Whatever happens, this year’s Venice Film Festival will be one to remember. After the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes put its future in doubt and caused its previously announced opening film, Luca Guadagnino’s Zendaya-led Challengers, to pull out, it somehow managed to assemble a startlingly impressive line-up—though uncertainty remains over which stars will make the water taxi ride to the Lido (with their newly acquired waivers in tow), and how they’ll approach red carpets and interviews at a time when so many of their colleagues are on picket lines. Still, it’s hardly the first time the showcase has generated headlines or courted controversy—in fact, it’s almost as if something’s been in the water over the past decade, making the festival a magnet for industry drama. Ahead of its 80th edition, we look back at the most talked-about Venice Film Festivals in recent memory.
5. 2014: A bizarre return to the spotlight
The year that a Swedish film called A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence took home the Golden Lion, something even stranger happened: the famously provocative Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, who had stepped away from the industry after he was banned from Cannes following a 2011 press conference in which he jokingly declared himself a Nazi and expressed sympathy for Hitler, made a virtual appearance at Venice. Discussing his new, more-than-five-hour-long director’s cut of Nymphomaniac, which now contained more sex and an explicit abortion scene, he described himself as a “masochist” and insisted that the process of making the film had taught him nothing new about female sexuality. “Have I learned anything about women?” he mused. “No, I knew everything about women already.” Three years later, Björk accused von Trier of sexual harassment—he denied the allegation, but admitted they were “definitely not friends” when they worked together on 2000’s Dancer in the Dark.
4. 2018: A lightning strike and the birth of a Hollywood stalwart
Before the Venice debut of A Star is Born, Lady Gaga was a musical powerhouse who’d dabbled in acting, with a stint on American Horror Story—but it was the 75th edition of the showcase that heralded her transformation into a Hollywood fixture. She kicked off proceedings by arriving on a boat in a Jonathan Simkhai bustier dress; dazzled in bright white Azzedine Alaïa at the photo call; and then shut down the premiere in an elaborately feathered, cotton candy-pink Valentino haute couture gown that is unquestionably one of the best Venice red carpet looks of all time. As she struck a pose, it started raining, and later, during the screening itself, a bolt of lightning struck the theater and caused a power outage that affected the projector. When the film resumed a good 10 minutes later, there was cheering in the aisles, and at the end, an eight-minute standing ovation. It doesn’t get much more dramatic than that.
3. 2019: Outrage over the lack of women directors and a shocking set of winners
The 76th Venice Film Festival began with a chaotic press conference in which its organizers were criticized for both including a new Roman Polanski film, An Officer and a Spy, in the line-up, and the fact that only two out of a total of 21 films in the main competition were directed by women. Alberto Barbera, the festival’s head, defended the former decision saying, “The history of art is full of artists who committed crimes but we have continued to admire their works of art and the same is true of Polanski. He is, in my opinion, one of the last masters in European cinema.”
The head of the jury, Lucrecia Martel, agreed with this stance on the controversial director, but on the latter issue, said, “Quotas are never satisfactory, but there are no other solutions to guarantee the inclusion of women or give them the position they deserve.” Barbera replied that he was “fully against the idea of quotas” and found it “offensive.” In the end, Todd Phillips’s Joker, a film which had generated frenzied debate about incel culture and violence, scooped Venice’s top prize, while Polanski was the runner-up and landed the Grand Jury Prize. Since then, it seems that some lessons have been learned, to an extent at least, while others have not: this year, five women are competing for the Golden Lion, but Polanski is back once more, with his new black comedy The Palace.
2. 2020: The first COVID-era film festival
After the cancellation of Cannes and Telluride as a result of the pandemic, it seemed highly unlikely that Venice would be able to go ahead—and yet it did, with the likes of Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton gliding down the red carpet in masks (rendered in sculptural gold, in the case of the latter). There were socially distanced screenings; testing and temperature scanners galore; and a significantly reduced number of press passes, which left much of the Lido eerily desolate.
With many releases delayed, the line-up was notably slim, yet it still yielded gems like Pieces of a Woman and One Night in Miami, as well as the eventual Golden Lion recipient Nomadland, which would go on to win the best-picture Oscar. So, a success by all accounts, but the question remained: As COVID cases continued to rise in Europe, should the event have gone ahead at all? (The Sundance Film Festival, which took place in January of that year, for instance, was suspected to have been an incubator for the virus.) For festival head Alberto Barbera, it was crucial that it did—when opening the showcase, he spoke about the threat streaming sites posed to the established model, and described the need to return to in-person festivals and reopen cinemas as a “battle for civilization and for culture.” Whatever your stance, it was a surreal year to say the least.
1. 2023: The decade’s most tumultuous press tour
The only thing that can possibly top Venice being impacted by a once-in-a-generation global crisis? I have three words for you: Don’t. Worry. Darling. This was the festival where Timothée Chalamet showed up to promote Bones and All in a shiny red halterneck, and still the only thing anybody could talk about was the seemingly endless amount of drama surrounding Olivia Wilde’s sun-drenched thriller. To recap: rumors of a feud between the director and her leading lady, Florence Pugh, had been circulating since their film’s press tour began, but the situation worsened when Wilde claimed that she’d fired Shia LaBeouf from the film and he responded by leaking a video showing her trying to convince him to stay, and describing the situation as “a wake-up call for Miss Flo.”