so many of the reviewers write, " … but I need to see it again?" I can't think of one.
The day after "The Master" screened in Venice, Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" was finally seen, after odd and contradictory advance word: some rumblings said it was less audience-friendly and more experimental than "The Tree of Life" … then one buyer suggested that it was actually more linear, and closer to Malick's early film "Badlands" than to the meandering "Tree" … then Ben Affleck told Jeff Wells that it "makes 'Tree of Life' look like 'Transformers.'"
But Affleck was exaggerating, insists Oliver Lyttleton from The Playlist. Lyttleton, admittedly not a fan of "Tree of Life," said the film is a deeply felt, emotional work, and "one that leans towards traditional narrative a little more" than Malick's last one. "It felt like a more coherent, deeply felt and satisfying film than its predecessor, and one of the highlights of the festival so far," he wrote.
Guy Lodge, while saying that he often felt "admiringly detached" from a movie that was full of similarities to "Tree of Life," but he nonetheless applauded "Malick's restless, tender, unfashionable quest for beauty." Concluded Lodge: "Never, to crib a line from 'A Clockwork Orange,' has a Terrence Malick film felt more like gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh."
The Guardian's Bradshaw said it was "a bold and often beautiful movie, unfashionably and unironically concerned with love and God, and what will happen to us in the absence of either."
But Todd McCarthy was less admiring, saying that the film "seems drained of life and ideas rather than sustained by them."
Summed up John Bleasdale at Cine-Vue: "It remains to be seen whether 'To the Wonder' is a misstep, or the sad decline of a once fantastically innovative filmmaker, lost in the limitations of his own inimitable style."
"To the Wonder" will face its first North American audience at the Toronto Film Festival in a little more than a week, and "The Master" will debut there in a week. We'll see if audiences, photographers and Phoenix have better manners in Canada than they do in Italy.