The new, the bold and the beautiful

Fiona Morrow looks ahead to the best and the rest at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival
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The Independent Culture

This year's Edinburgh International Film Festival opens boldly: Lars von Trier's Dancer In The Dark completely divided its audience at Cannes, who claimed it variously as a masterpiece and a travesty. Set in impoverished rural America, Dancer stars Björk as an increasingly poor-sighted Czech immigrant with a passion for Busby Berkeley musicals who finds herself on death row. It's a provocative piece, yet despite some fragile moments of plot and performance Von Trier conjures moments of real magic; his heroine may, as in Breaking the Waves, be made to suffer horribly, but the cumulative power of such misfortune is heartbreaking.

This year's Edinburgh International Film Festival opens boldly: Lars von Trier's Dancer In The Dark completely divided its audience at Cannes, who claimed it variously as a masterpiece and a travesty. Set in impoverished rural America, Dancer stars Björk as an increasingly poor-sighted Czech immigrant with a passion for Busby Berkeley musicals who finds herself on death row. It's a provocative piece, yet despite some fragile moments of plot and performance Von Trier conjures moments of real magic; his heroine may, as in Breaking the Waves, be made to suffer horribly, but the cumulative power of such misfortune is heartbreaking.

It's a stimulating and appropriate beginning to a festival which has a passion for melodrama at its core (why else would the Max Ophuls retrospective look so at home?). And it's this lustrous thread which links Dancer with festival director Lizzie Francke's other triumph, the closing-night film In the Mood For Love, from Wong Kar-Wai'.

Set in 1962 Hong Kong, the film is a love-letter to a time of different values, when honour mattered more than personal happiness. It is as visually sumptuous and sensual a film as you are likely to see. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are neighbours suffering betrayals by their respective spouses, who submerge their own desires into an aspiration to live a better way. This missed opportunity is exquisitely realised by Wong who carves out the minutae of the couple's relationship from their cramped living conditions. The focus is entirely on them - we never see the faces of their partners - as they repeat hopeless patterns and play out their betrayers' actions in an effort to understand such duplicity. I didn't think I could love a Wong Kar-Wai film more than I did Chungking Express, but this is his best yet.

As ever, the festival is strong on US independents, still out-gunning Hollywood in ambition and purpose. In Neil LaBute's hilarious Nurse Betty, Morgan Freeman teams up with comedian Chris Rock as assasins on the trail of traumatised soap addict Renee Zellweger, who only has Crispin Glover and Pruitt Taylor Vince to protect her. The fabulously extreme Glover also turns up in Beaver Trilogy, perhaps the most intriguing oddity having its international premiere here. He stars alongside Sean Penn as the Beaver Kid, a young man from Salt Lake City obsessed with Olivia Newton-John. Director Trent Harris first shot it as a documentary - yes, it's a true story - then as a video with a $100 budget, before rewriting and having another go with a bigger budget.

Those who favour straight-forward documentary, however, shouldn't fret. Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald's new film about American maverick documentarist Errol Morris, A Brief History of Errol Morris, looks very impressive. Ditto Dark Days, Mark Singer's look at New York's homeless, with a soundtrack by DJ Shadow.

Adaptations, too, are in full fettle this year, although Coen Brothers' fans may be disappointed by O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their amusing, but soulless take on the Odyssey, in which pastiche overwhelms originality. Terence Davies' eagerly awaited adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, boasts a cast - Gillian Anderson, Dan Ackroyd, Eric Stoltz - lined up audaciously against type, while in Titus, Julie Taymor's extravagant screen version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming provide a veritable smorgasbord of malevolence.

Marleen Gorris directs Emily Watson and John Turturro in The Luzhin Defense, based on Nabokov's The Defence, imbuing the narrative with an effective feminist perspective, and Mike Figgis shows he's still a film-maker on his mettle with a controversial approach to Strindberg's Miss Julie.

Figgis (nothing if not prolific) will be in Edinburgh, hosting a special screening of his other new work, Timecode 2000, an experimental film which pushes the possibilities of digital video and runs four interlinked stories simultaneously in separate quadrants on the screen. Each part is the result of one unbroken take - a not inconsiderable feat considering that the plots do intertwine. The viewer is directed around the screen by the soundtrack which, at this UK premiere, Figgis will mix live.

Liv Ullmann, too, is coming to town with her latest film as a director, Faithless. From an Ingmar Bergman script, the film was well received in Cannes, auguring well for a good discussion session. Then, of course, there's Wong Kar-Wai: while the director is notoriously enigmatic - will he take his shades off - no self-respecting cineaste will want to miss him being interviewed on stage by critic Tony Rayns.

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