Dear Diary, the sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s nothing there to spoil the view…except for a bunch of men winching up some billboards, sweaty carpenters sawing and hammering, and sulky security guards looking almost as lost as the stream of journalists arriving on the Lido. Today is the eve of the oldest film festival in the world and in true Italian style, last-minute attempts are being made to get everything ready for the big day. And in true Italian style, tomorrow everything will look perfect.
It’s strange arriving on this thin strip of land, which is all that keeps Venice from being submerged by the sea. Such a small and seemingly insignificant island is about to host a jamboree filled with Hollywood topliners, starting off with Ryan Gosling in First Man, which is the first film on the schedule in the morning and will be the first major red carpet event. Yet lesser-known directors will also be making their mark just metres from the beach in a variety of sections, including a new one specifically for documentaries.
This year the Hotel des Bains, made famous by the film Death in Venice, will open its doors for an exhibition celebrating 75 years of celluloid history. In a nice touch, the festival will also be screening Death in Venice, no doubt evoking a sigh of nostalgia from some of the audience, for the Hotel des Bains was once the epitome of film festival elegance, the place where stars and journalists rubbed shoulders over cocktails on the veranda. The hotel has been closed for years, awaiting further funding to transform it into a luxury block of apartments. But for the next ten days the hotel will shake off the dust and accumulated dirt and will revert – at least partially – to its former glory.
So, what makes this old lady of the festival circuit so special? One element is of course its location. There is something slightly surreal about attending a screening at 8.30am, only to come out, perhaps traumatised or terrified, only to see swimsuit-clad cyclists on their way to the beach. And if Cannes is the giant carnival coming to town, then the Lido festival is more of a village fete. There is some competition, sure, but there is none of the vulgar haggling that occurs on the French riviera, not in plain sight anyway. There is the “consoling inconvenience” of Venice, as James Cameron called it in his 1969 documentary about the city, which for the visiting journo is both frustrating and unutterably charming.
And then there are the films. Venice has made a name for itself in recent years for choosing Oscar contenders and winners with unerring regularity. So does this mean we’re about to see next year’s best film? And which will it be? The line-up includes some beauties, from A Star Is Born (surely an Oscar contender, perhaps for Lady Gaga) to Damien Chazelle’s First Man. But with directors including Yorgos Lanthimos, the Coen brothers and the lone female in competition, Jennifer Kent (who chilled us with Babadook and is here with The Nightingale), any one could be a winner. But the real winners are us privileged journalists, soaking up the last of the Mediterranean summer sun as we wait in line for another cinematic treat. Roll on tomorrow and let the festival commence!