Venice Film Festival 2023: What to Watch For

New films from David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay and Michael Mann will make up for the absence of stars kept away by the Hollywood strikes.

By Kyle Buchanan

A year ago, the Venice Film Festival had enough star power to put even celebrity-worshiping Cannes on notice. Highlights were quickly beamed all over the world, including the notorious “Don’t Worry Darling” kickoff that fueled endless speculation about the film’s director, Olivia Wilde, and her stars Florence Pugh and Harry Styles; the news conference where an unexpectedly sagacious Timothée Chalamet predicted imminent societal collapse; and the tearful Brendan Fraser comeback that began on the Lido and culminated in his best actor Oscar win.

But without all of those celebrities, can Venice still go viral?

The 80th edition of the festival, which begins on Wednesday, will be significantly affected by continuing strikes by the Screen Actors Guild (or SAG-AFTRA) and the Writers Guild of America, since the actors’ union has instructed its members not to do press for any studio movies until the strike against those companies is resolved. That puts Venice in a bind, as it’s regarded as one of the best places for Hollywood to unveil starry awards-season titles. Few major actors will even be permitted to attend this year.

The actors’ strike has already cost Venice its original opening-night film, Luca Guadagnino’s sexy tennis romance, “Challengers,” since MGM delayed it from September to spring in the hopes that its lead, Zendaya, will be allowed to promote it several months from now when the strikes might be resolved. (A low-profile Italian film is opening instead.) And I’ve heard of a few more starry fall films that were earmarked for Venice but opted for the Telluride Film Festival instead, since that event is less driven by the photo ops and news conferences that are no longer feasible in Italy.

Despite some of those trims, the Venice lineup is still enticing, with an auteur-heavy list featuring directors nearly as famous as their leads. And Venice has proved before that it can adapt to unfavorable limitations: Amid the pandemic in August 2020, the festival opted for a smaller, partly open-air edition that still went on to premiere the eventual winner of the best picture Oscar, “Nomadland.”

This year’s program includes two films about assassins-for-hire: David Fincher’s new thriller, “The Killer,” stars Michael Fassbender, while Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” features the “Top Gun: Maverick” breakout Glen Powell, who also served as a co-writer. I’m curious about the off-kilter comedy “Poor Things,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”) and starring Emma Stone as a sexually curious Frankenstein’s monster. Ditto “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s second directorial effort, after “A Star Is Born.” He’s cast himself as the composer Leonard Bernstein, opposite Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife, Felicia, and his decision to wear a prosthetic nose has already set off controversy.

Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” was a big hit last year, but what will that story look like through Sofia Coppola’s lens? The “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette” director puts her spotlight on Elvis Presley’s wife with “Priscilla,” featuring Cailee Spaeny as teen bride Priscilla Presley and the “Euphoria” star Jacob Elordi as the singer. Ava DuVernay has adapted the Isabel Wilkerson book “Caste” for her new film, “Origin,” which stars the Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis in an examination of racism and systemic oppression. And though Michael Mann has secured a guild exemption that would allow the cast of “Ferrari” to promote it in Venice, I’m curious whether his new film’s press-shy lead, Adam Driver (as the racer-turned-car-magnate Enzo Ferrari), is willing to do a full-blown media blitz for the movie, which the hot indie studio Neon is releasing in theaters on Christmas Day.

Two years after the release of his Oscar-winning breakthrough “Drive My Car,” the director Ryusuke Hamaguchi returns to the festival circuit with “Evil Does Not Exist,” which originated as a dialogue-free short and became a feature-length film about ecological collapse. And two months after releasing his feature-length “Asteroid City,” the director Wes Anderson is opting for something shorter with “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a 37-minute Roald Dahl adaptation for Netflix.

Harmony Korine premiered his biggest film, “Spring Breakers,” at Venice back in 2012, and he’ll return with the mysterious “Aggro Dr1ft,” which stars the rapper Travis Scott and was shot solely using infrared photography. He’s not the only director taking chances: Pablo Larraín, the director of “Jackie” and “Spencer,” has set the divas aside for a moment to make “El Conde,” a black-and-white supernatural fable that reimagines the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as a bloodsucking vampire.

And then there are the chances that Venice itself is taking when it comes to three auteurs: It is premiering “Dogman” from Luc Besson, who was accused of sexual assault but cleared by prosecutors; “The Palace” from Roman Polanski, who was convicted of unlawful sex with a minor but fled before he could be sentenced; and “Coup de Chance” from Woody Allen, who has denied sexual abuse accusations by Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter.

Venice will also serve as an elegy of sorts for the director William Friedkin, who died earlier this month and whose final film, the naval drama “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” will premiere posthumously on the Lido. Adapted by Friedkin from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk, it stars Jake Lacy and Kiefer Sutherland.

Kyle Buchanan is a pop culture reporter and serves as The Projectionist, the awards season columnist for The Times. He is the author of “Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road.” More about Kyle Buchanan

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