Edinburgh Film Festival pt.II (Thu 18 Aug) incl. G.A.Romero’s ‘Land of the Dead’ [7/10]

Published on: August 18th, 2005

Greg Zglinski's ONE LONG WINTER WITHOUT FIRE [7/10]
George A Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD  [7/10]
Jacques Audiard's THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED [7/10]
Jerome Bonnell's LES YEUX CLAIRS [5/10]
Ingmar Bergman's SARABAND [6/10]

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Though often as chilly as its intriguing title, the little-heralded One Long Winter Without Fire proved a bracingly rewarding start to the day and my first real 'find' of Edinburgh 2005. It's the intelligent, emphatically adult-oriented story of a marriage plunged into crisis after a shattering tragedy: the death of a middle-class farming couple's only daughter in a fire at their cowshed. The wife (Marie Matheron) ends up in a psychiatric clinic, and the husband (Aurelien Recoing) must find work in a factory to pay the bills – a difficult step, as farming has been in his blood for generations.

The homestead is located in a remote, picturesquely mountainous region, and the film takes place over the course of the first winter (2005/6, oddly enough) following the child's demise. It's painful viewing at times, but this is entirely in keeping with the gut-wrenching subject-matter – Polish-born Zglinski elicits brave performances from Recoing (a bulkier, taller Kevin Spacey?) and Matheron (despite a moment or two of over-familiar crazy-woman shtick). And makes the most of some astonishing low-Alpine cinematography from Witold Plociennik.

Pierre-Pascal Rossi's script, meanwhile, avoids cheap sentiment and melodrama at every turn, steers the plot down some unexpected avenues up to a suitably moving finale. These final moments also serve to brings us back full circle to Winter's very first image: a remarkable shot of two crows in vertiginous high-altitude flight, poised over distant, silent mist-wreathed terrain.

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The raucously watchable Land of the Dead represents a welcome return to prominence for zombie-auteur Romero more than a decade after his last US feature (1994's The Dark Half). Having created an entire mini-genre back in 1969 with Night of the Living Dead, he's responsible (indirectly) for countless video-games and their undistinguished cinematic spin-offs – and Land of the Dead is some kind of masterpiece masterpiece in comparison with the ropey likes of Resident Evil – Apocalypse.

The plot is a convoluted affair with a cobbled-together feel, set (but not actually filmed) in and around Romero's favoured location of Pittsburgh – here a grimy nocturnal dystopia perhaps intended to hommages John Carpenter. It's the background for a clash of three unequal forces: a band of scruffy renegades led by bland, top-billed Simon Baker (his main squeeze is the rather more lively Asia Argento); the well-heeled, army-guarded denizens of Fiddler's Green, a city-centre gated-community-in-a-skyscraper (run by an smirkingly reptilian Dennis Hopper); and the teeming multitudes of the shambling, perpetually pissed-off and ever-hungry undead (their unlikely 'Moses' figure a hulking but relatively-bright ghoul well played by Eugene Clark) – who see the affluent city-folk as their next main course. Eat the Rich indeed…

While Romero's topical/political touches aren't exactly subtle – "I'm gonna do a Jeee-haad on his ass!" yelps John Leguizamo; "we don't negotiate with terrorists" growls Hopper – he does manage to hit that enormous G.W.Bush-shaped target much more squarely than 'bastion-of-the-left' John Sayles's feeble Silver City. Even so, Romero arguably uses the script's structure to cover a little too much satirical ground: one minute he's presenting a nightmare vision of a feudal-fascist American society, the next he's serving up solid slabs of Baghdad shock 'n awe. That grisly cracking you hear perhaps isn't just a zombie tucking into his latest ready-meal – it may also be the sound of (very gory) allegories being stretched to breaking-point and beyond.

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I enjoyed, appreciated and admired the awkwardly-titled The Beat That My Heart Skipped – what you might call 'variation sur une theme de J.Toback' – but am still not massively convinced that the world actually needs a remake (and a French remake at that) of Fingers. James Toback's fine 1978 directorial debut – showing here next week – showcased Harvey Keitel in one of his most remarkable performances: a combination of his spiritually-tormented Mean Streets hood and James Caan's thrill-addicted lecturer from Karel Reisz's Toback-scripted The Gambler.

Though not without its thrillerish moments, Audiard's Beat is essentially a close-focus character-study of Tom (Romain Duris), son of a criminally-connected dad and a concert-pianist mother. In his late twenties but not yet fully grown up, Tom can't reconcile the twin poles of his inheritance – he makes his money as an amoral real-estate 'operator', resorting to brutal methods where necessary, but spends increasing amounts of time practising the piano and dreaming of a professional music career.

As with Read My Lips (whose lead Emmanuelle Devos drolly cameos here) Audiard proves a coolly proficient directorial talent, tweaking genre material in highbrow directions. Wisely, he seldom allows Stephane Fontaine's camera to stray far from his star's compellingly wolfish guele Duris's preening self-regard is often a turn-off, but it works well in this change-of-pace role. His nervously energetic performance remains absorbing even when some of the plot's violent/romantic/oedipal shenanigans threaten to tip over into melodrama. And his scenes with his long-suffering 'tutor' Miao (Lin-Dam Pham) – neither of them speaking the other's language but both making themselves understood – are flinty comic gems.

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Advertised and screened in Edinburgh under its original title, Les yeux clairs is the kind of competently made, vaguely arty but inconsequentially so-so fare you'll find in most of the world's product-hungry film festivals. As a general rule, few such enterprises obtain commercial release in the UK, but there always seems to be room for French 'guests' in our arthouses – especially if the director's previous picture (Bonnell's debut Le chignon d'Olga was widely admired) has attracted positive notices and/or business. This one is a noodling, slow-paced portrait of Fanny (Nathalie Boutefeu), a bespectacled 32-year-old with ongoingmental problems – her symptoms run the full spectrum from ditzy dreaminess to moderately violent schizophrenia. She lives with her teacher brother and the brother's wife in a village reminiscent of the Bailleul seen in the films of Bruno Dumont – until mounting tensions see her take to the road in search of her father's grave… in Germany. Here she finds more than she'd bargained for – in the form of a lovelorn local farmer (reliably oddball Euro-artpic favourite Lars Rudolph).

Thus the second half of the picture shifts gear into the territory of fairytale-ish wordless romance recently visited to great effect by Kim Ki-Duk in 3-Iron. But whereas Kim achieved a fable-like resonance with this technique, in Bonnell's hands it feels cutesy and contrived. Fatally, Fanny proves a somewhat wearing focus of our attention – she's in almost every scene, and, for all we sympathise with her psychiatric afflictions (and admire Boutefeu's commitment to a tricky role), she comes across like an only slightly more bearable character than that motormouth hitch-hiker from Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days. Another unfavourable comparison: Bonnell, despite some slyly skilful comic touches, isn't a writer of Seidl's class, either.

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The inclusion of Saraband in the Edinburgh '05 lineup must have made attendees feel like they'd been transported into a Woody Allen movie from the late seventies. In a couple of hours we too could noisily hold forth in suitably pretentious style: "… Saw the new Bergman … not one of his best … lacks a cohesive structure …" And it's been over 20 years since a 'new Bergman' has appeared in British cinemas – the video-shot Saraband being the latest of the octogenarian's many farewells in the long wake of his 'final' movie Fanny and Alexander (1983).

As it happens, Saraband's structure is decidedly "cohesive": a prologue, ten scenes and an epilogue featuring four speaking characters: Liv Ullmann as 63-year-old Marianne; Erland Josephson as her ex-husband, the 86-year-old Johan; Borje Ahlstedt (first among equals in a strong ensemble) as Johan's 61-year-old son Henrik; Julia Dufvenius as Henrik's 19-year-old daughter Karin. The ages of each characters are carefully noted during the dialogue, as this emphatically is a piece about anno domini – the way we live in the shadow of inevitable death.

Weighty, philosophical topics abound in the dense screenplay – filmed in functional, aggressively theatrical, stripped-down style. At times the proceedings come across like a classy, stilted soap-opera frozen in acidic aspic – at others it really does feel like the powerful valedictory statement of a great artist (as with Ullmann's remarkable, Molly-Bloom-ish final to-camera soliloquy).

There really hasn't been anything like this – in terms of an art-cinema Event – since Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (which wasn't actually intended as the last-testament it became), and the Swede makes a farewell nod to the Russian with his copious use of Bach. But whereas Tarkovsky saw his end in terms of global apocalypse, Saraband is a much more domestic and intimate affair – and also, it must be said, a lesser work, stretched to a what feels like a very unforgiving 120 minutes. But this is Bergman's final flourish – and, for many, will make it absolutely unmissable. It won't win him any new admirers – but his fans, including Mr Allen, are unlikely to be disappointed.

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Neil Young
18th/19th/22nd August, 2005

* ONE LONG WINTER WITHOUT FIRE : [7/10] : Tout un hiver sans feu : Switzerland (Swi/Bel) 2004 : Greg ZGLINSKI : 91 mins
* LAND OF THE DEAD : [7/10] : full title George A Romero's Land of the Dead : USA 2005 : George A Romero : 93 mins
* THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED : [7/10] : De battre mon coeur s'est arrete : France 2005 : Jacques AUDIARD : 107 mins
* LES YEUX CLAIRS [5/10] : aka Pale Eyes : France 2005 : Jerome BONNELL : 86 mins
* SARABAND [6/10] : Sweden 2003 (TV) : Ingmar BERGMAN : 120 mins : originally made for and broadcast on Swedish TV, but shown theatrically elsewhere

Press shows: One Long Winter Without Fire and Land of the Dead seen at Cineworld; The Beat That My Heart Skipped seen at FilmHouse. Public shows: Les yeux clairs and Saraband seen at Filmhouse. 

Edinburgh International Film Festival

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