Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019
Festival Coverage by Logan Kenny
For two weeks in June, the Edinburgh International Film Festival screened over 100 features from around the world. Although it is impossible to cover the festival in full, Logan here reports back on 8 titles he caught there.
The Souvenir (2019) by Joanna Hogg
It’s interesting to talk about Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, as it exists on a grid of intricate contradictions. It is a work of art all about a woman with privilege who desires to make a film about people she doesn’t know, a lower class environment that she’s never seen with her own eyes. Her character is committed to the empathy she feels towards people without the shortcuts she’s had in life, and she feels isolated in her own environments of repressed socialising. It makes the film strange and hard to discuss since that very theme – the act of being unqualified to discuss something, but desperate to give your perspective on it – is the biggest idea that Hogg’s film has. The Souvenir has been framed as a toxic relationship story by many; it is a work that examines the quiet nuances of a mutually unhealthy relationship with a seismic age gap. While that is somewhat the case, the film becomes primarily about addiction and what it’s like to live with someone who can’t beat their disease. The main character is the filter we see every scene through, and all we see of her partner’s struggles with addiction are framed through her POV. He is never given empathy outside of her narrow lens. While there is intrigue and profound emotions on display, this framing continues the systematic suppression of addicts’ own voices and turbulences, making the film more of a self-centred depiction of the pain they cause. It’s undeniably well made and well acted. I was never bored, and there were moments where I thought that I was in love with it, but the fact remains that it’s an exceptional version of a framing that we don’t need any more of in the world: the sort of framing that views an addict’s pain and relapses and everything that stems from that as simply destructive to those around them, when they are the ones suffering the most. It’s a shame, since the film gets a lot of the nuances right about unhealthy relationships before it becomes overwhelmingly about something that it has neither the empathy nor the insight to explore.
The Dead Don’t Die (2019) by Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a notable misfire in a generally consistent career, and sadly not in any of the ways that make high profile disasters interesting. This continuously aims for the lowest common denominator, building its jokes around repeated lines, tacky references (the first zombie rising out of the grave of Samuel Fuller), and asinine attempts at cultural commentary. Much has been made of the zombies’ desire for Wi-Fi and Xanax, the “Make America White Again”-clad Steve Buscemi and the oversexualised portrayal of Selena Gomez who exists to be ogled at by three older men, mocked for her tastes and then promptly killed off screen. This apathy towards women continues in the portrayal of Chloe Sevigny, who is just too emotional to handle the zombie apocalypse, in contrast to the men who have the inner strength to take the mental side of it. However, not enough has been made of the absurdist nihilism that positions individuals as the fault of the collapse of society; our supposed need for technology and stimulants is seemingly more destructive than the governments and corporations who pollute the earth. There are even brief mentions of the environmental crisis that’s been caused by this greed and callousness, and yet the final monologue blames the members of societies for being complacent, instead of doing the much harder task of challenging the status quo itself. The performances are all given in this aggressively low-key monotone register which becomes aggravating immediately – the only real exception being Tilda Swinton, although not for anything close to a good reason. Her character’s existence is vapid and unbelievably lazy, from the culturally appropriated Japanese aesthetic she clads herself in (only three years after the Doctor Strange controversy) to the absolutely dismal Scottish accent and especially every turgid revelation that unfolds throughout her narrative. The final 10 minutes of this movie suppress any moments of joy or entertainment to be found, neutering colour and creativity in favour of cynical, thoughtless dust. By the point when they broke the fourth wall to try and get a pop out of a fading audience, I knew that one of the most iconic filmmakers of his generation had sold his soul and given up. A tiring waste of time and money.
H0us3 (2018) by Manolo Munguia
Computers: what if, one day, they were in charge? An utterly preposterous endeavour that creates a situation built entirely on a friend group who’ll spend their entire dinner party discussing the intricacies of code. What if Julian Assange and Edward Snowden evaded capture because they had an augmented reality app that could see the future? What if Anonymous and WikiLeaks were a major world changing force in 2019? What if phones, but too much? This Spanish language attempt at cashing in on Black Mirror’s cultural relevance succeeds in a way that the show does not, embracing the innate absurdity of “phones are evil” cinema and making a film not really so much about a larger message of societal woe, but rather about how far we can push an audience’s suspension of disbelief into a realm where just about anything is possible. It sucks, ruthlessly and consistently; it doesn’t make any sense; the performances are all weirdly disjointed, and it has possibly the worst opening credits sequence I’ve ever seen projected – but it’s an absolute blast. There’s nothing better to me than trying to see people who have nothing to say and don’t know what they’re talking about attempt to create something culturally relevant.
The Sound of Silence (2019) by Michael Tyburski
As an autistic man, sound is a huge part of my life. I’m more sensitive to noises than most people are, to the loud blares of sirens to the simple smaller sounds scattered throughout my environment. If you’ve seen me in person, you’ll likely have noticed a pair of headphones on me at all times, to block out some of the abrasiveness of the sounds around me. It’s a coping mechanism, so I can live in a world that doesn’t condition itself to accept me. Music’s been one of the most important things in my life since I was a kid; finding beauty out of noise and fragments of sound has transported me and helped me survive the last few years of my life. Sound can be a curse for me, but without the sound of music or my partner’s voice, I don’t know what I’d do. The Sound of Silence is about a character who I’ve read as autistic – he’s obsessive over a particular subject, can have trouble socialising, reacts badly to things not going to plan, at one point has a meltdown in public that’s very reminiscent of my own experiences, and deep down, has this overwhelming sense of empathy for those around him to the extent that he builds his life around it. It’s a movie about someone’s desire to control the sounds around them, to explain the reasons why they overwhelm and create joy and misery in equal measure. It’s about the intense struggle to make your environment acceptable to you and the pains that come from when people never listen or try to help. The difficulties of managing my condition with the relationships in my life is something that is a burden on me. I am constantly afraid that I could be driving people away or overwhelming them because of things that I physically cannot control. The Sound of Silence replicates that feeling, but in a way that dispels the anxiety and reminds me that the good people in your life don’t see you as the curse that you often might. You can stand in silence with someone you care about, and, for a little while, everything will be okay. It’s a testament to the work of Peter Sarsgaard and the director that they managed to code a character as autistic without stereotyping or exploiting. A really profound work that’s worth your time when it’s available.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018) by Stacie Passion
Last month, in my review for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I called it the worst film of the year. Edinburgh Film Festival 2019 had me questioning that statement almost every day, and this adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel might have been the worst thing I saw there. This is the kind of film that has manifestations of dead parents to talk to the protagonist in order to convey significant information or meaningless symbolic gestures. It is the hollow work of a hack who believes that the novel being a classic is enough to not do any groundwork as a filmmaker. Every single sequence is filled with atrocious editing, with random overdone cuts being scattered across the frames, almost reminiscent of Bohemian Rhapsody in how it utilises garish Shot/Reverse Shot with no rhythm or purpose. It takes away all of the soul and grit found in Jackson’s prose and does nothing to build up mystery or intrigue in either the characters, the environment or the increasingly fragile infrastructure of these people’s lives. It suffers from atrocious pacing and screenwriting: there’s a whole subplot about the protagonist’s love of witchcraft that goes nowhere as the writer/director is seemingly unable to correlate a woman’s response to societal oppression and loss with a form of power. Instead, it’s just used to add mild skepticism to the characters around her and implement limp visions of the dead. The film is structured as an elongated flashback, broken down into individual days, for no real purpose or impact. Unlike something like Jeanne Dielman or the video game Life is Strange, there is no narrative or emotional advantages to breaking down this story structure. It’s not about the repetition of daily life, and it fails at building up suspense to the inevitable day things go wrong. The performances are appalling, with each line-delivery switching from flat to almost hysterically dreadful. In particular, there’s a Simple Jack-level caricature of trauma and disability on the behalf of Crispin Glover, and a growling turn from Taissa Farmiga whose clad in an aesthetic that makes her appear more like the child from Gummo than anything else. Sebastian Stan also fails to live up to the raves he’s been given as a performer, fulfilling the worst instincts of his dull monotone deliveries and overly manufactured emotional reactions. There’s not a single degree of subtlety or horror to be found here, just an overly excessive waste of time that spits on the face of America’s greatest horror writer.
The Wind (2018) by Emma Tammi
*spoilers for The Wind, a movie you should not waste your time on*
There’s a few issues with The Wind that ultimately create one of the biggest wastes of time of the year thus far. The first is simple: it’s almost incoherent in how it’s cut and structured. The film is a constant back and forth between two different timeframes – one in which the protagonist is a rough individualist fighting for survival against an unknown force, the other seeing her as a happy wife trying to build a life with her husband on this new frontier while engaging with the first other inhabitants. The film is so bad at establishing character and narrative that it is incomprehensible for the first 20 minutes, and this especially becomes a problem in the final moments. Another major issue is the absolute lack of tension or environment. The atmosphere is deflated and flat, there is no sense of wonder or loneliness crafted from the vistas or the rigid cabin in which most of the action takes place. It feels anonymous, and the cinematography never highlights anything but the swelling of darkness, which it consistently misuses. It succeeds at dulling down the frames but never enveloping the audience in a series of blackness that they can’t dig themselves out from, because it never puts in the effort to establish any forms of tension. It looks pretty ugly, which is a huge crime when shooting in a locale such as this. The issues with tension come forth in never quite establishing what you should be afraid of – it feels like nothing has presence, which isn’t helped by the constant telegraphing of jump scares or supposedly unnerving moments. This makes many segments boring, as instead of preying on the audience’s anxieties, it’s making them less interested in the events that transpire. However, my biggest issue comes from the ending, which utilises mental health in the most lazy and underwhelming way to signify a twist of “what was really real??” which does nothing but misread how mental illness actually works. This approach to mental health as a shocking revelation was outdated and tasteless by 1999, let alone in 2019 when access to mental health research is more available than ever before. It’s insulting to me (as someone in a relationship with a person struggling with mental illness) to see the sufferers framed as outright crazy and delusional, especially in a boring “post-horror” narrative about the fragility of women. No thank you.
Varda by Agnès (2019) by Agnès Varda
The final film of Agnès Varda is special. It feels like a work created by someone who knew that the end was close, who wanted to create a final testament to their own work and impact upon the world, and to give themselves the sendoff that they’ve always dreamed of. It’s a film that focuses on the techniques of how she shot Vagabond and Jane B by Agnes V, but it also devotes its attention to the everyday people experiencing her art and beginning the process of creating their own. It feels transitional in a sense – between the realm of the living and dead – but also between the old filmmakers with so much knowledge to give and the young voices desperate for guidance. A sequence of a little girl watching one of Agnés’s art projects again on her own (because that’s how she believes the art should be experienced) has stuck with me constantly since watching it. I’m far from the most knowledgeable person to talk about Agnés Varda’s work and legacy, but watching this made me feel like she’s been present for my entire life. Even though she’s gone now, she lives on forever in a series of images, images that will last until this planet sets aflame and hopefully even beyond that. This is the kind of film that feels eternal. Rest in peace Agnés.
The Art of Self Defense (2019) by Riley Stearns
This is not a movie that knows what karate is. As someone who took years of karate as a kid, this is unrecognisable to me as anything related to this particular martial art. This is also why it works, because it takes one of the most passive and spiritual martial arts, and turns it into an embodiment of toxic masculinity and absurdist nonsense. Absolutely none of this movie can be taken remotely seriously, as it fluctuates between surrealist dark humour, to horror-inspired moments of excruciating pain, to a truly inspired ending sequence. It consistently challenges the expectations of what kind of movie you’re watching, and I haven’t had as much joy experiencing where a movie is about to go next in ages as I had with this. Eisenberg fulfils the role of what is essentially a domesticated incel extremely well, portraying the meek and bitter sides of his existence perfectly. Imogen Poots gets a great spotlight as a brutalist brown-belt who beats the everloving fuck out of disrespectful trainers in between her lessons teaching children about the poetry of movement. However, the best performance – and the main reason to check the film out – is Alessandro Nivola, who gives one of the most sinister and yet utterly hysterical turns of the year. He plays up the vapid airhead macho man archetype to its highest extreme, and while the character writing here is nothing especially new, the intrigue and bravado he brings to every scene steals the movie. The film can suffer from tonal whiplash (which becomes a problem at the beginning of the third act), but thankfully, it turns things around at the end with one of the best shocking gags I can think of. This isn’t quite at the level of the director’s previous work, Faults, but for this festival, I really appreciated an extremely entertaining couple hours.