Venice Film Festival: No Zendaya as the Strikes Change the Picture

Day 1 brought challenges but not “Challengers,” the film that had been scheduled to open this usually starry event until it was delayed by the strikes.

By Kyle Buchanan

Reporting from Venice.

The sky in Venice wept on Wednesday, for there were no pictures to be taken of Zendaya in couture clambering from a speedboat.

No? Too much? Well, it’s hard not to sound melodramatic at a film festival where the movies are big but the mood swings are even bigger. Let me clear my throat, take a swig of this Aperol spritz, and start again …

The 80th edition of the Venice Film Festival kicked off on this rainy Wednesday with several big-name auteurs in attendance but few of the stars that this event has come to count on. With dual strikes by the writers and actors guilds forcing a Hollywood shutdown, and the actors forbidden from promoting studio films during the labor action, Venice will inaugurate a fall film season that is still in significant flux.

The first day was meant to be turbocharged by the presence of Zendaya, who turned heads here two years ago in a series of stunning dresses while publicizing the first installment of “Dune.” But the shutdown cost Venice the new film she stars in, Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” in which she plays a tennis pro who has to make a romantic choice between two best friends, played by Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist (the cheeky marketing materials tease that on at least one night, she chooses both).

Without its lead available to support the film, MGM delayed the release of “Challengers” to spring 2024 and yanked it from the Venice lineup. Taking its place as the festival’s opening-night film was “Comandante,” a World War II film told from the point of view of Italian submariners. While it’s well-shot and full of suspenseful battle sequences, “Comandante” features exactly zero tennis hotties contemplating a threesome, which may hinder its ultimate appeal with a Venice audience that was promised starry romantic high jinks.

Though the festival’s artistic director, Alberto Barbera, admitted at a news conference on Wednesday that the likes of Emma Stone (“Poor Things”) and Bradley Cooper (“Maestro”) will not be attending Venice because of the strike, other actors who hail from more independent productions have managed to secure guild waivers, including “Ferrari” star Adam Driver, “Memory” lead Jessica Chastain, and the cast of Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla.” They’re expected to show up on the Lido this week alongside a posse of high-powered directors that includes David Fincher (“The Killer”), Ava DuVernay (“Origin”) and Richard Linklater (“Hit Man”).

Still, the strikes loom large. At Barbera’s news conference, the jury president, the filmmaker Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), dressed for maximum solidarity, donning a “Writers Guild on Strike!” shirt and a similar button on the lapel of his sport coat. He noted that as of Wednesday, the writers had been on strike for 121 days, with the actors joining them for the last 48 days, and he called on studios to compensate those artists fairly.

“I think there’s a basic idea that each work of art has value unto itself, that it’s not just a piece of content, to use Hollywood’s favorite word right now,” Chazelle told reporters, adding that that idea “has been eroded quite a bit over the past 10 years. There’s many issues on the table with the strikes, but to me, that’s the core issue.”

Chazelle was joined by the directors Martin McDonagh and Laura Poitras, who both wore shirts supporting the Writers Guild. They are part of a jury that includes the filmmakers Jane Campion and Mia Hansen-Love, among others.

“I’m not sure I entirely deserve this spot, but I will do my best to live up to it,” Chazelle said. “I thank Mr. Barbera for his foolishness in letting me try it out."

Though Chazelle has been to Venice a few times before, to debut “La La Land” and his follow-up, “First Man,” he said he still found the place quite surreal. “That fact that you take a boat to a screening, it’s silly,” Chazelle said. “Cinema, to me, is a waking dream and that, to me, is Venice.”

See what I said about melodrama? When you’re in Venice, where even the paint peels in the most picturesque way, you just can’t help yourself from indulging. That’s how your columnist felt last night in the rain, mulling over two of the worst disasters to hit Italy in quite some time: St. Mark’s Square was flooded, and there was no Zendaya. But at least the sun will come out tomorrow here, as will the new films by Michael Mann and Wes Anderson.

Kyle Buchanan is a pop culture reporter and serves as The Projectionist, the awards season columnist for The Times. He is the author of “Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road.” More about Kyle Buchanan

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