She’s a 10, but she’s hunted by gangsters and haunted by witches
Lucia is a club dancer.
We meet her in the midst of a pulse-pounding night at the club when she leaves her post and promptly attempts to rob her employers. She’s confronted by a bouncer and only barely escapes with her life and a duffel bag full of stolen pills. Bleeding and running out of options, she’s inescapably hunted by gangsters. Her only hope is to reconnect with her estranged sister Rocio (Angela Cremonte) and her niece Alba, who live in the Venus tower block. When we meet Rocio and Alba, we learn that they’re doing everything they can to leave their building as they’re haunted by a malevolent force from an upstairs apartment. So, they’re inescapably haunted by witches.
Venus, then, becomes a full blown street-level gangster film concerned entirely with urgent matters of this world (sex, crime, and money), that head-on crashes into a supernatural film concerned entirely with hauntings, blood sacrifices, and the accursed alignment of the planets. Famed REC director Jaume Balaguero takes all these disparate elements and chops them, mashes them, and puts them in a stew. Then he blasts some techno music overtop and conducts a chaotic symphony.
Genre mashups like this can be a mixed bag. Lean too heavily into one tone and the balance might feel off. Go too gritty in the realistic crime subplot and maybe the supernatural elements might feel silly or slight in comparison. Balaguero eludes these potential concerns with a few secret weapons. Venus’ greatest weapon is star Ester Exposito. There’s no reason to beat around the bush here: Exposito is heart stoppingly gorgeous. That much is clear from the moment she appears on screen. But her performance takes full advantage of the benefits and pitfalls of beauty as Lucia struggles to survive this nightmare and confront her past as she first desperately relies on her sister to save her and then is forced to rely on her own resourcefulness to get her and her niece Alba out of the wholly fucked up situation they find themselves in. Exposito’s beauty cannot be ignored, and it isn’t! Both the gangsters chasing her and the witches haunting her are keenly aware that Lucia stands out. Perhaps, if anything, they all underestimate just how much she stands out.
Aside from the classic fallback of relying on your star power, Balaguero uses many other tricks to sell his picture. The art direction used to execute the disparate worlds of the gangsters and the witches does a great job of signaling to the viewer what “world” we are living in. The rules in the Venus apartment tower are simply different than the rules on the street, and we’re given all the visual clues needed to remind us of this. There are all kinds of creepy runes and such around the apartment building to keep us in a supernatural headspace, but the gritty streets of Madrid ground us and remind us of something like a Luc Besson gangster epic. So we’re ushered through these varying genres visually and tonally to help us buy the conceit, until it all comes gloriously bleeding together in a finale of gangsters versus witches that, come on, you know you want to see.
Add to that a script that first keeps us somewhat distant from a Lucia that is clearly struggling and fucking up her life, and which slowly allows us to get to know her and begin to root for her, especially as she bonds with Alba (child actor Ines Fernandez does great work here). Add also a pulse pounding score, a game cast of villains who entertain and terrify in equal measure, and a fairly flawless escalation of stakes and you’ve got one of the most energetic and entertaining films of Fantastic Fest 2022.
I’ve got my quibbles. We’re aware that an intergalactic planetary “event” is happening which the entire planet is experiencing, but the wider implications of this are totally ignored in favor of focusing on our characters. We don’t learn all that much about the beliefs of the witches and what they’re really trying to usher in through this astrological phenomenon. And it also just seems to take the gangsters WAY too long to find Lucia in the apartment she’s hiding out in. But all these quibbles give way to telling a more propulsive tale. And we all know that longer (or even bigger) isn’t always better.
Venus absolutely nails the tonal tightwire it treads thanks to an experienced director and a game star. It asks its audience to accept its grungy crime and its gooey cult in equal measure, so enjoying it as much as I did will require an open mind on the part of the viewer. But Ester Exposito and Jaume Balaguero put in the work and pulled me in hook, line, and sinker. I adored Venus and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face at the empowered conclusion of this energetic ride.
And I’m Out.