The 2010 edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival opened with Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, an animated film based on a script written by offbeat French comic genius Jacques Tati, which had never made it to the screen. This remarkable pairing did not quite produce the exciting result one could expect, and although the animation was beautiful, the story was somewhat insipid and lacked the oddball humour of Chomet’s earlier Belleville Rendezvous.
It was an unchallenging opening but this was corrected to some degree the next day with the screening of Kôji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar (Kyatapirâ), an angry account of the relationship between a soldier, who comes back terribly maimed after fighting in the Second World War, and his wife. It was great that Edinburgh offered British audiences their first chance to see this subversive exploration of duty, heroism, and the cruel ties that bind a husband and wife. Caterpillar had already screened at the Berlinale in February, together with another of the Edinburgh Festival’s stand-outs, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a remarkably assured hillbilly tale about a young girl forced to face violent relatives to save her family from ruin.
There were few established directors on view and among them Werner Herzog gave us one of the most enigmatic and provocative films of the selection. Similar in style to his bizarrely brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and with an equally star-studded cast – this time including Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier and Grace Zabrisky – My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is, at heart, a Greek tragedy set in a contemporary San Diego suburb. Inspired by the true story of a son who killed his mother, seemingly at random, the film is told from the perspective of the investigating detective (Dafoe), who is trying to piece together the murderer’s story with the help of his fiancée (Sevigny) and an old mentor and friend (Kier). Although the film was produced by David Lynch and borrows deftly (and unashamedly) from his creepily surreal fare, Herzog insists in deploying his own wonderfully outlandish cinematic tropes – a scene in which Kier visits an ostrich farm is one particular highlight. But what makes My Son, My Son a singularly mesmerising treat is the sense of persistent delirium and delight at play here, and the impression that actors and audience are led through events and flashbacks by some mischievous puppet master.
While it seems that Herzog has found great pleasure in unconventional ‘genre’ movie-making, director Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering And Everything Is Going Fine is arguably his most modest work to date, one in which his directorial hand is barely evident. So complacent and burbling is this low-budget biopic about the writer-actor Spalding Gray that after watching 90 minutes of snippets of performances, TV interviews and home movies of the man in question, both his personality and the necessity for this documentary were still, unfortunately, unclear.
The fourth major work by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay, Slingshot, Serbis) had bigger ambitions. In Lola, Philippine cinema icons Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio portray two elderly grandmothers who face the consequences of a robbery-homicide involving their beloved grandsons: one the victim, the other the accused. Frail and destitute as they are, both women seek money in the aftermath of the killing – for a burial and a bail bond, respectively. Everything in this touching tragedy of right and wrong, acceptance and forgiveness, is adroitly done, but it feels so stretched and overlong that any sympathy you may have for the characters is in danger of vanishing even before reaching the half point.
This year, the Night Moves and Under the Radar sections were disappointing: they were vaguely defined and almost interchangeable, their identity and aims too hazy and muddled to produce coherent, meaty selections. Launched two years ago to showcase ‘raw, risk-taking work’, Under the Radar was no more than a hotchpotch of vacant kitsch. We had high hopes for Zach Clark’s Vacation!, the follow-up to Modern Love Is Automatic, which had impressed us last year. It had a similar mix of retro world and female-focused melodrama, but where Modern Love was surprisingly moving and visually stylish, Vacation! offered only ugly 80s Day-Glo as a background to the underwhelming story of a girly holiday that goes badly wrong. Mike McCarthy’s Cigarette Girl was of no higher standard than a student film, and a badly misjudged one at that. Demonstrating a disastrous lack of skill in all areas of filmmaking, it featured over-stylised, cartoonish characters, wooden acting, awful dialogue and an inexistent plot, and was striving pathetically hard for a coolness that entirely eluded it. The Black Panther (La pantera negra) was an instantly forgettable, nonsensical noir pastiche from Mexico; filming in black and white, having God and Death as characters and dropping references to Kiss Me Deadly does not a good film make.
The Night Moves section for late-night screenings was equally marred by pastiche and déjÃ vu. Particularly depressing was The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, another ludicrous attempt at making a ‘cool’ film, this time in the Western genre. The rapid-fire MTV-style editing and overbearing soundtrack frantically tried to hide the lack of substance and the preposterousness of both plot and characters, which included a gun-toting hot chick, a witchy woman prone to pompous mystical statements, and villainous outlaw caricatures aplenty. Dutch horror movie Two Eyes Staring (Zwart water) had obvious echoes of The Orphanage and was too hackneyed to offer any real scares. British supernatural story Outcast was a mishmash of hocus-pocus and grim council estate realities, a mix previously attempted in Philip Ridley’s Heartless and Johnny Kevorkian’s The Disappeared. It was sad to see such excellent actors as Kate Dickie and James Nesbitt mislaid in this silly mess. The other British offering in the selection, Monsters, was much better, although not entirely original. A cross between District 9 and In Search of a Midnight Kiss, it was a romance with a sci-fi twist, charting the relationship that develops between a war photographer and a rich heiress as they try to make their way back to the USA through a Mexico infected by an alien invasion. Although the focus was more on the romance than on the action, it was well written and engaging, albeit in an undemanding, Saturday-night-entertainment kind of way.
Other British films of note included stop-motion animation Jackboots on Whitehall, which presented an alternative version of the Second World War that saw the Germans invading England and Churchill escaping to Scotland. It was a hilarious, witty, satirical romp featuring brilliant caricatures of all the nationalities involved (the weaselly Goebbels, the politically-confused American pilot and the Scots were special highlights) and was one of the most enjoyable films of the festival. In an entirely different style, Amy Hardie’s documentary The Edge of Dreaming also proved a crowd-pleaser. After dreaming she was going to die, Hardie set about to investigate dreams and their relationship to reality and conscious life. Although the scenes of perfect family life are fairly dull and somewhat indulgent, and the film could have gone further in its exploration of the human mind, Hardie, an open-minded woman with a scientific background, was a congenial guide through an uncharted and fascinating territory.
Another interesting British film was Viv Fongenie’s Ollie Kepler’s Expanding Purple World, starring Edward Hogg (White Lightnin’) as a smart, young web designer with an obsessive passion for astrophysics, who experiences a schizophrenic breakdown after the death of his girlfriend. This charming yet at times unsettling portrait of mental illness is unlikely to set the world alight, but it is involving and altogether adult, and Hogg once again lends his character a psychological depth, charisma and soft-eyed madness that is hard to resist. By contrast, Karl Golden’s Pelican Blood was another example of a film that tries too hard in all respects, although it did boast strong performances. Harry Treadaway plays the gloomy antihero Nikko, a birdwatcher who plans to kill himself after ticking off 500 rare birds on his list. He has tried to commit suicide before and failed; now he’d like to do it properly, in a Romeo-and-Juliet way with his unpredictable, animal rights activist, trouble-making girlfriend, whom he met in a suicide chat room. Golden’s film tries hard to position itself as an ‘edgy’ British film, and on the surface it ticks all the boxes, but it never quite pulls it off, partly because the characters are simply too handsome and angelically lit in their misery.
What became obvious as the festival unfolded was that the most accomplished works came from German-speaking filmmaking. Herzog’s outlandish crime comedy was accompanied by a couple of gems from Germany and Austria, both clearly deserving of a UK release. Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber (Der Räuber), which also screened in Berlin, is a smart psychological thriller about a bank robber who is also a talented and passionate amateur marathon runner. Just as impressive was Maximilian Erlenwein’s Gravity (Schwerkraft), starring emerging actor Fabian Hinrichs as Frederik, a seemingly mild-mannered young banker, who, after witnessing a customer shoot himself, plunges into an early mid-life crisis that sees him get dangerously involved with a former schoolmate and ex-convict Vince (Jürgen Vogel). Although the story is heavy-handed in places, and at times a little clichéd, overall it is a witty, dark and thoroughly entertaining film, and it was one of the unquestionable highlights of the festival.
Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy