'Maestro' magic and Polanski disaster in Venice

Bernstein assured his place in popular history by composing the Broadway smash musical 'West Side Story' (STF)
Bernstein assured his place in popular history by composing the Broadway smash musical 'West Side Story' (STF)

Bradley Cooper transforms into legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein in "Maestro", which got its world premiere in Venice Saturday ahead of a disastrous screening for Roman Polanski's latest and possibly final film.

Cooper's metamorphosis into Bernstein was described as "eerily exact" by critics at the Venice Film Festival, while many said Carey Mulligan matched him beat-for-beat as Bernstein's wife Felicia.

There has been some internet-driven controversy over the size of Cooper's prosthetic nose -- seen by some as perpetuating stereotypes about Jews.

But Variety felt the "tempest-in-a-teapot" was misplaced and that the nose, already defended by Bernstein's family, "works terrifically well".

"Maestro", which Cooper also directed, is a classical slow-burn drama that focuses less on the "West Side Story" composer's music than his complex love life, torn between the deep attachment to his wife and his bisexuality.

Neither star was present for the premiere due to the Hollywood actors strike, foregoing the splashy red carpet launch Cooper gave his previous hit, "A Star is Born", in Venice.

- 'Laughless debacle' -

Meanwhile, Polanski's out-of-competition premiere of "The Palace" turned into a fiasco that had nothing to do with the controversy around the director's historic child sex conviction.

The broad, old-fashioned farce, set in Swiss hotel on New Year's Eve 1999 and starring Mickey Rourke and John Cleese, was pummelled with one-star reviews.

Variety called it a "laughless debacle".

Several critics pre-empted claims they were being harsh on the director for political reasons, insisting it was easily the worst film he had ever made.

"If 'The Palace' happens to be the 90-year-old's final film, he's unwittingly handed his detractors the perfect punchline," wrote EuroNews.

Still technically a fugitive from US justice over a child sex conviction in the 1970s, Polanski did not attend the festival.

Long-revered for classics like "Chinatown", "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Pianist", Polanski's conviction was largely overlooked for decades, particularly in Europe where he continued to work and win awards, right up to his previous film, the France-based "An Officer and a Spy", which won the Jury prize in Venice in 2019.

But he has become more of a pariah in the MeToo era, especially after fresh assault allegations came to light.

"The Palace" has landed distribution in several European territories, but not Britain, France and the United States -- to the consternation of its producer Luca Barbareschi.

"Why, if all the platforms -- Paramount, Studio Canal, Amazon, Netflix -- run all of Polanski's movies every day, making millions for these platforms, why can't we produce another Polanski movie?" he said in Venice.

Festival director Alberto Barbera has defended the decision to include Polanski. "The history of art is full of artists who were criminals, and we nonetheless continue to admire their work," he told AFP.

Cooper's "Maestro" is among 23 films competing for the Golden Lion in Venice, to be decided on September 9.

It became an instant frontrunner for awards, with The Hollywood Reporter saying it is "stirringly symphonic and emotional as the subject's music."

The film to beat remains Yorgos Lanthimos's "Poor Things", which premiered Friday and saw Emma Stone as a sexually voracious reanimated corpse in a darkly comic, and strongly feminist, reimagining of Frankenstein.

Also getting warm reviews was Adam Driver as racing car impresario Enzo Ferrari in Michael Mann's "Ferrari".