Edinburgh International Film Festival: Day 1

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Lewis Camley shakes off his pre-festival nerves and takes a seat for some less-than-comfortable viewing on Day 1 of the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Before the first proper day of my adventure at the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival, there was day minus-one. I arrived in the capital 24 hours early to collect my pass, and, unknowingly, a bag of goodies as well. Mostly this contained discount cards for hotels and little industry guide books, but there was a handy and welcome bottle of beer from a main sponsor of the festival. I say welcome, because this was all a little daunting – there are industry and press people everywhere, and they all seem to know each other. I sat alone in the Filmhouse bar, suddenly very aware of the reality of attending a long-running, international event. Alone.

But this morning, when the films began, things seemed a little less difficult. No need to network and mingle in the hushed darkness of the cinema (though one loud bearded chap certainly tried) and I was returned to my comfort zone – the watching of movies.

‘It Looks Pretty From A Distance’: Picture courtesy of EIFF

My schedule began early, with a screening of Wilhelm Sasnal’s ‘It Looks Pretty From A Distance’ (Z Daleka Widok Jest Piekny) at 9am in The Cameo – a picturesque little cinema at the heart of the festival. This Polish drama of society and its fragility is built upon the background of small-town, rural deprivation; a world of dilapidated houses, threadbare clothing and dirty, hard labour. Turning on the disappearance of Pawel, a scrap metal dealer, shortly after taking his mentally ill mother ‘away’, and leaving his girlfriend without an explanation, the film becomes much more tense and unsettling without its central figure. The somewhat sparse landscape is intensified with grainy footage and saturated colours, giving the film an older, rustic feel; while its long, slow silences lend menace throughout – particularly when punctuated by a droning dream in which a fuzzy electric noise is yelped over, repeatedly and constantly, by the mother. In Pawel’s absence, the townsfolk emerge, bizarrely and inexplicably, as vandals, trashing his house and possessions, stealing and burning everything he left behind. His return is swift, short, and brutal, ending the film abruptly. It is a strange, very ‘arthouse’ movie, characterised by these lingering, distant shots and pauses, reflecting both an apolitical suspicion of others – ‘hell is other people’ after all – and containing loosely paralleled narratives regarding his neglected ill mother, and his partner. The trio are all entangled in a cycle of creation, destruction, loss and disappearance, centring ominously on the forest in which Pawel runs from the camera, eventually fading in to darkness.

Following that, and taking in a mad dash to Cineworld, were two films of genuine quality; William Friedkin’s ‘Killer Joe’, the film which would later officially open the festival, and Bart Layton’s powerful documentary ‘The Imposter’.

‘Killer Joe’: Picture courtesy of EIFF; Skip Bolen / Still Photographer

Friedkin, director of ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Exorcist’, has crafted a film which may well come to be considered, like his other most famous works, as a benchmark of American cinema in years to come. This UK premiere is an apt opener for the festival, especially as the original stage production by Tracey Letts, adapting her own work for the screen here, also premiered in the UK at 1994’s Edinburgh Fringe, winning a Fringe First award. Mixing action with comedy, and interspersing some moments of classic horror in the mould of ‘The Exorcist’ – think forked lightening and ghostly apparitions – this is a genuinely riveting film. Lurching from goofball comedy to shocking-yet-sexy thriller, and climaxing in a final scene of unprecedented, stomach-turning brutality, it overcomes some early wooden acting, particularly from Emile Hirsch, to become as slick and as thrilling as early Tarantino, and certainly more ferocious. Rising British star Juno Temple plays the innocent, off-the-wall Dottie, sister to Hirsch’s debt-ridden loser Chris, and taken by ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) as a deposit for the hit taken out on the pair’s mother. It is this couple, Joe and Dottie, which make the film what it is; a sleek and sickening compound of McConaughey’s astounding (and for me, genuinely surprising) coldness, his clinical approach to the people and problems around him, and Temple’s Lolita-like charm, her ability to play innocent victim and sensual temptress simultaneously. Though not for the faint-hearted (or fans of fried chicken…) ‘Killer Joe’ will take some topping at this festival, and should make serious waves when it opens across the UK at the end of the month. We’ll have a full review online shortly.

‘The Imposter’: Picture courtesy of EIFF

Bart Layton’s ‘The Imposter’ is all the more unbelievable for its factual reality. This documentary, competing for the prestigious Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature, is almost as startling and thrilling in its characters and narrative twists as ‘Killer Joe’ – and yet, backed up by contemporary news footage and largely consisting of interviews with those involved, it is, staggeringly, true. It investigates, without judgement, the strange case of Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen year old boy who vanished from his home in Texas in 1994, who re-emerged three years later in Spain, claiming to have forgotten much of his old life, and was eventually reunited with his family in the USA. However, Nicholas remains missing: the child who was found was in fact 23 year old French con-man and identity thief Frederic Bourdin, whose insights are both worryingly unstable and commendably honest (perhaps). The film has many twists and turns, but perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the story is the family’s welcoming response to someone who physically and emotionally did not resemble Nicholas at all. A tightly constructed and wonderfully edited piece, blending interviews with stock footage and reconstructions, which masterfully unravels the quirks to finally reveal a very dark heart, ‘The Imposter’ is as tricky and beguiling as the man at its centre, and all the more entertaining for it. Catch it if you can.

‘Fred’: Picture courtesy of EIFF; Valentina Caniglia/Rainwater Films

Finally, I was able to see ‘Fred’, a claustrophobic and intimate family drama having its world premiere here,which surrounds an elderly couple with varying degrees of Alzheimers and physical disability. International Competition Jury leader Elliot Gould stars as Fred, the forgetful, funny and yet bitter husband of Susan (Judith Roberts), who, losing control of her mind and body, needs constant care from live-in nurse Victoria (Mfonsia Udofia). The plot revolves around the attempts of their well-meaning but slightly irritating adult children, played by Fred Melamed and Stephanie Roth Haberle, to convince Fred firstly that Susan needs to be moved ‘in to the city’ – to a nursing home – and latterly that he himself should follow soon after. With flashes of humour, provided mainly by Gould and Melamed, and one touching scene of a family with numerous communication difficulties singing together for Susan’s benefit, ‘Fred’ deals sensitively with the trials of lives lived together but ending at different paces. It’s not perfect: at times the plot moves far too slowly, repeating the same ideas, while only Fred is sufficiently characterised to be both likeable and complex. However the script and dreamlike imagery at the conclusion are well crafted, and the performances of the central four are enough to elevate ‘Fred’ above sentimental mediocrity.

Tomorrow (Thursday), I’m looking forward to ‘Demain?’, and need to make some decisions given the clashing times of ‘Saudade’, ‘Jackpot’, ‘Amateur’ and ‘Life Without Principle’. Keep an eye on twitter – @thesaintonline and @LewisCamley – for live updates.

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