The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival was awarded Saturday to a hilarious and shockingly explicit reworking of Frankenstein, Poor Things, starring Emma Stone as a sex-mad reanimated corpse.
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 could still boast of its status as 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 he had with his 2018 film, The Favourite, which after two awards at Venice won 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.
The film brilliantly skewers the way men try and fail to control the innocent Bella — particularly a roguish Mark Ruffalo — triggering bursts of spontaneous applause and riotous laughter from audiences in Venice.
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The Volpi Cup for best actress went to 25-year-old Cailee Spaeny for her portrayal of Elvis Presley's wife in Sofia Coppola's Priscilla.
Best actor went to Peter Sarsgaard for his performance as a man suffering from dementia in the drama, Memory, in which he played 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.
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.
One of the stranger entries in competition, El Conde, which reimagined Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet as a blood-sucking vampire, won best screenplay for writer-director Pablo Larrain.
The winners were chosen by a jury led by director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and included Jane Campion and Laura Poitras, who won last year with Big Pharma documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.
Hollywood stars with independent films were allowed to attend Venice by striking unions, including Chastain and Adam Driver, who starred in Michael Mann's racing biopic Ferrari.
Both backed the strikes, with Chastain saying 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."
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 U.S. 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 "laugh-less debacle" and "soul-throttling crap" by critics.
Another director effectively blacklisted in the U.S., Woody Allen, had a better time with his 50th film (and first in French), Coup de Chance. Some critics considered it his best film in years.
Here’s the complete list of winners from the 23 entries in the main competition:
- Golden Lion for best film: Poor Things by Yorgos Lanthimos
- Silver Lion - Grand Jury Prize: Evil Does Not Exist by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
- Silver Lion for best director: Matteo Garrone for Io Capitano
- Volpi Cup for best actress: Cailee Spaeny for Priscilla by Sofia Coppola
- Volpi Cup for best actor: Peter Sarsgaard for Memory by Michel Franco
- Best screenplay: Guillermo Calderon and Pablo Larrain for El Conde by Pablo Larrain
- Special Jury Prize: Green Border by Agnieszka Holland
- Marcello Mastroianni Prize for best newcomer: Seydou Sarr for Io Capitano by Matteo Garrone