Alberto Barbera, the artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, would have liked to nail Roman Polanski to the pillory that he would not have acted otherwise. The Palace, the 90-year-old filmmaker’s latest opus screened in Venice on Saturday, is such a grotesque flat farce that one is embarrassed for the author of the masterpieces Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby.
Don’t get me wrong: just because Polanski is in his nineties doesn’t necessarily mean he’s lost his touch. J’accuse (2019), his previous film on the Dreyfus affair, which has remained unseen with us, may have been academic, but it was in good shape and well produced.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of The Palace, a bad taste summit shot in Gstaad, in the Swiss Alps, where Polanski has a second home. This is old cinema, which regurgitates old ideas, in a static and dusty staging. A cross between Les bronzés font du ski and Weekend at Bernie’s, which aims to satirize the lives of wealthy people.
The Palace recounts a day in a luxury hotel, as we prepare to celebrate the transition to the year 2000. Parade on the screen a range of burlesque characters, who are frightened or delighted by the prospect of a computer bug.
Russian oligarchs and their bimbos, an old retired porn actor nicknamed Bongo, an ersatz Trump named Crush (Mickey Rourke, clownish), a marquise (Fanny Ardant, poor girl) who worries about the stools of the little dog that she feeds with caviar, a nonagenarian Texan billionaire (played by the Englishman John Cleese, also a clown) and his young wife who is barely of age, a plastic surgeon and his disfigured ex-patients, etc.
The butler, archetypal stoic Swiss, extinguishes the fires that these degenerates light all day long. The indigestible porridge that serves as the script for this vaguely erotic comedy has holes in it like Emmental cheese and never rises (scuse it). Its subplots hang in the balance, its big strings loose.
The tragedy is that it’s not funny for a single moment. It is especially sad that a great master like Polanski has come to ridicule himself in this way. I agree that comedies are often underestimated, even despised by major festivals, but there are limits.
What is this Palace doing in Venice? Maybe this is a joke to be taken to a degree that I haven’t grasped? I hope, anyway, not to see anything worse during what is left of this festival. It shouldn’t be too difficult.