Some things in life you thought you’d never see again. Like the Edinburgh International Film Festival [EIFF] back to its place. Traditionally, the EIF was held in August. It was ideal positioning in the calendar when all eyes are on Edinburgh due to the famous Fringe – the vibrant mix of comedy, dance, theater and music that plays across the city for the entire month. Then in 2008 it moved to June, a baffling move that backfired dramatically, with the festival losing ground to rivals.
After quietly returning to August last year, with a low-key hybrid festival due to the pandemic, this year’s EIFF has shown great promise for the future. Celebrating her 75th birthday, it also marked the first full year at the helm of Australian-born Kristy Matheson. [left]who previously worked as a film director at the Australian national museum of film culture, ACMI, after contributing to the Sydney and Brisbane film festivals.
Needless to say, some great Antipodean movies made the cut. A clever and bloody tale of friendship gone wrong, the visceral sissy marks the second feature from Australians Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes. Aisha Dee plays Cecilia, an influencer who is invited to her old friend Emma’s (Barlow) bachelorette party, only to find that her school’s head bully, Alex (Emily De Margheriti), is there. Annoying!, as they say. What follows is funny, disturbing and horrifying in equal measure – but it’s sure to see sissy win a cult following.
Playing was also Naked Tuesday, which was EIFF’s central gala, following its recent premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. Written by New Zealand comedian Jackie van Beek (2018 The Superior Breakers) and directed by fellow Kiwi Armağan Ballantyne, it’s a relationship comedy starring Van Beek and Damon Herriman as a couple who travel to a New Age retreat to try to mend their ailing marriage.
Jemaine Clement’s guru awaits them – he’s hilarious – but the real selling point is that all the dialogue is spoken in gibberish. It looks like Scandinavian cod, as if the Swedish leader of the Muppets had doubled everything. Subtitles are provided, written by the brilliant British comedian Julia Davis (night of night, Sally4Ever), which apparently only used the visuals for inspiration – not just any script. It’s a unique and sometimes touching comedy about middle age, marriage and finding yourself.
For those looking for a quieter experience, there was Juniper. The new drama from New Zealander Matthew Saville sees the esteemed Charlotte Rampling star as Ruth, a crippled woman who quickly fades away as she lives out her days in the home of her son (Marton Csokas). Every day she drinks from a jug of gin and water – literally half and half measures – as she appears to be waiting to die. When she meets her grandson Sam (George Ferrier), they are combative at first – she even throws a drink at his head! – but common ground is found in a touching story.
On the documentary side, Lachlan Mcleod’s To clean took on the extraordinary life of the late Sandra Pankhurst, who was previously the subject of Sarah Krasnostein’s well-received 2017 book The Trauma Cleanser. A former drag queen and sex worker who became a transgender woman years earlier when Mcleod joined her, this Australian ran a business, Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services, cleaning up crime and suicide sites. Well, someone has to, as they say.
As you would expect, there were some strong local films as well. Opening the EIFF, the festival pulled off a real bang with the extraordinary debut of Scottish director Charlotte Wells After Sun, which premiered in Cannes earlier this year. A father-daughter story, set in a Turkish seaside resort in the late 90s, it features a nuanced Paul Mescal, the star of the BBC’s 2020 adaptation of Sally Rooney. normal people. With his character Calum striving to bond with his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), he’s a man who clearly spent his youth at raves, rather than planned parent get-togethers.
Talking about that, neon spring turned out to be a great ride. Set in Riga’s underground rave scene, this Latvian drama by Matiss Kaza was fresh and vibrant. It follows 20-year-old Laine (Marija Luize Melke) leaving her troubled family life on the doorstep for the evening as she begins hanging out with a new crowd, including Gunda (Greta Trusina). There are real ups and downs in this film – the brutal descent of reality, the banality and sometimes something more disturbing that hits Laine and others like a runaway train. It was recently picked up in the US by Magnolia, which hopefully means it will get more exposure.
For those who need a different melody, The score saw one of the festival’s best performers – British actors Johnny Flynn, Will Poulter and Naomi Ackie – regroup for this crime/musical drama. Written and directed by Malachi Smyth, the film sees two criminals (Flynn, Poulter) waiting in a cafe (where Ackie’s waitress works) to pick up an illegal drop. There are times when it seems Waiting for Godot, but the real selling point is that many of Flynn’s folk-tinged songs are woven into the story, along with the actors who sing them. It’s a curious mix of music and misconduct, but felt unique.
One of the best European films to be shown was that of Eric Gravel Full time, a French drama that blends social realism with the propulsive heartbeat of a thriller. Laura Calamy (of Call my agent!) plays Julie, a single mother who works in Paris as a room manager. Desperate to change jobs, she has an interview for a market research position – the same day there is a nationwide transit strike in the city. Gravel evokes an impressive and nervous film, aided by a breathtaking electronic score by a musician Irene Dresel.
The festival closed on Saturday in a contemplative atmosphere with After Yang, the new film from critic-turned-filmmaker Kogonada. His previous effort, that of 2017 Columbus, had been acclaimed, and the latter tale also impressed when it premiered at Cannes in Un Certain Regard last year. The film features Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith as parents in a futuristic environment who must come to terms with what happens when their artificially intelligent helper breaks down, causing a huge emotional impact on the family. Like Spike Jonze’s His, it is a sensitive approach to the ethical dilemmas surrounding the creation of artificial life. Above all, it was a fitting end to a pleasant Edinburgh. Kristy Matheson did a good job.