This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival had its best opening night in years. Not in a regular cinema but in the city’s historic Festival Theatre with a 3,000 plus audience where Sylvain Chomet’s remarkable film The Illusionist recreated Edinburgh in the 1950s for its ingenious animation of the story of an ageing French magician stranded in northern climes. It was an extraordinary palimpsest, hand-painted animation as a true labour of love, transporting its audience half a century back to a more austere age in which familiar streets and landmarks into which they might walk out after the premiere, had escaped the contemporary clutter of surfeit neon, endless traffic and intrusive signs, escaped into something more spare and basic where classical architecture once again regained its dominance of the eye. For Chomet, who had chosen to be a French exile in the east of Scotland for over five years after the success of his Belleville animation, it was a compelling vision brought to fruition. Introducing his film to an expectant audience he was outrageous and charming. The event seemed a truly magical moment, a sign of great things to come.

Even so, Chomet’s film, based on an original screenplay by Jacques Tati and set in 1950s Paris, had its drawbacks. One sensed a disappointment in some of the audience halfway through at its narrative flatness, its strategic blurring of voices that could be speaking in any language, its sentimental story of a diffident foreigner falling for a young Highland lassie who eventually finds her dreamboat Romeo out on the city streets. The side-show of a tenement full of cabaret artists where the illusionist rooms, is more of a Pigalle moment than a New Town one so that Tati’s story does not easily translate into the puritanical place Edinburgh then was, but no longer is. Indeed the best dramatic moments in the film take place not in Edinburgh but prior to that in London where the magician is a poignant relic of a dying music hall, cruelly upstaged in the local Palais by a rock ‘n’ roll band imitating Bill Haley, and then in the Western Isles where Chomet captures perfectly the colour and quality of northern light and where his magician is bemused by a celidh in the harbour inn but still entrances the locals with his old-fashioned bag of tricks. And yet visually the look of the film throughout stays in the mind. Its animation of 1950s Edinburgh has a mythic quality in capturing the shimmering surfaces of a past life.

Apart from The Illusionist (actually a UK/French co-production) the standard of UK films premiered this year was often dismal and had nothing to compare with the recent triumphs of Moon, Fish Tank, Katalin Varga and Control. The lack of quality was made worse by an unfortunate retro event on “lost” British films of the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them were “lost”, that is, because they were no good and with the exception of Mike Hodges’ Pulp (1972) not worth revisiting. To be reminded once of the poor quality of some UK cinema is an embarrassment: to be reminded twice over is a disaster. The great, spellbinding exception to this embarrassment, compounded it should be said by the absence of Scottish features which will premiere elsewhere this year, was the vengeance movie of London-based Anglo-Iranian, Rafi Pitts, The Hunter, fresh from Berlin. Its visceral and dramatic power confirms the promise of his very different 2006 Iranian feature It’s Winter and it raises Pitts, like Andrea Arnold, to the forefront of UK directing.

Starring in the central role after his male lead pulled out – and thus avoiding a rerun of the pre-shooting permit application demanded by the Iranian authorities – Pitts delivers a taciturn but mesmerising performance as a night-time security guard with a criminal record who turns his spare time pursuit of “hunter” against the police force he blames for the sudden death of his wife and daughter, a double loss that is never truly explained. Starting from near-documentary footage of Tehran locations Pitts fluently edits his film as audio-visual choreography, as poetry of vengeance with its origins in humility, an eerie arcane rite, a ghostly dance of death that begins in one kind of labyrinth, the metropolis, and ends in another, the forest. He thus juxtaposes the incessant and overwhelming sounds of the city against the unsettling silence of the woods, a silence broken only by gunfire as the hunted and hunted swap roles. In fact this is the best and richest use of sound I have heard in any feature film this year, and the film’s intro that is marked out by the music of Rhys Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” is spellbinding.

At one level the storyline is explicit; at another we do not really know what is true and what is false. The power of the image, enhanced by meticulous lighting and composition, has an undertow that seduces us into constantly questioning what we hear and see. The archetypal car ride around the city, which Kiarostami’s 10 naturalises as the mundane presence of auto-motion, becomes inherently menacing here, habitual and ordinary but still exuding mystery, fatality and the intimation of death. The guard’s daily commute cuts in radio snatches of political speeches: from the balcony of his apartment he can hear distant unseen cries of protest and “death to the dictator”, forms of staging that doom the film never to be shown in contemporary Iran. Nothing is as it seems and yet we don’t know what it really is. The talent of Pitts is to ensure the protagonist and the spectator share this disorienting spectrum, right up until the moment of the ending, pitiless in its long-shot execution, where the separation suddenly becomes absolute. Thus one of the best “English” films of the year is also one of the best Iranian films of the year though produced and financed in Germany: we should celebrate this not as “transnational” cinema but as “two-nation” cinema, the expatriate gaze at its most piercing and translucent.

Let us continue on the “two-nation” theme with a film heading in the other direction, Nothing Personal, a debut feature shot in Ireland by Polish director Urszula Antoniak, though produced and financed in Holland where she lives. It is also a way of celebrating the power of acting, dominated in the Festival by three newcomer performances, Lotte Verbeek here, Ryan O’Nan in The Dry Land and Jennifer Wilson in Winter’s Bone. Verbeek in the mould of Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond is a lone nomadic drifter propelled, like Juliette Binoche in Three Colours: Blue by the forgetting of her previous life (the imprint of Kieslowski here is quite powerful). Verbeek imposes her own persona on the film as a character without clear identification marks, a striking figure on a sumptuous landscape. Flame-haired and beautiful in the first long sequences before she speaks, she could easily be mistaken for an Irish redhead. But Antoniak had cast the Dutchwoman for her acting before she came to Ireland and claims not to have seen any Irish redheads during location shooting in Connemara. But inadvertently, could she be a Celtic archetype? When she does speak, and later sing Schubert beautifully, she is clearly not. She is archetypically foreign, other. Verbeek happens to be Dutch but her accent is not. Who then is she? Antoniak sees her as almost stateless, a rebel with no conventional psychology. Stephen Rea plays the Irishman she meets, local and rooted but for the director another archetype, a wise old man, a dying sage – a figure of stillness opposed to a figure in motion. Nothing personal, no names the drifter insists. Each addresses the other as “you”. Antoniak’s anti-psychology is existential and mythic at the same time. Plotless intimacy creates one or two editing glitches but it also creates the film’s narrative drive. The figure of Verbeek absorbs yet challenges the Connemara landscape as much as the mythic figures of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood absorb and challenge the landscapes of the American western. But interior images are also imprinted on the eye – the scene of Rea’s seizure on the cottage stairs when Verbeek turns away in brutal disgust at the prospect of death, the scene where she later makes amends, winding her naked body around the sheet with which she has encased the Irishman’s corpse.

A third addition to the existential anti-psychology of The Hunter and Nothing Personal is an Austro-German thriller Der Räuber (The Robber) set in Vienna and directed by Benjamin Heisenberg from the novel by his co-writer Martin Prinz. Loosely based on a case history from the 1980s it is about bank robber Johann (Andreas Lust) who becomes a triumphant marathon runner but fails to reform his criminal ways – with fatal consequences. If the theme of the double originates in German romanticism this is the emblematic figure of double identity for a post-romantic age. As robber and runner, Johann’s twin identities interchange kinetically, and without explanation. His face has the expressionless pallor of a figure constantly drained by the effort of running –running from banks, running from the Law and then running “with” the Law – running in training, running in the Vienna marathon (an ingenious documentary insert from Heisenberg). The example of Run, Lola, Run! looms large but this is a film without special effects, more sensuous and tactical and a forlorn cinema of loneliness that overshadows the robber’s transient affair with a woman equally lonely, a film in which encounter can never overcome solitude. Like The Hunter and Nothing Personal it challenges us to fill in the missing profile of its protagonist, questions, that is, the culture of audience-expectation that demands the naturalisation of persona through cause and effect. The audience is shown but not told when perhaps it values the easy short cut, the artificial fusion of showing and telling that makes it sleep easier at nights.

The alternative to the “mythodrama” of these three films was provided by the revisionist melodrama of two Sundance favourites, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone and Ryan Piers Williams’ The Dry Land, both films of the American south, the former shot on location in the Missouri Ozarks, the latter in and around El Paso on the Texan-Mexican border (Williams’ home town.) Both are contemporary and topical, both powerful family dramas and both have a remarkably authentic sense of place, which gives the screen image an intense photographic clarity. Both are melodramatic because in the end they are redemptive, their young protagonists overcoming the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but without recourse to the cloying sentiment of traditional melodrama. Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; The Dry Land won best International Feature at Edinburgh, both thoroughly deserved. The intriguing question is their appeal and how it works.

Adapted from the 2006 novel of Daniel Woodrell (who also wrote Woe to Live On, filmed as Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil) Granik and her co-writer researched the project with Woodrell on the rural terrain he knew so well. While there are strong echoes here of Deliverance the film still looks like no other American film of recent years: the Ozark forests have more plausible secrets than those of Von Trier’s Antichrist, showing us a bleak, unremitting life that is almost beyond civilisation yet with a humanist vein running through it that reconnects with American optimism in the struggle of 17 year-old Ree Dolly (19 year-old Jennifer Wilson) to protect her young siblings after the disappearance of her drug-addled dad. Like all good melodrama it plays on dramatic suspense. Surrounded by drug-dealing and addicted clans, Ree appears to have no allies in her struggle to prevent repossession of the family house put up as bail by her father, until her sociopathic uncle switches his allegiance when he discovers that blood is thicker than water. But the switch comes late on and acts as a lever of dramatic suspense – the unpredictable sociopath who could go one way or the other guarantees an unpredictable outcome so the audience is kept guessing. As the young heroine, Wilson projects onscreen the intense country stoicism often found in the characters of William Faulkner.

In The Dry Land there is a didactic streak in its frank exposure of PTSD among homecoming Iraq veterans. Yet Williams rightly refuses the option of recreating war-trauma through flashback, focussing instead tightly on the after-effects. He places his protagonists squarely on the landscapes of southern Texas and charts the fall and redemption of his troubled hero James (Ryan O’Nan) with a rough delicacy that is enhanced by charismatic acting and dialogue that is natural and poetic, where accent and idiom flow easily from the tongue. The intensity of encounter between the troubled James, his Latino wife Sarah (America Perrera taking a rain check from Ugly Betty), his new workmates at a slaughterhouse and his old army buddies has a Cassavetes-like intensity as he embarks on a desperate journey to make sense of the huge divide between war and peace. At times, Williams overuses musical soundtrack and lessens the emotional impact of his actors when he seeks to enhance it but apart from that he creates a genuine hero who walks the line in the grand style of Dean or Brando and squarely echoes that classic lineage.

The greatest feature on show, the Silver Bear winner from Berlin If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (d. Florin Şerban), is neither melodrama nor mythodrama but lies elusively somewhere in between. It is still reliant on dramatic suspense like the former but also echoes the primacy of existential encounter that comes out of nowhere, like the later. It adds too as an open-prison drama, an original take on time-space compression, weeklong countdown to release for a young disgruntled prisoner so near and yet so far from freedom. Here there is no clear linear pattern of cause and effect. Reaction is unpredictable, consequence is disproportionate to cause and while the young anti-hero Silviu (newcomer George Piştereanu) is disturbed by his mother’s continuing neglect of his younger brother at home nothing prepares us for the explosion that follows. Having worked with young inmates in preparation and casting for his film Şerban has spoken of his fascination with their raw unpredictability. The film captures it perfectly, its performative qualities, its near-ritual enactment of a drama without a script. No wonder he constantly rewrote dialogue to capture the idioms and intonations of his two main actors and of the inmates he cast in his film. The voice becomes a key ingredient of the performative which Şerban’s camera then blends with movement and expression and renders cinematic.

The “inbetweenness” of this film we can call psychodrama. Neither mythic nor melodramatic it does not refuse psychology but it refuses to make it holistic. The film depends for its completion on the judgment of its audience who become uncomfortable witnesses to a kidnapping that seems unnervingly to take place in real time and whose consequences will lead, we presume, to the further incarceration of a disturbed but honest guy who longs to be free and is already in countdown to the key moment. Or is he? At the end the film transcends its locale to pose a universal question. Which do we prefer – the curtailing structures of the prisonhouse we know or the uncertainties of the freedom that lie beyond? The answer, according to this film, is not as obvious as we think.

Edinburgh International Film Festival
16-27 June, 2010
Festival website: http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk/