Julian Schnabel

It is simply impossible to write a report about the films at Mostra, the yearly Venice film festival. Nearly 200 films in one week? I had to choose a way out, and picked death as a topic. Not death as in Visconti’s old film, but as a recurring ingredient of some of the films. I had expected more from the fiction-faction film Miral in the competition. Star director Julian Schnabel – known for his docudrama Basquiat (1996) – made a film from the Palestinian Middle-East about a true story from Jerusalem.

The idealist Hind Husseini founded the girl’s orphanage and school Dar Al-Tifel in 1948. Later it’s the Second Intifada, and Miral, one of the schoolgirls enlists as a freedom fighter and bombs a cinema theatre full of Israeli soldiers. Death is commonplace here. The central story is about Miral and her close relationship with her widowed father. But why must Miral and her father speak together in second-rate English? At the 200-people packed press conference I ask director Schnabel why he went the way of old Second World War movies with Germans speaking broken English? His producer answers, irritated, and asks me if, by any chance, I remembered that Mozart and Gandhi spoke English in the respective films made about them? They wanted a broad audience.Commercialism. The Golden Lion-winning film by Sophia Coppola also disappointed. The empty life of Johnny (Stephen Dorff) in the famous Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles – in bed with new women, drugs, driving around in his Ferrari, and then saved by his daughter – is too streamlined a film.The third variation on “boredom” from Coppola. Asked at her press conference: “Why do you often use swimming pools in your movies – is it used as catharsis?” Coppola had never thought about that.

American Vincent Gallo’s 75-minute essayfilm Promises Written in Water in the main competition centres around a dying woman. She wants to kill herself before the suffering becomes too much. The documentary language of this fiction film splits the audience into two: At the official screening they clapped for five minutes – but at the press screening they started laughing and booing from the start, where Gallo is credited as director and editor, and for the script, music, production and acting. They were noisy throughout the screening, laughter returned, a mob dominated the audience.


Gallo’s slow and quiet black-and-white movie saved the festival for me. This eccentric man, known for his roles in several movies, brought to mind works by Warhol and Cassavetes. For the first ten minutes Gallo wanders around nervously in his hotel room – quite different to Coppola’s expressionless Johnny. Black against white background. Heavy use of closeups; the camera closes in on Gallo’s eyeballs. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi contributes to a strong visual film.

The relationship between the man (Gallo) and woman (Delfine Bafort) is a morbid one. He is an ex Mafioso “hit man”, and she a girl who until recently had lived on sex and drugs.Mirrors. Cigarettes. Cafés. In the funeral parlour where Gallo’s character works, he attends to the corpse of a woman, taking photographs of her naked, hairless body. Bafort is also filmed naked, in detail. Time stands still. Time also runs parallel, as the two stories intermingle.

There is also a long impressive take where Gallo four times in a row repeats the same lines about his previous girlfriend who left. Method acting? The audience laughed, I didn’t. Promises has no linear narrative – it’s an essay-film.

For me, the morbid topic of the film clearly evokes Carl Dreyer’s black-and-white film The Word of Wrath (Ordet, 1955), but in that film the woman (Inger) wakes up from her deathbed – just as is seen readapted in Reygadas’ Still Light (2009). The visuality of Promises should be an example to follow for outstanding documentaries. Promises was based on 100 hours of material, as Gallo explores in an interview with Lodown Magazine.1 He says that photographic beauty was the first criterion to cut down to 10 hours, the next cut (to five) was based on aesthetic considerations, and the final cut, down to 2.5 hours, was based on sound content.

Three months later he went back to look for some content – to reduce it to a 75-minute feature film. Gallo’s film also reminds me of what Robert Bresson wrote in Notes on Cinematography (1975): That the making of films should be based “on white, on silence and on stillness”. Bresson also wrote that images should come first, then the content; you should use “models” not actors; and that film should be something you make for yourself and not for the film industry. As Gallo says in the interview, he doesn’t care about the audience. He achieved a fan base from his success with Buffalo 66 (where Nina Ricci’s step-dance calls to mind Bafort’s lively dance in front of Gallo in Promises). But in The Brown Bunny (2004) the real oral sex scene, with a tearful Chloë Sevigny on her knees in front of Gallo, made him unpopular at Cannes: he had to finance Promises himself.


Gallo won the Best Actor award in Venice for his portrayal of the main character in another film, Essential Killing – without uttering a single sentence! Essential Killing also won the Jury Prize. Gallo plays a bearded Muslim captured by American soldiers in Afghanistan, then tortured and flown by the CIA to an unknown snow-covered country. This man-on-the-run film is intensely existential, starting in the deserts of Afghanistan, ending in the wintercold Norwegian woods. Gallo’s character escapes from the military, and the hunt is on. Barefoot in the merciless reality of winter, he too has to kill to survive. He keeps death at bay by eating ants, tree bark, and raw fish. As one of the producers told me, Gallo, with the utmost professionalism, really ate it all.

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