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Wild comedy Poor Things wins top prize at Venice Festival

VENICE – The Golden Lion in Venice was awarded on Saturday to Poor Things, a hilarious and shockingly explicit reworking of Frankenstein. Starring American actress Emma Stone as a sex-mad reanimated corpse, it had festivalgoers in stitches.

An ongoing Hollywood strike may have robbed Venice of its usual bevy of stars, but its strong selection showed the world’s oldest film festival was still a launchpad for Oscar contenders.

Poor Things by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos was labelled an “instant classic” by critics.

It looks set to repeat the success of his 2018 film The Favourite, which won two awards in Venice on its way to a string of international prizes.

Stone, 34, plays Bella, a woman brought back to life with an infant’s brain by a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe).

Accepting the award, Lanthimos, 49, said the film “couldn’t exist without another incredible creature, Emma Stone”, who could not appear due to the strike.

The film features some of the most explicit sex ever seen in an A-list Hollywood film as Stone’s character discovers – and very much enjoys – her sexuality.

It brilliantly skewers the way men try and fail to control the innocent Bella – particularly a rogueish Mark Ruffalo – triggering bursts of spontaneous applause and riotous laughter from audiences in Venice.

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‘Terrifying’ AI threat

The Volpi Cup for best actress went to 25-year-old Cailee Spaeny, who said she was “overwhelmed by the responsibility” of portraying rock ’n’ roll legend Elvis Presley’s wife in American director Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla.

Best actor went to Peter Sarsgaard, 52, for his performance as a man living with dementia in Memory, playing alongside American actress Jessica Chastain.

He used his speech to back the Hollywood strike and warn of the “terrifying” threat from artificial intelligence, one of the key issues in the dispute.

“If we lose that battle in the strike, our industry will be the first of many to fall,” Sarsgaard said.

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Independent films like Memory and American director Michael Mann’s Ferrari were given exemptions by the unions, allowing the stars to come to Venice.

Chastain, 46, earlier said that actors had been silenced for too long about “workplace abuse” and “unfair contracts”.

But American director David Fincher, who premiered his assassin movie The Killer starring Michael Fassbender and has been closely associated with Netflix, triggered controversy by saying he understood “both sides”.

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‘Deprived of dignity’

The winners were chosen by a jury led by American director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, 2016) and included New Zealand film-maker Jane Campion (The Power Of The Dog, 2021) and American director Laura Poitras, who won in 2022 with Big Pharma documentary All The Beauty And The Bloodshed.

The runner-up Silver Lion went to Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi for Evil Does Not Exist, a quiet and eerie eco-fable that follows his Oscar-winning Drive My Car (2021).

Venice audiences were floored by two brutal migrant dramas, and both went home with awards.

Io Capitano, the epic story of Senegalese teenagers crossing Africa to reach Europe, won best director for Italy’s Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, 2008) and a best newcomer prize for its star, Seydou Sarr, in his first film.

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Green Border, a harrowing account of refugees trapped between Belarus and Poland, took the third-place Special Jury Prize.

“While we’re sitting here tonight, the situation is still going on,” said its Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Charlatan, 2020), accepting the award.

“People are still hiding in forests, deprived of their dignity, from their human rights… Some of them will lose their lives here in Europe not because we don’t have the resources to help, but because we don’t want to.”

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One of the stranger entries, El Conde, which reimagined Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet as a vampire, won best screenplay for Chilean writer-director Pablo Larrain (Spencer, 2021).

‘Laughless debacle’

The strong line-up helped distract from the controversy around the inclusion of Roman Polanski (The Pianist, 2002) in the out-of-competition section.

As a convicted sex offender, the 90-year-old director was already struggling to find distribution in the United States and other countries for his slapstick comedy The Palace.

The response from Venice will not have helped: It currently holds a resounding 0 per cent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, variously described as a “laughless debacle” and “soul-throttlingly cr**” by critics.

Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008), another director effectively blacklisted in the US, had a better time with his 50th film (and first in French), Coup De Chance. Some critics considered it his best in years. AFP

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