Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone's 'Poor Things' wins Venice top prize

The 80th Venice Film Festival - Awards Ceremony - Venice, Italy, 9 September, 2023. Director Yorgos Lanthimos poses with Golden Lion Award for Best Film for the movie 'Poor Things'.

The Golden Lion in Venice was awarded Saturday to a hilarious and shockingly explicit reworking of Frankenstein, ‘Poor Things’, starring Emma Stone as a sex-mad reanimated corpse, which had festival-goers 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 plays Bella, a woman brought back to life with an infant's brain by a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe).

Accepting the award, Lanthimos 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.

The 80th Venice Film Festival - Awards Ceremony - Venice, Italy, 9 September, 2023. Director Yorgos Lanthimos poses with Golden Lion Award for Best Film for the movie 'Poor Things'.

'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 Elvis Presley's wife in Sofia Coppola's ‘Priscilla’.

Best actor went to Peter Sarsgaard for his performance as a man living with dementia in ‘Memory’, playing alongside 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.

Independent films like ‘Memory’ and Michael Mann's ‘Ferrari’ were given exemptions by the unions, allowing the stars to come to Venice. Chastain earlier said that actors had been silenced for too long about "workplace abuse" and "unfair contracts".

But 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".

'Deprived of dignity'

The winners were chosen by a jury led by director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and including Jane Campion and Laura Poitras, who won last year with Big Pharma documentary ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’.

The runner-up Silver Lion went to Japan's Ryusuke Hamaguchi for ‘Evil Does Not Exist’, a quiet and eerie eco-fable that follows his Oscar-winning ‘Drive My Car’. 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) and a best newcomer prize for its star, Seydou Sarr, in his first-ever film.

‘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, 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."

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

‘Laughless debacle’

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

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

The response from Venice will not have helped: it currently holds a resounding zero percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, variously described as a "laughless debacle" and "soul-throttlingly crap" by critics.

Another director effectively blacklisted in the US, Woody Allen, had a better time with his 50th film (and first in French), ‘Coup de Chance’. Some critics considered it his best in years.

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