As film festivals go, Edinburgh is known for being uncompromising, but with this year's selection low on glitz, lower still on frivolity, you sometimes felt you were watching the beleaguered characters in certain films and matching their suffering pang for pang.
As film festivals go, Edinburgh is known for being uncompromising, but with this year's selection low on glitz, lower still on frivolity, you sometimes felt you were watching the beleaguered characters in certain films and matching their suffering pang for pang. What with domestic violence in Spain and enforced dieting in Italy, goats slaughtered in Argentina and octopi eaten alive in Korea, not to mention Beatrice Dalle mixing crushed glass with her yogurt, you found your laughs where you could.
It says everything about the tone of the festival that one of the tenderest films on show depicted a sort of romance cagily blossoming between a teenage boy and a middle-aged pornographer. Bryan Poyser's Dear Pillow manages to be curiously discreet, even chaste, insofar that nothing untoward happens in front of the camera, even though the characters do nothing but talk dirty - extremely dirty - throughout. A tender study of how lonely individuals try to find companionship in a carnally obsessive society, Poyser's brilliantly acted, brilliantly written film is unsettling and acutely insightful.
Another find was the Argentinian comedy Buena Vida Delivery, by Leonardo Di Cesare, in which an awkward young man finds the love of his life moving in with him - followed by her family, who go about converting his flat into a bakery. Starting off sweet and getting ever darker, the film is at once character comedy, outrageous absurdism and an acerbic diagnosis of Argentina's moral health.
Altogether uncategorisable, Jem Cohen's Chain is a pseudo-documentary, or an impressionistic essay on the world seen as one endless strip mall. Filming around the world, from Paris to Japan, US go-it-alone artist Cohen contrives to turn the entire planet into a stretch of New Jersey commercial property, as he follows two women round a universe that feels entirely real yet has the distinct smack of J G Ballard otherness. Both hypnotic and politically alert, Chain finds something melancholically poetic in the least inviting of milieux.
Of the real documentaries, most entertaining was Overnight, the cautionary tale of American independent film-maker Troy Duffy, an unknown who scored a major deal with Miramax, then blew it all by being obnoxious. (One wonders: to alienate the company that works with Tarantino and Kevin Smith, how obnoxious do you have to be?) This mind-boggling study of high-volume, low-talent ego has a particularly vicious appeal: directors Smith and Montana were hired by the grotesquely abusive Duffy to record his rise, and ended up capturing his ignominious collapse, making Overnight the most spectacular act of revenge ever filmed.
Among a strong British contingent, directors Pawel Pawlikowski and Shane Meadows made strong showings with, respectively, Dead Man's Shoes and My Summer of Love (both due for release soon, more of them anon). Also notable was Kenny Glenaan's Yasmin, written by Simon Beaufoy, about a young Muslim woman in the north of England whose divided life - hijab indoors, high heels outside - is placed under even greater stress after September 11. Situated firmly in the British realist social-issues bracket, this tough, stark drama is given an edge by Archie Panjabi's riveting lead performance.
But the film fated to be most discussed was Hamburg Cell, Antonia Bird's reconstruction of the background to the twin towers attack. Unnerving, analytical, utterly involving, this extraordinary film screens on Channel 4 this week, but is totally cinematic and amply deserves a big-screen airing.
I'll pass on Primer, the Sundance hit by newcomer Shane Carruth, about a weird-science garage project. Costing an alleged $7,000 only, this DIY enigma is stylish all right, but since director Carruth estimates that viewers can only understand 70 per cent on a first viewing, I'll confess to getting far less than that, and hedge my bets until next time.
Meanwhile, the festival's truly bewitching science-fiction narrative - that is, it's a narrative about science - is Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon. Lepage takes dizzying metaphorical wing thanks to inspired use of digital effects to segue into free-associatively rhyming images. This is his most approachable and warmest film yet but it's no less daring than his earlier ones. And anyone who saw the play on stage can be reassured that Lepage's concluding spacewalk loses none of its euphoric beauty.
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