VENICE (AFP) - The Venice film festival opened with a bang yesterday with a brilliant superhero dark comedy that delves into the cinema and theatre worlds to explore the drug that is fame.
The first flick to compete at the world's oldest film festival, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance, stars Michael Keaton of Beetlejuice and Batman fame.
In one of 20 films vying for the coveted Golden Lion award, Keaton plays a washed-up actor who was once famous for playing the Birdman superhero but is now struggling to stage a Broadway play in a bid to regain his former glory.
For all his attempts to create a worthy on-stage performance, he finds it increasingly difficult to leave the Birdman character behind, hearing his rich, gravelly tones in his head, calling for a return to the big screen.
The line between fiction and reality blurs as his character Riggan struggles to keep his superpowers under control and allows his self-pity and arrogance to distract him from serious family and girlfriend problems.
Unlike his Don Quixote-style character here, he said he was not haunted by his Batman films - but that everyone is by their own personal Birdman.
"I love the idea of Birdman following you around. You all got a Birdman in your life, it's your negative ego, so you either make peace with him or kick his a**e or make him sit in the back seat, but you have to drive a car," he said.
The film pokes fun at both actors and critics, such as the tweed-wearing interviewer who references philosopher Roland Barthes, or one of the actresses who asks her co-star "Why don't I have any self respect?", to which the reply is: "Because you're an actress, honey."
Crowd-pleaser Inarritu, best known for his films 21 Grams and Babel, brought on board other superhero veterans for the movie, including Emma Stone from The Amazing Spiderman and Edward Norton, star of The Incredible Hulk.
"After so many films, dramatic films that in a way have a lot of enfrijoladas, enchiladas, and spicy mexican chilli, I wanted a little dessert!" Gonzalez Inarritu told a press conference on Venice's Lido island.
"I wanted to go away from my comfort zone and jump into something that I really wanted... to laugh on set!" he said, while admitting that one of the biggest challenges was shooting the action in a series of long takes.
"No one had the opportunity to hide, transform or manipulate. There was a huge amount of rehearsal. Everything that seems seamless and natural on screen, we were really all in panic," he said.
Stone said the experience was so intense it gave her an eye twitch, but she loved every minute, while Norton - who plays a provocative rival to Keaton - said everyone on set "was working for the same thing - to hear Gonzalez Inarritu scream 'yes!'"
"After 10 hours, when you finally get it, it was sort of like a party at the end of every day!" he said.
New York City plays an important part in the film as does the soundtrack, an unusual juxtaposition of classical music and the cacophony of drums - an original approach that may see the film win favours with French jury president Alexandre Desplat, the first film composer in Venice to hold the role.
The in-competition lineup features Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's drama Tales and French comedy La Rancon De La Gloire by Xavier Beauvois today.