A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, 18

Chris Waitt's documentary about his disastrous love life is the star turn in a strong line up at the first stand-alone Edinburgh International Film Festival
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Pity poor British film-maker Chris Waitt. Over the years, girlfriends have dumped him by email, in answerphone and text messages, even killed him off as a character in a novel. Hence Waitt's debut feature A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures: a comic documentary in which he reviews his life of amorous woe. The thing is, Waitt has apparently been given his marching orders by a suspiciously large number of intelligent, attractive and sophisticated women. Ostensibly casting himself as a lamentable lover, he's really making himself seem the world's cuddliest catch.

Well, it worked for Woody Allen over several decades, and Waitt's exercise in Nebbish Narcissism may do the trick for him too. But whether or not the film wins him any new dates, it will certainly appeal to gauche young British males unlucky in love: Waitt should have the Peep Show audience mopped up.

A Complete History ... is quite a performance – and I do mean performance. Waitt maintains the pretence throughout that his film is a documentary, and as far as one can see, many if not all of the exes he interviews (or who angrily refuse to be interviewed) are women Waitt really has dated. His likeable mother – who has little truck with his brattish self-pity – also appears really to be his mother. Mind you, the end titles admit that some of the film's encounters had to be "reconstituted"; make of that what you will.

Paradoxically, the more real others appear to be, the less you believe in its star. A bedraggled straw-haired stick, Waitt behaves like a cartoonish overgrown slacker, like Mackenzie Crook impersonating Kurt Cobain. If his film is a hit, Waitt is doomed, like Michael Moore, to spend the rest of his career wearing the same clothes, and the same persona.

A skilled comedian, he sustains the same air of puppyish "Who, me?" bemusement whether being berated on the phone by his disgruntled producer or having his scrotum wrenched by dominatrix Mistress Maisie ("Hugs I don't do!"), while he hangs from a crucifix. Halfway, Waitt swerves from his sentimental life into a farcical essay on his alleged erection problems. This shift seems designed mainly to motivate an extended gonzo stunt in which Waitt, overdosed on Viagra (apparently), starts propositioning women in London streets (apparently) and ends up being arrested (apparently).

The film increasingly resembles a set-up job – which, perversely, Waitt turns to his advantage. Just when we think he's led us into the furthest reaches of Candid Camera-land, he switches register and gives us a dose of genuine emotion ("apparently", I could add again, but this time I'm not so sure). He introduces us to the One That Got Away, a woman named Vicky who seems genuinely rueful about her history with Waitt. As the ex-lovers face each other, their eyes well up, to moving effect – although I wouldn't swear that Waitt isn't holding a sliced onion just out of shot. This is a clever and entertaining film, and Waitt is agreeably quirky company – although any woman who ends up dating him on the strength of this highly suspect advert for himself deserves all she gets.

A Complete History ... was one of the premieres at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, which ends tonight. Previously a

fixture in August, when the Fringe and the Festival proper are in full swing, the EIFF has now moved to June, and it feels a little odd to be here, if only because you miss the option of having stand-up comedy to clear the palate between art films.

But the festival organisers are buoyant about this year's ticket sales, and the programme has been solid at the very least, with the emphasis on distinctive directors' cinema. In that bracket, a stand-out discovery was a small but striking new British drama – Helen, by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. The latest vital sign of a UK art-cinema resurgence, it's about the aftermath of a young woman's disappearance in a park. A lookalike agrees to appear in a police reconstruction, and projects her own desires into the figure of the missing woman. Glacial, stylised execution puts Helen strangely on a cusp between gallery video and the language of the British TV thriller; but there are also echoes of Michael Haneke, Atom Egoyan and Antonioni's own great park mystery Blow-Up. It's a film that many will find frustratingly open-ended, but Helen is an extremely confident, thought-provoking piece.

There have been crowd-pleasers too – notably Ian Fitzgibbon's black comedy A Film With Me In It. Dylan Moran, dependably shambling, is one of two buffoons forced to deal with a flat that's filling up with corpses, including two victims of death by clarinet. This cheap and cheerful shaggy-dog yarn is written by Mark Doherty, who also co-stars, resembling an Irish version of Seinfeld's Kramer.

Also bound for cult success is melancholic vampire film Let The Right One In, destined to be a hit with solitary, ghoulishly inclined adolescents. This stylish, snowbound piece, at once unsettling and oddly touching, is quite unlike any horror film I've seen – not least because it's Swedish.

The documentaries included James Marsh's soon-to-be-released Man On Wire, about tightrope walker Philippe Petit and his jaw-dropping 1974 stunt on top of New York's World Trade Center.

There was also Encounters at the End of the World: Werner Herzog let loose in Antarctica and ending up, despite his avowed intentions, making his own off-beat response to March of the Penguins. And there was the sublime Sleep Furiously, Gideon Koppel's record of life in a small Welsh community. In the twin British traditions of ruralism and eccentric documentary, this film is what tends to be classified as a "hard sell". But with its passionate interest in the seemingly ordinary corners of life, together with its stunning landscape photography, Sleep Furiously could end up as the UK's answer to French docu hit Etre Et Avoir.