Film: Bresson rides again

This year's Edinburgh film festival celebrates the work of Robert Bresson. But it's not all bleak and beautiful. Liese Spencer has the low- down

First, a game. Which of the following films isn't showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival? a) Spiked: "Dave's drug-running visit to Ibiza turns into a bad trip"; b) Lola and Bilidikid: "Kutlug Ataman's heartfelt drama about the Turkish immigrant transvestite community in Berlin"; or c) Genghis Blues: "Blind San Franciscan blues singer Paul Pena travels to northern Mongolia to participate in a throat singing competition."

The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction should tell you that Spiked is the fraudulent film. Whatever. Chances are that, while you're still scoffing at one of the obscure, made-up-sounding movies in your programme, some eager cineaste is already claiming it as this year's great discovery (in previous years the EIFF has previewed everything from feel- good hits such as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Full Monty to in-your- face art-house stormers such as Seul Contre Tous).

For while other festivals have descended into feeding-frenzies of industry backbiting and expensive parties, Edinburgh quietly continues to provide the public with access to an eclectic mix of movies they might never otherwise get to see.

Of course, with more than 100 features getting their UK premiere in this fortnight-long film binge, sampling every film would involve taking the festival's motto at face value and "living life at 24 frames a second". You could grow old just describing them. So this preview skips the numbing name-check in favour of a random, far from exhaustive survey, hoping that it's very vagueness will prompt readers to throw down the paper and pick their own way through this vast range of movies.

Opening and closing with UK films, this year's flag-waving festival features a home-grown feature every night. Lynne Ramsay's remarkable debut feature Ratcatcher, the first Scottish film to open the festival in 15 years, recalls the austere beauty of childhood classics such as Kes. It is set in Glasgow during the Seventies refuse workers' strike, and the film's salty humour and transparent performances transform the everyday tale of 12-year-old James and his cash-starved clan into a lucid elegy to innocence lost.

Those who relish Ramsay's poetic realism can trace her influences back to the nonagenarian genius at the centre of this year's retrospective. The ascetic recluse Robert Bresson's uncompromising pursuit of "pure cinema" - he dubbed theatre a "bastard art" and plot a "novelist's trick" - resulted in just 13 films in a 40-year career. All are on show, with his finest films - Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket - offering a cool anatomy of the lone survivor's struggle to find grace in adversity.

Other contemporary film-makers blessed with Bresson's bleak sensibility include Tim Roth, whose directorial debut The War Zone offers an unflinching portrait of incest, and the Dardenne Brothers, whose film Rosetta, about a truculent young woman living in a caravan park with her alcoholic mother, justly received the Palme d'Or in Cannes. Meanwhile, those who remember Bruno Dumont's debut, La Vie de Jesus, at the festival a couple of years ago, will be fascinated to see his follow-up, Humanity. A spare study of "sex and death", this controversial murder mystery makes a fitting hommage to Dumont's hero.

After enduring all this punishing realism, battered viewers may be tempted to take themselves off to the local multiplex to bask in the big-budget banality of Austin Powers. But bee-have baby; there's plenty of sweaty glamour to be found right here at the festival. Ennui and Romance are two French films that take a long, sensual peek at female desire. Also from France comes New Eve, "the thinking woman's Ally McBeal", starring Karin Viard as the sublimely capricious heroine of the title. For sheer kinetic energy, though, Tom Tykwer's German sensation Run Lola Run is hard to beat. Coming on like a Teutonic Tarantino, Tykwer's techno-driven debut follows Franka Potente as she races to find the 100,000 marks that will save her boyfriend from death by drug dealer. Flash, funny and clever, it's a white-knuckle ride through cinematic style.

The adrenaline-fuelled Lola is joined by a host of other hip flicks in a funky new section known as the Late Night Romp. Long after the Odeon closes its dusty curtains and the Film House projector whirs to a stop, festival insomniacs can trip down to the city's Cameo cinema to watch independent films such as Go, the latest cult confection from Swingers' Doug Liman, and give their verdicts on the acting abilities of Duran Duran's John Taylor, when he pops up in a new rock'n'roll comedy from Allison Anders. Most people, of course, will be too busy scrambling for tickets to the special three-screen preview of the much-hyped horror, The Blair Witch Project (which is not on general release till October).

In contrast to such grungy pleasures, the glitzy Gala section exudes an expensive aura of celebrity. Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo will be among the preview audience attending John McTiernan's silky remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, while the jet-setting stars Cate Blanchett and John Cusack are rumoured to be braving the overcrowded flight paths to attend the premiere of Mike Newell's nail-biting air-traffic control drama Pushing Tin (Blanchett has also produced a short film, Bangers, which is in the festival). Other film stars floating about will be Ethan Coen and Francis McDormand, who apparently rang last week to ask whether they could "hang out".

As well as sprinkling a little stardust around, this year's Gala strand showcases two A-plus dramas culled from America's current spate of blackly comic high-school dramas. Election is a satirical romp that pits teacher Matthew Broderick against goody-two-shoes student Reese Witherspoon. In the same dark vein comes Rushmore, the bizarre but oddly affecting account of 15-year-old super-nerd Jason Schwartzmann's schoolboy crush on his English teacher (Olivia Williams) and his subsequent rivalry with a sad, seedy local business tycoon (Bill Murray, who may or may not be flying into town - make up your mind Bill!)

Rushmore, along with Pedro Almodvar's hugely enjoyable melodrama All About My Mother, tops the list of essential Edinburgh viewing, but it's only at the Reel Life events that audiences will get to see their heroes in the flesh. This year, expect an appearance from master dramatist David Mamet who's put aside his hallmark American vernacular for the very British accents of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy.

Elsewhere, Atom Egoyan explains how he adapted Felicia's Journey into an exquisitely structured art-house thriller, while Art Linson, veteran producer and author of the superbly titled self-help manual A Pound of Flesh, brings to the Filmhouse stage a blast of Hollywood realpolitik.

After hearing the man Mamet once described as "Ivan the Terrible with a car phone" give good anecdote about his life in movies, why not get the other side of the story from editor Frank Mazzola, when he presents the "director's cut" of Donald Cammel's last film, Wildside? Savaged by the studio, this hallucinogenic psychodrama has been pieced together using notes written by Cammell before his suicide.

The festival finishes in exuberant fashion with Beautiful People, an ambitious daisy-chain of a drama from the Bosnian-born director Jasmin Disdar. Its surreal comedy of manners opens with a Bosnian Serb and a Bosnian Croat from the same village bumping into each other on a London bus, and goes on to feature a bitter BBC reporter with a phantom amputation, a heroin-addicted football thug accidentally parachuted into a war zone and a whirlwind romance for a doctor, Charlotte Coleman. I could go on, but you'd never believe me.

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