PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


There were times when the 68th Venice Film Festival felt like you'd been hit over the head with a plank of wood: everywhere you looked, you saw stars. In the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior on my first day, I spotted Talking Heads' David Byrne - here on the jury alongside such luminous American filmmakers as Todd Haynes and Darren Aronofsky - staring intently at his phone. From Gary Oldman to Gwyneth Paltrow, from Matt Damon to Madonna, the red carpet was chock-a-block with A-list talent.

Which makes it surprising that none of the North American entries - five in total, six if you include David Cronenberg's Germany/Canada co-production of his Freud/Jung tale A Dangerous Method - earned a major prize. It was as if Aronofsky, a previous Golden Lion winner with The Wrestler, was deliberately going against the grain by choosing Aleksandr Sokurov's Faust for the top prize. The Russian director's interpretation of Goethe's tragedy proved as heavy going as it was heavyweight.

Until the awards, the consensus of opinion was split between Roman Polanski's Carnage and Steve McQueen's Shame. Carnage is a brisk four-hander about morals and marriage, with superb turns from Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz. Shame is Briton McQueen's follow-up to his acclaimed debut Hunger. The portrait of a New York-based exec suffering from sex addiction won Michael Fassbender best actor.

With artistic director Marco Mueller leaving to head up Rome's rival film festival, it felt apt that his final Venice was marked by chaos - a trait that's dogged his tenure. Particularly with surprise Chinese film People Mountain People Sea, which saw its first screening cancelled due to a subtitle issue and its second interrupted by a fire alarm. Awarded the Silver Lion for best director, Cai Shangjun deserved a prize for patience as well.

Tomas Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a beautifully designed, written and acted take on John le Carre's novel about loyalty and betrayal, with Oldman wonderful as the spy George Smiley.

Likewise, the opening film, George Clooney's searing political drama The Ides of March, gathered together a first-rate cast, including Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood. Don't be surprised if both are best-picture rivals at the Academy Awards in February.

If there was a disappointment at Venice, it was festival closer Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress. His first film since 1998's The Last Days of Disco, this college campus comedy is an acquired taste that soured my mouth. But after the feast this year's festival served up, it'd be churlish to complain too loudly.