Man About Town

Mostra del Cinema

Historic heartthrobs, cinematic creeps and secreted shoes

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.


Slim pickings this year for the paparazzi who lurk about the water taxi dock at Venice airport during the Film Festival: the Hollywood strikes by actors and writers left them with barely a sleb to snap. Thank goodness for those hardy perennials the Clooneys whom the city has adopted as its own since they celebrated their wedding here in 2014. One of the saddest sights on the Grand Canal remains the gondoliers who point out the gloriously Tiepoloed Palazzo Papadopoli as no more than the site where “il Clooney” tied the knot.

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Monsters ink

The festival may have lacked movie stars, but not controversy. Mostri in Mostra (Monsters on Show) was the slogan sprayed all over the Lido by the French activist group TRCR (Tapis rouge colère noire) in protest at the invitations extended to directors Luc Besson, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, all of whom have been involved in contentious allegations of sexual abuse. 

The protests are only visible online, since in a rare spurt of energy the Comune of Venice managed to clean off the graffiti overnight. Leaving aside the question as to why they can spare the resources to protect the feelings of three elderly has-beens when much of the city has remained disfigured by tags for years, the outrage sat awkwardly alongside the gala given on the island of San Giorgio by Diane von Furstenberg to honour a series of “Extraordinary Women”. 

It’s hard to know which is more irksome, the screeching or the sycophancy. Whilst Polanski’s 1977 conviction for sex with a minor remains controversial, Besson and Allen, neither of whom have been convicted of criminal offences, seem little more than symbolic targets of feminist ire. 

Conversely, while there’s nothing wrong with celebrating women’s achievements, DVF-style congrat-fests are hardly radically affecting a status quo where power remains a concession accorded by men to women which can be rescinded at any moment. From the withdrawal of women’s reproductive rights in the United States to that of practically every right in Afghanistan, feminism perhaps has a more urgent agenda than posturing in the cause of either shame or praise. 

Aside from Mrs Clooney, one of this year’s Extraordinary Women was Helena Gualinga, a member of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku, Ecuador. Ms Gualinga was honoured for her years of activism against big oil. Presumably no one at the party mentioned the two million-plus dollars spent annually by Ms von Furstenberg’s husband Barry Diller on his private jet. 

• • •

Perhaps it was the self-righteousness, perhaps it was the shag of crossing the lagoon, but the jeunesse dorée of Venice could very much not be bothered with the Extraordinary Women and went to the Cartier event at the Ca’ Giustinian instead. Gorgeous girls were spied hiding their flat-soled velvet furlane — the chic essential for walking in the city — in the potted plants before sliding on their heels for a brilliant set from La La Land and Babylon conducted by the films’ composer Justin Hurwitz. Diamonds and dancing make for a much better night out. Whatever gilt I may have possessed having long since tarnished, I retired sensibly if reluctantly at 11pm. Not so my Film Festival houseguests, who were on the Charlie Chaplin cocktails until dawn. I don’t miss hangovers, but I do wish I was still brave enough to risk them.

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Cake out in the rain 

Venetian social life is whizzing at this time of year, with everyone back in town for a concert at the Guggenheim hosted by director Karole Vail to commemorate Peggy’s birthday. Shostakovich, Mozart and a composer no one had ever heard of but of whom the great lady was apparently “fond”. Then a wonderful birthday party out on the island of Mazzorbo which involved a fleet of boats decorated with hand-embroidered monogrammed flags, a giant pink French fancy and a tremendous thunderstorm. 

Restaurateur Russell Norman, who had flown in for the occasion was not complimentary about the fancy, which had been baked in my kitchen and then transported through the tempest on a very precarious boat. Somehow my attempts to go into Society always end up with carting food around …

• • •

Drinks with actor Rupert Everett on the terrace at Palazzo Persico and a debate on Byron, who lived across the canal at the Palazzo Mocenigo. Rupert was avoiding the festival crowds on the Lido as he was preparing his role in Richard Eyre’s production of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father. 

Another party with a Seventies theme involved a Demis Roussos playlist and more retro cake; a Black Forest gateau to follow the prawn cocktails and chicken à la king. 

Then the vernissage for In Laguna, a group show curated at the Experimental Hotel by Yasmine Helou with works including painting by Roger de Montebello, the owner of Palazzo Polignac, who gave a concert and dinner in the rooms once lived in by Winnaretta Singer, patron of Debussy and Ravel. Alma Zevi launched her new book on artist Not Vital at the Palazzo Grassi and the glorious Venice Music Project began its new season of Baroque works at the Scuola Grande dei Carmini. 

Venice Glass Week opened its week-long festival with an exhibition of international artists at Palazzo Loredan and a reception including a floating glass furnace across the campo at Palazzo Franchetti.

After a summer spent holed-up with my head in a history book it was hard to keep track of all the palazzi but, given that the international press coverage on Venice is often so bleak, it was delightful to feel part of a community which is still exuberant and flourishing.

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