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EDINBURGH - Once touted as the UK’s answer to Sundance, particularly when positioned against the more glamorous autumnal offerings of the newly shortened London Film Festival, the Edinburgh Film Festival has quietly gone into reboot mode in its 65th year. Actually, that irritatingly fashionable verb may be better replaced with “rebuild”: after the commercial and PR debacle of last year’s edition, whereby last-minute switches in management and a particularly granola programme had some prophesying the death of the world’s oldest continually-running film festival, newly appointed director Chris Fujiwara was handed awfully little with which to work.
Wisely, he’s decided not to bite off more than he can chew. This year’s Edinburgh lineup is unapologetically small in scale—even compared to recent years, when the festival could still filch the odd Cannes title, the selections here feel modest—but there are pleasing flashes of daring and eccentricity in the programming that at least suggest some renewed curatorial conviction: a Gregory LaCava retrospective, for example, wouldn’t have happened last year.
Having skipped last year’s flop, I’ve returned to the festival for a flying visit. After just one day of full programming (William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe,” which I reviewed at Venice last year, opened the festival last night), it’s too soon to pass judgment, but at least two strong films cherry-picked from previous 2012 festivals have got the ball rolling nicely.
An imminent summer release date graciously allowed Edinburgh to swipe one doozy of a Sundance hit from London: Bart Layton’s “The Imposter” (A-) has had documentary fiends chattering since debuting in snowy Utah, but the less you’ve managed to tune into that conversation, the better. Culled from the kind of preposterous tabloid headline that could tempt even a good writer into “truth is stranger than fiction” banalities—and already inspired a fictionalized B-movie in 2010—Layton’s sly, stealthy and genuinely frightening film subversively complicates an already bewildering true-crime narrative with diagonal avenues of investigation that suspend all notions of victimhood. The effect is akin to Patricia Highsmith rewriting a National Enquirer story: with the participating characters scrutinized as keenly as their actions, the merely sensational becomes additionally sinuous.
In other words, even if you did absorb the 1997 scandal of Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman and master identity thief who somehow duped a Texan family into accepting him as their teenaged son who had disappeared four years previously, chances are “The Imposter” may still catch you off-guard. Rather than placing its sympathies squarely with the grieving Barclay household, the film adopts a fully compliant Bourdin as its protagonist and prime interviewee. He’s at once an offputting and twitchily charismatic storyteller, and he cops to the bald absurdity of his deception in a way that’s both disarming and disquieting: 15 years later, he’s as astonished as we are that the Barclays believed this brown-eyed, dark-stubbled, heavily-accented European was their blond, blue-eyed boy, but remains perversely, lip-lickingly proud of the masquerade.
What kind of mother wouldn’t recognize her own son? It’s the most obvious human response to this tall tale, and with our belief already handily suspended by truth, Layton and editor Andrew Hulme (practised in fiction with “Control” and “The American”) snakily construct a number of conflicting narratives—some psychologically sympathetic, others sinister—to answer it, artfully shuffling talking-head accounts from Bourdin, the Barclays and still-baffled administrative figures to tease each one out to the brink of credibility, but no further. Atmospherically detailed re-enactments simultaneously heighten both plausibility and the sense that we’re being implacably played, perhaps even more by the participants than the filmmakers.
Documentary purists will doubtless find the film enervating, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s not a documentary at all: rather, it’s a richly dramatized thriller folding and shaping live, possibly embroidered testimonies as its screenplay. Multiple subjectivities don’t amount to objectivity, after all: the truth isn’t as compelling to Layton as the way in which we arrive at it. Meanwhile, the consistent, genre-hued sleekness of the visual styling—cinematographers Erik Alexander Wilson and Lydna Hall are as exacting in the lighting and framing of interview scenes as in the reconstructions—is perversely effective, positing everything in the film as a fabrication of some variety. If I’m evading some of the finer points of “The Imposter”’s dazzlingly staggered narrative, that’s largely out of respect to its rich quarry of surprises, but partly the because the film, in its own way as lithely shapeshifting as Bourdin himself, so coldly resists candor.
Preoccupied in a gentler way with the conflicting motivations and selective honesty of ruptured families, Hans Christian Schmid’s elegant, economical domestic drama “Home for the Weekend” (B+), well-received in this year’s Berlinale competition, makes a virtue of its familiarity. The extent to which we’ve seen these brittle bourgeois family politics traced before only underlines the rare degree of care and democracy with which Schmid (“Requiem”) shades his: clocking in at under 90 minutes (a pleasingly recurring feature of this year’s Edinburgh lineup), the film builds an impressively storied family portrait with little recourse to types.
The emotional aggravator of the story, built around a young, recently separated father’s weekend visit to his own retired parents, may be the unspecified mental illness of the family matriarch (Corinna Harfouch), but for the bulk of the film, she seems scarcely more troubled or vulnerable than those around her: the visiting son (Lars Eidinger, “Everyone Else”) hoarding the secret of his broken marriage, his ostensibly overachieving but financially addled younger brother (Sebastian Zimmler), and their publisher father (Ernest Stotzner), whose lordly patience with the whole clan is itself a charade of sorts. Schmid cleverly plays these snippy mini-dramas against each other for the first half, only for the elephant in the room to reassert itself with a desolate tilt into mystery territory: that most classical of signifiers in upper-class family-feud stories, the shattered wine glass, is a stark turning point here.
Modern German filmmakers do a neat line in this kind of crisply penetrating our-house drama, perhaps because their customary constructional discipline sets emotional chaos in such pleasing relief; it’s an unusual pleasure, too, to see a contemporary family on screen whose intellectualism is not something that needs to be excused or played for irony. Beautifully performed and assiduously edited, “Home for the Weekend” doesn’t condescend to his characters with tidily prescribed solutions—indeed, it’s the mother’s abandonment of her prescription medication that divides the family most emphatically—but it’s not unconcerned with healing.
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