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The Palace at Venice Film Festival: Polanski’s name as a filmmaker is in the toilet, along with the humour

Oliver Masucci in The Palace (M. Abramowska)
Oliver Masucci in The Palace (M. Abramowska)

Much talk surrounded Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera’s decision to include Roman Polanski in his festival lineup. The controversy surrounding Polanski is well documented, but Barbera was adamant that the director had atoned for his past sins and that he is “one of the last great masters of European cinema” and “my job is judging the quality of his films”.

Before watching this film, I was with Barbera, but he has done all those in the anti-Polanski camp a favour by screening The Palace, a film so dire that the filmmaker can no longer be defended because of his genius. The backlash from this debacle will reverberate for some time here on the Lido and beyond.

The setting is Gstaad; it’s New Year’s Eve 1999 and the Palace Hotel staff is receiving orders from the manager (Oliver Masucci). The foyer fills with a rogues gallery of guests: the world-renowned plastic surgeon Dr Lima (Joaquim de Almeida), a retired porn star called Bongo (Luca Barbareschi), an impoverished family of four, a group of rowdy Russian mobsters and their equally raucous molls, elderly women whose faces are pulled and pumped beyond recognition. Then there’s Mr Crush (Mickey Rourke) whose own much-altered face brought forth some gasps from the audience. Crush’s lines consist of repeatedly telling people to shove things up their ass.

All of these arrivals and the behind-the-scenes activity of the staff is set to the most inane and irritating comedy music imaginable; an incessant plinkety-plink that has you grinding your teeth. It’s music that is forcibly telling you the film is funny without the film being funny at all. Unless you find poking fun at people with Alzheimer’s funny: Polanski pulls this stunt courtesy of Dr Lima’s wife, a woman repeatedly humiliated due to her condition.

Scatological jokes abound: a dog poos on a bed, making his mistress (Fanny Ardant) faint. Illness, vomit, dog shit, poor people, elderly women, death… all of these are fodder for Polanski’s puerile humour.

SPOILER ALERT. Death, you say? John Cleese plays Texan gazillionaire Arthur William Dallas III, who arrives at the hotel with a terrible accent and a young wife, Magnolia (Bronwyn James). Magnolia is overweight (because fat people are funny!) and poor white trash. She has to remain married for one whole year for any inheritance to kick in should her spouse die. Of course he dies, and guess how? Yep, with Magnolia atop him. Does he remain lodged inside his luckless wife? You betcha! So funny. And his is not the only appendage that gets lodged where it shouldn’t, but that would be giving too much away.

Fortunato Cerlino, John Cleese and Oliver Masucci in The Palace (M. Abramowska)
Fortunato Cerlino, John Cleese and Oliver Masucci in The Palace (M. Abramowska)

As midnight approaches, the action gets even more manic, with our hero manager downing what appear to be mini bottles of grappa at quite a pace as he races around the hotel putting out all kinds of fires. Alas, none of these fires is real and the hotel remains intact, which is more than I can say for Polanski’s reputation as a filmmaker.

That the man who brought us The Pianist and Chinatown (a reference to which appears in The Palace that I confess went clear over my head and had to be pointed out to me) could come to this is genuinely upsetting. Critics were leaving the screening traumatised by what they had just seen. Reader, I sat through this film until the bitter end because it’s my job. You are under no obligation to do so.