These are strange times for film festivals and strange times for the film industry in general. Cinemas might be open, blockbusters might have returned, the new James Bond movie might even stick to its forthcoming release date, but the old bums-on-seats model of cinematic exhibition remains in a precarious position. As such, it’s probably best not to read too much into the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s first August event since 2007. Having quickly pivoted to online-only screenings last year, this year’s hybrid programme— an intriguing mix of physical and digital screenings — wouldn’t have been possible in its regular June slot with Scotland only just emerging from the most recent lockdown restrictions.
And yet, with a team of guest curators at the helm and a newly appointed creative director soon taking charge, it’s tempting to view the move back to the heart of Edinburgh’s festival calendar as a symbolic break with the recent past, even if no decision has publicly been made about the permanency of the switch. It has, after all, been a decade since the EIFF hit rock bottom and, in the years since, the view from the ground has been of a festival limping along, showcasing the occasional gem, but mostly lacking the clout or curatorial vision from those in charge to generate much buzz, especially with Sundance London, Sheffield DocFest and Glasgow Film Festival emerging as hip alternatives in an over-crowded market place.
But if the enticing programme revealed earlier this week is more teaser than full-on reboot (it has been necessarily scaled back due to the pandemic), it’s a positive sign that EIFF is up to the challenge of adapting to a rapidly shifting landscape. Kicking off with Pig, a new Nicolas Cage curio in which he plays a hermit whose favourite truffle pig is stolen, it may even end up reflecting the strangeness of the times simply in its choice of films. Though Pig’s premise and Cage’s presence immediately conjure up thoughts of a swine-themed spin on John Wick, advance reviews suggest it’s less a revenge movie than a character study examining loneliness, grief and a yearning for true connection — universally relatable themes, especially after the last 18 months.
Strangeness abounds too in Annette, a rock opera directed by Leos Carax and conceived and composed by American avant garde pop outfit Sparks. As revealed in Edgar Wright’s new documentary about the band, The Sparks Brothers, siblings Ron and Russell Mael have taken inspiration from movies all their lives and at various points came close to collaborating with Jacques Tati and, later, Tim Burton. But they seem to have found their perfect match in Carax, the maverick French auteur who once sent Denis Lavant pirouetting through the streets of Paris to David Bowie’s Modern Love in the virus-themed Mauvais Sang and went on to make 2012’s audaciously barmy Holy Motors. Having already opened this year’s Cannes, Annette’s blend of irony drenched pomp, cine-literate reference points and Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as toxic lovers in the age of #MeToo should make it essential festival viewing.
Also shaping up to be essential viewing are American indie The Beta Test and Iranian drama Ballad of a White Cow. The former is the latest from Jim Cummings, the multi-hyphenate writer-director-actor behind 2018’s cult hit Thunder Road who stars here as a slick Hollywood agent falling apart after accepting an invite to a hotel room for anonymous no-strings sex. Part techno-thriller, part satirical takedown of a savage industry forced to reckon with its own criminality in the wake of Weinstein, it’s precisely the sort of film that might rile up a (socially distanced) audience. Maryam Moqadam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s Ballad of a White Cow, meanwhile, is a hard-hitting drama in the social realist tradition of A Separation and follows a widowed mother searching for justice after discovering her husband was mistakenly sentenced to death.
Sticking with Iran, the 1979 Islamic revolution is explored through the prism of a newly married couple who lived through it in Radiography of a Family, Firouzeh Khosrovani’s innovative documentary about her parents. And there are further explorations of the clash between competing ideologies and tradition in Hong Kong protest movement doc Faceless, gig economy exposé The Gig is Up and, closer to home, Prince of Muck, Cindy Jansen’s film about the changing ways of life on the titular Scottish isle.
There are also fun looking genre movies from Deerskin director Quentin Dupieux, whose new film Mandibles will have its UK premiere, and David Bruckner, recently tapped to remake Hellraiser, but returning to the festival with his Rebecca Hall-starring ghost story The Night House.
Stranger than any of the above might be Mad God, special effects legend Phil Tippett’s incredible-looking apocalyptic stop-motion animation film. Tippett — who’ll also take part in a virtual Q&A — won Oscars for his effects work on Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park, but famously declared himself extinct when a breakthrough in CGI technology rendered his pioneering animation work on the latter obsolete. Nevertheless, he adapted to the times, channeling his vast knowledge into the emerging technology and keeping his more traditional skills alive with this 30-years-in-the-making opus. Tippett is proof that survival in the film industry is possible, which makes his presence at EIFF oddly appropriate at such an uncertain time.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs from 18-25 August. www.edfilmfest.org.uk
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