The 57th Edinburgh Film Festival

13th-24th August 2003

"I hear it’s very raunchy." I had been cornered by some old biddies in the multiplex’s bar. We were all awaiting the opening gala of Young Adam. You couldn’t say they were typical Edinburgh festival goers – but then, the Edinburgh Film Festival has one of the most diverse audiences of any of the major fifteen international annual events. There are the local cineastes, the travelling film buffs, the tourists who have come to the capital for the fire-eaters and operas that the tandem fringe, books and arts festivals offer, the exhausted journalists, the camera-clutching star-spotters – and, of course the old biddies. Without lucrative distribution deals going on in the back rooms and no highly revered prize (although the Michael Powell Award for Best British entry grows with stature each year) Edinburgh is all about giving Joe Public his first chance to catch great new cinema.

Sexual encounters (occasionally involving cold custard and lingering shots of Ewan’s infamous lightsaber) notwithstanding, Young Adam won’t be the cool Brit hit the hype merchants are shamelessly writing their poster quotes about. It’s not that that Young Adam is a bad film; DoP Gilles Nuttgens’ work is superb, David Byrne’s score is appropriately jazzy yet ominous and the performances are pitch-perfect. It’s just all rather humourless, vacant and uninvolving. Considering director David Mackenzie’s debut was the hilarious, though little seen, The Last Great Wilderness (2003), this high profile sophomore effort is underwhelming at best. His previous themes and motifs are here – impotency, guilt, paranoia, death and fried eggs – yet none of the subtle charm has carried over. Perhaps the pretensions of the source novel by Alexander Trocchi outweighed this exciting new director’s intentions.

The upside is McGregror’s return to form. Whether it was the phyrric victory of being cast in the thankless role of Obi-Wan, or missing out for the lead in The Beach (1999), Ewan has been on grinning autopilot for far too long. Mackenzie utilises that trademark smile and fills it with the old mixture of cocksure verve and suicidal anxiety that first brought his name to public attention.

There was more Scottish cinema throughout the first week, the most surprising of which was the intellectual weepie, AfterLife. A journalist (Kevin McKidd) finds himself back at home looking after his sister (Paula Sage), who has Down’s Syndrome, while their mother (Lindsay Duncan) undergoes treatment for cancer. At first glance it seems like another exploitative, disease-of-the-week flick, but AfterLife has a harder edge than its peers. For every manipulative heart tugging sequence, there are sharper more naturalistic moments from the actors. To praise Paula Sage’s performance may be clichéd (praising any performance by disabled actors is a matter of course for most able-bodied film reviewers) yet her debut truly is astounding. Funny, tender and with a wicked streak, she always seems in control and feeds off McKidd and Duncan’s sterling support work. The film avoids the tweeness that its kitchen-sink genre usually demands, and even takes the audience down a very unexpected route towards the end. A real charmer.

Yu Lik Wai, cinematographer of Platform (2001), directed All Tomorrow’s Parties, a vision of the future where only aspirations matter. Yu Lik Wai’s tomorrow is a world where the only new media is propaganda. Hypnotic mind collages of Hitler and gurus re-educate the small population while their desolate buildings are covered with slogans that suggest the answers to their problems reside within. Music is a tinny fourth generation recording of a national anthem and photos of family, the individual’s touchstone to the past, are confiscated and destroyed. Once a liberating force occupies this dystopia, fresh pop music and television take over, but freedom remains an alien concept. Filmed in DV, this purposefully distancing sci-fi rarely gives context to the events unfolding. The narrative boils down to little more than a disjointed soap opera, and is ill-served by long, gruelling takes and some very unsteady handheld moments. The hero’s dream seems to be settling near the sea, but the audience will be queasy long before he gets near the coast.

Also difficult, but ultimately more rewarding is Rolf de Heer’s Alexandra’s Project. De Heer is most famous for directing Oz cult flick Bad Boy Bubby (1993), a film that mixed David Lynch’s eccentricity with Russ Meyer’s sensibility. Both the weirdness and barely-disguised misogyny remain in traces of his new film about a marriage, but there are also definite shades of John Carpenter and Mike Leigh casting themselves over the proceedings. Dealing with suburban malaise and violent reactions brought on by stagnant morals, the film is almost certainly not a date movie – no matter how strong you think your relationship is. After a slow burn start, this project delivers some real shocks. Cringe, laugh, hide, fume – de Heer provokes as many reactions from his audience as possible, and he’s aided and abetted by rock solid performances from Gary Sweet and Helen Buday.

Ireland was well represented in quantity if not quality. Song for a Raggy Boy is another recreation of institutional abuse of innocents by the Catholic laity, but inevitably suffers from comparison to Peter Mullan’s recent The Magdalene Sisters (2002) – and there’s little here that matches Patrick Galvin’s fine autobiography, on which the film was based. Intermission, a Dublin-set caper starring Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney and Kelly McDonald, is much more fun. Opening with a real shock, each scene is hilarious in its own right, but the film lacks focus, forsaking structure for a series of anecdotes that are told more often than seen. Obviously inspired by PT Anderson, Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, as opposed to Altman, Scorsese or Mike Hodges, this shaggy dog story meanders off in search of a new punchline so often that it all starts to feel flea-bitten by the second act.

A more intelligent, elegant crime was committed in Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool. A young French director was caught slipping the volatile Ludivine Sagnier, last seen wearing week-old nail polish and little else, into staid crime author Charlotte Rampling’s seclusion. Described as "one of the festival’s favourite sons", Ozon has an MO of playing Cluedo with great actresses, and this is his most winning game yet. Just as sand, snow and burning rocks have consumed his previous flattered femmes, here chlorinated water causes Rampling to cut loose and Sagnier to make a bleach burn on the screen. While Sagnier keeps the shallow depths of this agent provocateur’s pool heated, Rampling finds the claustrophobia of the London tube replaced by barred balconies and oppressive doorframes.

Swimming Pool was my highlight of the festival until the brisk, enthralling Infernal Affairs dashed across the Cameo’s main screen. Often shooting its characters from the waist up, the film highlights two conflicted young men trapped in personal hells. Tony Leung is the undercover cop who nearly everyone thinks is a gangster; his unknown nemesis (Andy Lau) is a rising star detective who was placed in the police force by Leung’s current Triad boss, also as a mole. Thematically similar to John Woo’s best work, this is a study of two diametrically opposed professionals who share more with each other than the systems and societies they live in.

Where Andrew Lau and Alan Mark’s policier differs from the old master’s output is how the emphasis is less on heroic bloodshed and more on the two leads testing each other out by abusing the technology they use to communicate. E-mails are encrypted, files deleted, phones tapped and traced – even Morse code is turned against both the cops and villains. This thriller replaces Hong Kong’s endless mean streets with complex networks, where the underworld is now technology. The fact that Leung and Lau’s initial face off is in a stereo store, one as an actual customer and the other posing as a sales clerk, confirms that this is a film where electronics maketh the man. With a Pang brother at the Avid suite and the ever-distinctive Chris Doyle acting as visual consultant, the directors and stars have the best pedigree of crew working with their equipment and it shows. A must-see.

Spun should have ended my week on a downer. Director/editor Jonas Äkerlund, the visionary behind the notorious Smack My Bitch Up promo for The Prodigy, has assembled a wonderful cast to degrade while he unabashedly mucks around with lens, filters and speeds. Peter Stomare, Jason Schwartzman and, especially, Brittany Murphy get to fulfil the quirky potential that their debuts revealed and then dull Hollywood B-movies arduously hid away until now. But surely we can all do without a film dominated by misogynistic animation sequences, dyed green poodles and a fur-toothed Mena Suvari taking an onscreen dump? The humour is infantile and puerile, and only an idiot would argue that something that plays like a hundred minute Aphex Twin video should not be avoided.

But the film’s real rediscovery is the swaggering cowboy hulk of Mickey Rourke. Another almost-star who lost it big time, here he has somehow recaptured his erratic form – his President Pussy speech is just one reason why in five, ten, or twenty years time this self conscious piece of trash will be a revered cult classic, while many more worthy, arty, watchable films of the festival will be all but forgotten.