The gent at the Delta check-in counter back in New York sighed when he saw where I was headed. “Romantic Venezia!” he said, and the comment stopped me short, because film festivals located in the most beautiful settings in the world have a way of making you forget – almost – that you’re in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. The Venice Film Festival – this is the 71st edition – is held not in Venice proper, but on Lido, a summertime island where winter seems impossible, resplendent with dusty pink and ochre stucco villas. It is also the home of the formerly grand Hotel des Bains, where Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice, and which, sadly, closed in 2010, destined to become a luxury apartment complex that has not yet materialized. I haven’t yet walked by the Hotel des Bains on this trip, but I hope it’s looking more cheerful than it did last year, when it sat dejected behind its majestic iron grillwork gate, a sad relic of past glory that even a Venetian Miss Havisham might find hard to love.
Still, Lido is welcoming in other ways: In late afternoon, salamanders by the dozens dart along the low garden walls, dashing into the safety of nearby greenery whenever I approach with my cellphone camera, which they want no part of. In their naked elegance, they’re also wholly indifferent to the red-carpet action going on just down the road in front of the Palazzo del Cinema, where the premieres are held and crowds gather in the evening in the hopes of catching a glimpse of movie star glamor, even if it’s just, say, Emma Stone’s left ear. Stone is one of the stars of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, which opened the festival Wednesday night: It’s a marvelously entertaining picture, a work of “look at me!” bravado that also features a fine performance by Michael Keaton as a has-been actor who made (and pretty much lost) a fortune playing a comic-book superhero and now hopes to jump-start his life by staging a Broadway play adapted from a Raymond Carver story.
The novelty of Birdman is that it was shot (by cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki) as one continuous sequence: In other words, it appears to consist of a single long take, though Iñárritu and Lubezki have done some subtle piecing-together. Not that you’re likely to notice the seams, and not that you should go looking for them: Part of the fun of Birdman is giving in to the illusion, allowing yourself to float and swoop with the camera through backstage corridors, onto outdoor balconies lit with that faux-daytime Broadway glow, and even on a mad dash along a block of Times Square.
The script may not go as deep as it purports to: Like so many stories about existential crises, it suffers from a kind of generic listlessness. And it whacks a little too obviously at some of its targets – the noisy emptiness of blockbusters and the obnoxious supremacy of social media, for example. But Birdman has humor on its side – it’s mischievously, darkly funny, as when Edward Norton, as a hotshot, loose-cannon actor, literally destroys a stage set after launching into a “None of this is real!” tirade. Just as he reaches the climax of his tantrum, he throws open the door of a badly assembled kitchen cupboard and the whole thing, dishes and all, comes crashing to the floor. It’s an exhilarating bit of slapstick madness.
It’s a relief, too, to see Keaton in a role worthy of him: His character, Riggan Thomson, is haunted not just by a pooped-out career, but by a failed marriage (to Amy Ryan’s Sylvia) and by his history of being an absentee father to daughter Sam (Stone), who has just been sprung from rehab and is now filling her days being bitchy at the world. As Keaton plays him, Riggan is like a grizzled nerve ending, whiskery and perpetually on edge. In addition to having poured the last of his money into a risky and expensive play, he may be losing his grip on the world: He’s been hearing voices, namely the deep rasp of Birdman, the super-somber winged superhero he played in three box-office smashes. (He refused to sign on for a fourth.)
Birdman taunts and mocks Riggan; he also challenges him to push further and fly higher. And it’s possible he has vested Riggan with special telekinetic powers, or perhaps Riggan developed those on his own through sheer force of will: In any event, when we first see him, he’s folded himself into a placid yoga pose, levitating about two feet off the floor of his shabby backstage dressing room. That’s our first clue into how mystically, comically out-there this movie is going to be, and it keeps its promise.