Galway fleadh ends in tears

 

Sniffles and sobs abounded at French animated film The Illusionist- the poignant centrepiece of the 22nd Galway Film Fleadh - and the home-grown fare edged towards death, disease, abuse and other shades of everyday heartache. Surely Toy Story 3would lift the spirits, writes DONALD CLARKE

ON WEDNESDAY evening, as the credits rolled on Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, the woman beside me blubbed with such uncontrollable vigour that I felt she might need to be helped out of Galway's Town Hall Theatre. Given that sniffles were, by then, spreading throughout the auditorium, it was hardly surprising that her distress went unremarked.

Chomet's follow-up to Belleville Rendez-vousprovided the 22nd Galway Film Fleadh with a truly memorable centrepiece. Working from an unproduced Jacques Tati script, Chomet, master of old-school animation, delivers a poignant tale about an ageing conjurer and his efforts to stay afloat in a beautifully rendered version of Edinburgh.

Punters seemed happy to miss a World Cup semi-final to wallow in the recreational distress. Come to think of it, creative misery was very much the prevailing spirit at this year's event. The fleadh has always focused particularly closely on the unveiling of new Irish features. During the boom years, we experienced the odd dayglo crime caper or expensively shoed urban romance. In recent years, however, Irish film-makers have drifted back towards death, disease, abuse and other shades of everyday heartache.

Twelve months ago, the slide towards pessimism was already in evidence. But this year the tone is bleaker still.

None of which is meant as criticism of the new Irish films on display. Indeed, watching another swathe of consistently original and diverting pictures, the viewer could be forgiven for concluding that our young directors thrive on adversity.

The fleadh opened with a hometown success. Two years ago, Will Collins won the event's pitching competition with an idea about three brothers who travel across a corner of Ireland to replace their dying father's cheap but beloved digital watch. Directed by Paul Fraser, My Brothers, which played to ecstatic applause, proved to be a charming exercise in whimsical melancholy. Distinguished cinematographer PJ Dillon (of whom more anon) brings a sodden light to the images, drawing beauty from even the least promising surroundings. But it is the performances that really energise the film. Fraser has written many scripts for Shane Meadows, and that director's talent for working with young actors has rubbed off on his collaborator. Paul Courtney is quite brilliant as the sweary middle brother whose enthusiasm for Liverpool FC colours his every action.

With Sensation, Tom Hall, co-creator of Bachelors Walk, brings an invigorating burst of grim negative energy to a story set in another damp, permanently grey corner of rural Ireland. The film begins with a young farmer returning from a bout of alfresco masturbation to discover his father dead in his jammed chairlift. Suddenly flush with money, the socially inhibited protagonist takes up with a Kiwi sex worker and establishes a brothel. Featuring a weaselly Domhnall Gleeson as the budding sex entrepreneur, Sensationbegins in the same transgressive territory occupied by disturbing film-makers such as Ulrich Seidl or Todd Solondz: sweaty palms and sweaty thighs are everywhere about. In the later stages, however, Sensationtakes a more conventional route as it veers within shouting distance of a traditional john-falls-for-hooker romance. On balance, the first half is the more successful, but Sensationremains impressively peculiar and unsettling throughout.

Do you fancy yet more sinister goings on in further windswept, leafless country roads? If so, you might wish to seek out PJ Dillon's fine debut as a feature director. Rewindstars Amy Huberman as a former alcoholic - now married to a suburban money-bags - whose life comes to shreds when a dangerous old boyfriend saunters back into town. Co- written by Ronan Carr, creator of the much-loved short Coolockland, Rewindhas just enough story to occupy its lean 80 minutes: the reformed character is lured away for an ill-fated road trip. Rewindis, however, particularly remarkable for Dillon's own flinty cinematography and for two fine lead performances. Huberman, shaky, mad-eyed and icy, confirms that - all that Bod-marrying noted - she fully deserves fame in her own right. Playing the bad penny, Allen Leach, hitherto cheekily charming in Man About Dogand Cowboys and Angels, demonstrates an unsuspected ability to lurk with menacing intent. The picture deserves to be seen commercially.

Come on Eileen, the debut feature by Finola Geraghty, revolves around a similar scenario to that of Rewind, but ends up in very different territory. Jackie Howe plays a recovering alcoholic, living in suburban London, who, as the film begins, is just about managing to keep her family in a happy place: a daughter dances for a pop band; a teenage son is approaching his GCSEs. Life falls apart when, responding to a slight trigger, the protagonist falls off the wagon and under the wheels. Reminiscent of Mike Leigh's work - the phrase "bitter-sweet" is never far from your mind - Come on Eileenfeatures pitch-perfect performances from its leads and makes excellent use of some celebrity cameos: Noel Fielding as a self-absorbed rock star; Julia Davis as a barfly; Keith Allen as the heroine's former husband.

The film is, perhaps, a little too episodic and ramshackle in its structure, but the fleshiness of the characters keeps it happily afloat.

For unhinged, unfettered ambition, few films came close to an experimental piece from Colin Downey entitled The Looking Glass.

Focusing on a young man as he contemplates the birth of his first child, the film teeters on the edge of odd before plunging precipitously into avant-garde territory. In truth, The Looking Glassis as often alienating as it is bewitching. The sombre hums on the soundtrack are as expected and the allusions to childhood abuse do not seem earned. But this is a singular piece of work enlivened by another strong performance from Patrick O'Donnell. The gruesome archive footage is well used.

Elsewhere, a few fine films that had already premiered in other festivals received further screenings. The Meeting Roomby James David and Brian Gray, a documentary on the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement in inner-city Dublin, offered fascinating insights into a phenomenon that was too often patronised and misrepresented in the mainstream media. Dealing economically with the movement's connections to Sinn Féin - overemphasised, the contributors claim - and its uneasy relations with the Garda, this gripping piece reminds us to look behind reductive headlines in search of more nuanced truths.

Mention should also be made of an erratic, but ultimately rather diverting, horror film entitled Outcast. Colm McCarthy's picture stars an unusually ill-tempered James Nesbitt as a heavily tattooed maniac who, for reasons that emerge slowly and effectively, is committed to tracking down and annihilating a teenage boy and his mother. Making good use of its Edinburgh (again) locations, Outcast, a co-production of the Irish Film Board, gets great mileage from a relatively thin and implausible scenario. McCarthy, an experienced TV director, shows real potential with this first feature outing.

Decent and varied as the above films proved, there remained a clear winner among the domestic pictures this writer got to see. Written and directed by Carmel Winters, Snapplays out like a combination of veritéshowcase, domestic horror show and avant-garde detective story.

Aisling O'Sullivan stars as a mother who, as we join her, is grudgingly permitting a film crew entry to her house. It seems that, in her past, she was blamed for some ghastly tragedy, and she wants to set the record straight. The scenes of her ill-tempered tirades are intercut with sequences depicting the queasy relationship between a teenager and the young child for whom he is caring. Gradually, a rancid story involving three generations of abuse emerges, and the film coalesces into an impressive temporally jumbled tragedy.

Shot in a variety of media by Kate McCullough (lauded for last year's fleadh hit His & Hers), Snapmanages to bridge the gap between clever experiment and properly rooted drama. It seems that Winters, a teacher of creative writing, devised the characters as elements of a training scenario for budding psychiatrists. That noted, the picture never feels like an icy exercise and never falls into stereotypical character types. It would be nice if Snapfound a life beyond the festival circuit.

For all Winters' achievements, she did not manage to cheer us up all that much. Maybe the good people at Toy Story 3- offered a gala screening - can do the trick. Well, yes and no. The film is funny, but even that Pixar cartoon ended with a scene of handkerchief dampening poignancy.

Oh well. At the least the rain went away in the last few days.