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pages from a cold island: STARSTRUCK

Above: Laetitia Guerard and Leora Barbara in Sylvie Verheyde's Stella (Verheyde, France).

"It's never too soon // To tread the boards
I was in vaudeville // At age five
My career took // Its first nosedive"

-The Auteurs, 'Starstruck' (1993)

Neil Labute has made some rather disastrous creative mis-steps in his time (Lakeview Terrace) but he'll always have a special place in my heart for the way he opened the (wildly underrated) 2003 movie version of his play The Shape of Things. Rather than the credits simply stating the performers' names - as has been the custom in cinema all over the world for decades - Labute identified each of the four individuals concerned by their job-title ("Actor - Paul Rudd"), thus treating them the same as every other artistic contributor to the movie ("Editor - Joel Plotch.")

This seems such an eminently reasonable, meritocratic, level-playing-field idea that I'm dismayed that I can't remember Labute's idea being repeated in the intervening six years. I have nothing against actors or acting, but quite often I will write a review without passing comment on the thespian skills on show. My theory being that reviewers should only cite contributions which either exceed or fall below the expected basic professional level to a significant degree. If actor X or actress Y is competent in what they do, why say so - unless one is also going to name-check the composer, costume-designer, cinematographer, and so on?

We live in a celebrity-driven age, and so it's understandable that many reviewers will write about the new Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie picture, for example, and bang on and on about the star's choice of role, appearance, relationship with the director, and go into the minutiae of what he or she does with the part. Call me perverse, but there will be numerous occasions when I'll go out of my way not to talk about the stars - especially when, as is so often the case, there's much more interesting work being done by the supporting players or even among the bit-part performers. And, as I've said, there will be instances where I will write 500 or even 1,000 words on a movie and the only time I mention any of the actors is within parentheses, matching them with the name of their characters in the time-honoured film-criticism tradition.

This, however, isn't going to be one of those articles. Looking back at the 62nd Edinburgh International Film Festival - which ran from the 17th to the 28th of June (and which has already been excellently covered in these pages via my colleague David Cairns' near-daily dispatches) - what sticks in my mind (along with the death of Michael Jackson, news which broke as I drove back to Edinburgh after an evening in Glasgow) isn't so much the movies themselves, as the performances within them.

There's a mild irony in emphasising the contribution of actors with regard to Edinburgh. This is a festival which started way back in 1947 (no film-festival can boast a longer unbroken continuity) as a showcase of documentaries. And despite the creation in 1993 of the Michael Powell Award for the festival's best new British Film, it didn't get around to introducing a similar actors' prize until last year - the gong going to Robert Carlyle for Summer. Carlyle subsequently the third of the festival's official patrons, alongside his fellow Caledonian thespians, Sir Sean Connery and Tilda Swinton.

My concentration on those in front of the camera doesn't mean to say that the films I saw were all substandard, by any means. I saw all or part of 29 features (24 new titles plus five in the Roger Corman retrospective), and would strongly recommend the following to any film-festival in the world: Sylvie Verheyde's Stella (France), Duncan Jones' Moon (UK), Kyle Patrick Alvarez's Easier with Practice (USA), Sebastian Silva's The Maid (Chile), Bruce McDonald's Pontypool (Canada), Justin Molotnikov's Crying With Laughter (UK), and Cary Joji Fukunaga's Sin Nombre (USA/Mexico). And I should also add as a supplementary a pair of much-discussed UK premieres in Edinburgh which I had already seen elsewhere: Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (UK) and Yang Ik-June's Breathless (South Korea).

But from that entire list of nine, the only one I'd call particularly outstanding is Stella. This tally compares unfavourably with the last two renewals of EIFF - this, the third year that the festival has operated under the auspices of Artistic Director Hannah McGill, was also the third year that EIFF has occupied a late-June slot (from 1947 to 2006 it took place alongside the half a dozen other arts-related festivals that dominate the city each August.) 2006 yielded a pair of masterpieces in Anton Corbijn's Control and Li Yang's Blind Mountain, plus Christian Petzold's Yella (and, from the archives, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Mala Noche). In 2007 I stumbled across Jeon Soo-il's unheralded but truly superb With a Girl of Black Soil, and also saw Encounters at the End of the World and Of Time and the City for the first time.

In each of my nine favourite movies from the 2009 line-up, however, there was at least one performance which is worthy of particular note - and that's not including the surely Oscar-bound Jeremy Renner, who somehow combines Aldo Ray, Simon Russell Beale and Michael J Pollard in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (which I saw at a separate press-screening event just before the festival), or Hilmi Sozer, who works quiet wonders with the trickiest role in Christian Petzold's three-hander Jerichow (which I did see at Edinburgh, having previously also caught it at Rotterdam back in January - the film not quite so impressive second time around).

Also worthy of honourable mentions are Ken Duken in Distance (which I saw in Berlin), Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist (Copenhagen), plus the following from films which I saw for the first time at EIFF 2009: Brenda Blethyn in The Calling (sterling work in a woeful picture), Paddy Considine in Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee, Alex Descas and Nicole Dogue in 35 Shots of Rum and Luke Mably in Exam.

From the "big nine", meanwhile, I would like to direct the reader's attention to the following, arranged in alphabetical order by the film's English-language title (handily, this allows me to leave the best, Stella, till last):

Breathless (Yang, South Korea) - Yang Ik-June. 
Turned in solid contributions as writer and director of this stylish if overlong gangland romance, but triple-threat YANG's most inspired decision was casting himself as casually violent, charismatically amoral, relentlessly foul-mouthed anti-hero Sang-Hoon.

Crying With Laughter (Molotnikov, UK) - Stephen McCole.
The "old" Brian Cox is still very much in business, but anyone looking for a "new Brian Cox" should look no further. For my money, the beefy, scruffily-bearded McCole (who shared screen-time with Cox back in Rushmore) should have got the EIFF acting prize that went to Katie Jarvis (see below) for his complex, moving work as obnoxious, dysfunctional stand-up comic Joey Frisk in this full-blooded, Edinburgh-set thriller.

Easier With Practice (Alvarez, USA) - Brian Geraghty.
The Hurt Locker will propel him towards fame, but it's this much quieter, much more low-key example of current American cinema that allows Geraghty to really show what he can do. As a sad-sack young author who embarks on an ill-advised phone-sex relationship during a nationwide book tour, he must negotiate several long dialogue-heavy scenes where he's the only actor on screen.

Fish Tank (Arnold, UK) - Katie Jarvis and Rebecca Griffiths.
With Moon taking the Powell Award, Fish Tank had to get something big - and so it was predictable that 15-year-old Jarvis, who had wowed Cannes back in May, should follow Carlyle as the second winner of the EIFF acting prize. And she is indeed compellingly believable as Mia, an attitude-heavy teenager who dreams of escaping her drab family life. For my money, however, the real eye-opener here was another, even younger screen newcomer - Rebecca Griffiths as Mia's sister Tyler, a chirpy brat who's just the right side of feral.

The Maid (Silva, Chile) - Catalina Saavedra.
As 41-year-old domestic Raquel, who goes off the rails via a kind of professional and personal mid-life crisis Saavedra retains our interest and sympathy even as her character's behaviour strays from erratic to eccentric and beyond. An admirably committed, uncompromising performance.

Moon (Jones, UK) - Sam Rockwell.
I've never quite seen the appeal of Sam Rockwell, but surprise Michael Powell victor Moon - in which he gets to play both a "conventional" leading man and, simultaneously, a showy character-part - belatedly opened my eyes to his spiky charms.

Pontypool (McDonald, Canada) - Stephen McHattie.
Not quite a one-man show for the veteran Canadian character-actor, but as crusty, barnstorming DJ Grant Mazzy - who continues broadcasting from his studio while the town outside succumbs to a zombie-type virus - dominates proceedings visually and aurally from start to finish, distracting us from certain third-act scripting problems in what's nevertheless a raucously entertaining midnight-movie treat.

Sin Nombre (Fukunaga, USA/Mexico) - Edgar Flores.
A slick trans-border thriller that pulls the audience along through the sheer force of its narrative threads - but at its core is Flores as conflicted gang-member Willy - a.k.a. 'El Casper'. A hoodlum with sensitive eyes in his tough, broad face, Willy's desire for vengeance after the killing of his girlfriend forces him to an act of savage bloodletting on top of a moving train. Rainswept and windblown as he contemplates his deed, Willy stands erect - and is nearly knocked flying by a passing tree-branch that splashingly thwacks into his bare chest. It's a magic, transcendent moment.

Stella (Verheyde, France) - Leora Barbara and Laetitia Guerard.
By a clear margin my pick of the festival was Stella, an utterly charming and disarming cine-autobiography from writer-director Sylvie Verheyde. Only very lightly fictionalising her childhood in a rough-edged corner of Paris, where she was brought up by her parents in their scuzzy but homely bar, Verheyde places a massive burden on the slight shoulders of her lead, Leora Barbara, who's hardly ever off camera as a girl on the early cusp of womanhood struggling to keep with the academic standards at her relatively "fancy" school. Barbara rises to the challenge with impressive confidence - she's precocious without ever becoming "cute" or cloying, tracing Stella's development over some tumultuous months with empathic tact.

As with Jarvis and Griffiths in Fish Tank, however, the young lead is upstaged by a co-star: Guerard only has a handful of appearances as Stella's friend Genevieve - whom she visits while staying with her granny "up north" in Ch'ti country - but she makes them all count. Indeed, she makes every frame count in the moment when Stella renews acquaintance with the pal she hasn't seen for some time, and whom she's starting to drifting away. Guerard's expression goes through what looks like a dozen quicksilver changes in the course of perhaps five seconds - delight, anticipation, puzzlement, surprise, collusion, satisfaction - during which we glimpse the nature of the bond between the two girls. I have absolutely no idea how Guerard - or Verheyde - did it, unless Barbara and Guerard have precisely the same off-screen relationship as their characters, and the camera just so happened to be there at their latest rencontre. Or can it really have been "just" acting?

***

pages from a cold island is a monthly dispatch from the European film scene by Neil Young.

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