Tim Hayes selects his ones to watch from this year's jam-packed EIFF programme.
Chilean director Alicia Scherson wrings buckets of sweat from a Roberto Bolaño novella, livening up what could have been some fairly basic magic realist shenanigans by grafting on a bottomless affection for Italian cinema history. Two newly orphaned teenage siblings, Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomas (Luigi Ciardo), fumble towards sexual maturity via hairdressing and a fascination with body-builders respectively, before a lukewarm criminal plot brings Bianca close to a blind former Mr Universe now living as a recluse. Formerly one of the many "Macistes" in Italian sword-and-sandals epics, this one is played by Rutger Hauer as a hobbled, mournful demigod, and Scherson builds a humid and initially sex-less love story between the former titan and the tearaway. Not much in the film is strictly realistic — Bianca believes that the sun never sets although no one else seems to notice — but Hauer and Martelli's contrasting physical presence is tactfully handled in several fairly explicit encounters, and both are endearingly human. Damaged grace may now be Hauer's trump card after all these years, and Martelli is effortlessly sensual.
David Cairns and Paul Duane's documentary is part reclamation and part invocation, dragging the life of Bernard Natan into the open after the best part of seven decades spent as a footnote in cinema history. The reclamation involves asserting Natan's place as the right man at the right time: a born innovator with a vision of what the French film industry could become in the 1920s and '30s, Natan rose to become co-owner of the Pathe powerhouse, before being dragged down by anti-Semitism and vague accusations of criminality. He eventually vanished into the ponds at Auschwitz. The invocation lies in the film's hugely effective delivery, setting conventional talking-head interviews against more fanciful testimony from Natan himself delivered in sonorous voice-over, while a masked avatar of the man stands in for him on screen. Although probably born of necessity and limited resources, the technique lends a suitable air of silent-film theatricality to the story while making a point of Natan's subsequent invisibility and the distortions of his character. It's quite a tale.
There will never be a shortage of British deadpan crime comedies, but this one is an outlier. Directed by the duo collectively calling themselves "Jones," it's a wide-screen oddball love story between Ray (Rob Knighton), a lanky fiftysomething bounty hunter of wavering ability, and Melanie (Nora Tschirner), a German girl stuck in a miserable engagement in an uncaring England. On screen they're quite the pair: he dressed for a funeral and with the exact vocal patterns of Jason Statham, she a waspish brunette with a droll line in put-downs and all defensive shields up. Most of the film is the pair talking to each other about their troubles, with diversions into bizarre episodes like the memorial service for Ray's brother in which his family perform a cringe-worthy drama about the deceased and declare that his spirit has passed into a cat.
Knighton might be one of the great screen stone-faces; but Tschirner steals the whole film, switching easily between comedy and tragedy while also embodying the fine, but recently dormant, tradition of European actors stalking through British films. Initially found wearing bowler hat and Chaplin/Hitler moustache, she ends up in skimpy shorts, roller-skates and a T-shirt with 'Beaver' written on it, registering an ocean of disdain with a slight tilt of the head.
Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell arrived at the festival for its UK premiere trailing plaudits from abroad, and turned out to merit the lot. The director's investigation of her family history is manipulative enough to rub some viewers up the wrong way, especially when the truth about the home movie footage that occupies much of the running time is revealed. But if anything, this makes the film both more affecting and more engaged with the nature of documentaries, which presume to comment upon real people and real life all the time. Polley carefully blurs lines of demarcation between fact and fiction in several directions at once, and paradoxically ends up sharply in focus at the heart of her own film.
A strong contender for the festival's most oddball entrant. Roland Hassel, a detective character featured in a series of Swedish TV dramas in the 1980s and '90s and played by Lars-Erik Berenett, returns to the screen in the present day played by the same actor, in order to ponder the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and its continuing drag on the national psyche. Having battled stoically against a few of modern life's indignities, and apparently washed up in a dead-end admin job despite years of service to the crown, Hassel joins some friends of similar vintage to stage an informal re-enactment of the murder on the streets of Stockholm, a gentle meandering attempt to scratch an itch that will never go away.
Director Måns Månsson films the whole thing on VHS, a drastically alienating technique that roots the event in a particular period even though the film is set in the present, and forces the viewer to peer through the distortion. The gentle idiosyncrasies of Swedish conversational exchange are spot on, but in fact Månsson is clearly annoyed. The director blames the Palme murder for seeding the birth of Nordic Noir, a genre he regards with some annoyance; having bought the rights to use the Hassel character for one single shot at the target, he tries to take the problem out at the root.
Read the LWLies Alternate Awards from this year's EIFF.