Letter From Venice: A Film Festival Without Stars Has a Hole in the Center

The breeze still blows gently on the Lido, the slender strip of elegant beach in one of the world’s most treasured cities, but without the actors, there’s an unfillable void at the Venice Film Festival. 

You felt it most keenly at the premiere of “Maestro,” where Bradley Cooper, the co-writer, director and lead actor of his film about musical genius Leonard Bernstein, was absent. The Netflix production is, of course, part of the Hollywood studios being struck by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, so Cooper chose not to celebrate his epic work at its debut screening at the Palazzo del Cinema’s great hall, standing in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA instead.

It was felt in the room, a celebration without the main celebrant. “It feels odd,” allowed Netflix film chief Scott Stuber, as his team gathered to commemorate the premiere. But no actors were there at all, neither Carey Mulligan nor Sarah Silverman, and the other co-writer Josh Singer was absent as well.

Instead, Bernstein’s children – Jamie, Alexander and Nina Maria Felicia – sat front and center to represent the film, and touchingly acted out their father’s conducting style over the music of the end credits, to a standing ovation. But it was heartbreaking that Cooper – who undertook a hugely ambitious project to both inhabit the enormous appetites of the composer and conductor but also to create a personal story of ambition and hubris – could not be there.

(By the way, the whole ‘Jewish nose’ thing is a nothing. You don’t even notice it. You might, however, notice the endless chain-smoking.)

It was that way throughout the festival, where the Lido is packed with movie-goers, the paparazzi are out in force, but the red carpet is almost entirely devoid of familiar faces. Emma Stone was not present for the debut of her tour de force performance in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things.” Neither was Mark Ruffalo or Willem Dafoe. The movie got rave reviews, and all will get great consideration in award season.

Adam Driver was here for “Ferrari” under the guild’s waiver for independent films (the “interim agreement”) but his most notable remark was to scold the studios for the strike. No Benedict Cumberbatch or Ben Kingsley either for Wes Anderson’s long short, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” (also Netflix). No Michael Fassbender or Tilda Swinton for David Fincher’s “The Killer” (more Netflix).

Yes, a few European actors – Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and a large number of Italian celebrities – attended. And Jessica Chastain and Kerry Washington jetted in for an Armani fashion event happening on a nearby atoll. Chastain also has an indie film playing at Venice, “Memory,” which is up for sale and secured an interim agreement for Chastain to promote it at the fest.

But overall, it’s a reminder of the critical role that actors play in elevating cinema to a worldwide event, creating a cultural moment in which we all participate, even if from afar.


Another film was missing its director, not its actors. Roman Polanski decided to skip Venice as he did in 2019. This was probably for the best as “The Palace,” his comic send-up of filthy rich, self-indulged European and other elites behaving badly at a turn-of-the-century New Years 2000 celebration at a fancy hotel in the Alps, was brutally panned by the critics.

Here’s a sample from Variety’s Guy Lodge who summed it up in a gut-punch tweet: “Polanski’s THE PALACE is witless, rhythmless, frankly badly made, with a script that feels like it was rightly shelved for decades: whatever your art vs. artist stance, what good does it do anyone to program it? Spare him and us the embarrassment.”

TheWrap’s Ben Croll pointed out that something has shifted for Polanski, 90 years old and an Academy Award winner contending at this late stage of life with the consequences of fleeing the United States in 1978 after a messy plea deal over a rape charge of then-13-year-old Samantha Gailey.

While Polanski lived and worked successfully for decades in Europe, the #MeToo movement that began in 2017 has left him a cultural persona non grata to many. In 2018 he was expelled by the Motion Pictures Academy. In 2020, when his Venice Grand Jury Prize winner “An Officer and a Spy” won best director at France’s Cesar awards, there were boos and a walkout by actress Adele Haenel that went viral.

Instead of retiring, Polanski insists on continuing to work – but it may be impacting his ability to do so.

“The director’s changing circumstance feels directly relevant to the cast he could assemble for this humorless black comedy, and to the build of unyielding grotesquery that makes the film feel like a giant middle finger to the world,” wrote Croll.

Like his last film, this one does not have U.S. distribution.


That said, a delightful documentary by legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman – an astounding 93 years old and still working – required a four-hour commitment but was worth the investment.

“Menu Plaisirs – Les Trois Gros” is a patient, passionately told story of a 3-star Michelin restaurant in France, now in its fourth generation. Every aspect of creating culinary excellence day after day is explored at a pace that feels like real-time. Dipping, rolling, beating, flouring. Chopping, braising, slicing and how to drain blood from cow brains. The voluptuous spreading of melted chocolate across the stone counter. A lengthy debate between father Michel Troisgros and his son Cesar about a new recipe is chronicled in full: almond in the rhubarb sauce? Almond mousse? Almond shavings? It goes on for 10 minutes. (Net outcome: No.)

“Menus Plaisirs – Les Trois Gras” (Courtesy Venice Film Festival)

In exquisite, lived-in detail, the camera records the professionalism and focus required to produce Michelin-level cuisine and hospitality. It’s kind of like “The Bear” without the soundtrack and at half-speed.

It’s up for sale and I hope someone buys it.


In “Pet Shop Days,” up for distribution and an official festival entry, director Olmo Schnabel (son of the painter-director Julian) draws a debauched portrait of youth that goes from simply misguided to the deep end of criminality. The film opens as Alejandro (Dario Yazbek Bernal), a privileged young Mexican, takes us into his world which begins with a suggestion of incest, heads quickly into self-destruction and then veers to the main story in New York City, where he brings chaos into the life of Jack (Jack Irv), a confused 20-year-old who is working at a pet shop as he figures out his life. The two start an affair, but the torrid scenes of strip clubs, group sex and drug dealing take a back seat to the moral abyss into which they descend as they start to prey on elderly women.

This is another independent film that’s in Venice with the interim agreement in its back pocket, but didn’t bring its actors for reasons of budget, not guild rules.

It’s a grim portrait of a grim time, far far away from the ocean breezes off the Lido.

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