Somehow, amongst the many offerings of the 2007 Melbourne International Film Festival, bleary-eyed correspondent JESSIE BORRELLE managed to find a way to have her cake and eat it too.

FILM FESTIVALS are one of the best kinds of lottery, in some ways they’re legalised gambling for cinephiles and lady luck was on our side, for this year not only saw a spat of brilliant and brilliantly disappointing films, but one reviewer stumbled across a rudimentary and delicious system of gauging the overall quality of a film; the flawless cake-o-metre.

Let me explain: chaperoning me into each film was a slice of relatively scrumptious banana cake. Three rules for the cake-o-metre: no empty stomachs, no ridiculously flavoursome cake and one slice per person. If the film captures full attention, the cake will be revealed, at lights up, intact and uncorrupted by distracted pawing. If the film is inconsistent or loses its bearings, the cake will likely suffer minor nibbling. The disappearance of the cake altogether will generally signify some regrettable celluloid. Armed with baked goods and big eyes – I entered the guts of the inaugural MIFF.

The Festival’s new executive director, Richard Moore, broke with the festival tradition of playing an Australian (usually fiction) debut to instead screen Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Sicko – the contentious filmmaker receiving a standing ovation. Dogged by accusations of megalomania, manipulation and selective editing, Moore’s decision to edit down his quite dominating voice was highly regarded by the opening-night audience, those who were at the screening objecting only to the length and not the breadth of Sicko.

Another film that audiences were itching to get a look at was Mister Lonely from counterculture hero Harmonie Korine (Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy). With Korine’s trademark exploitative flashes and lashings of artifice, Mister Lonely’s plot charts a meek, wistful Michael Jackson impersonator through the indifferent streets of Paris into a Dogma-esque rest home scene where he meets an idealistic yet melancholic Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The struggling Monroe invites Michael to her Scottish commune-cum-utopia for b-grade impersonators, a verdant, isolated setting where the bulk of the film occurs. The crowd cackled aplenty and seemed satisfied by the kitsch offerings of the delusional fame-hungry characters, which included an Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange) with Tourette’s, an alcoholic pope (James Fox) and an abusive, philandering Charlie Chaplin (French actor Denis Lavant). Hindered by the often unnatural and clumsy dialogue of an effete band of characters, Mister Lonely’s stellar cast was left a little stranded amongst what could have been fascinating (but ultimately failed) queries into identity, fame and loneliness. This included director extraordinaire Werner Herzog as an Anglican priest who hosted an unrelated narrative that, for all of its compelling incongruity, did contain a noteworthy and brilliant improv scene. It was a sell-out session and there were persuasive moments but in the end, even with all the right ingredients, I felt Korinne had really just tossed scraps of Peter Greenaway, Disney and Michel Gondry in a blender and served us up a thick shake of awkward, contrived and phantasmagorical slop. It was a piece of cake – gone. It did make me wonder: is it better to be a c-grade version of a celebrity than a b-grade version of yourself?

So, to the anatomy of the Gala – some of the festival sections previously developed by ex-MIFF director James Hewison were re-styled; Regional Focus became the more ominous ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ where you would find Eagle vs Shark amongst other cult-worthy gems, with the former Middle East section whittled down to ‘Stars of David’ featuring new Israeli filmmakers. Africa fronts up with ‘Africa! Africa!’ – a focus on the continent and Indigenous filmmakers arrive in the amorphous ‘World Stories’ segment, host to The Waimate Conspiracy. Finally the vagina dentada stars in its own movie with the roaring hit Teeth, and there was some less visceral and more cheesy sauce in Anna Biller’s Viva – a schlock comedy homage to 1970’s sexploitation films, both dazzler’s nestled into the line up ‘Forbidden Pleasures’. Another film in this lot was Savage Grace from Tom Kalin, auteur of Swoon (1999) which raises the question: is it better to be a princely heir with psychotic incestuous tendencies, or a mentally stable pauper?

“Savage Grace”

Kalin answered this question, filling theatres to the brim with his latest offering and Cannes favourite – the tale of a society murder adapted from its literary namesake. The audience murmured restlessly, united by the desire to see Kalin’s new work and I suspect partly by a morbid curiosity; for who doesn’t want to see the glamorous decay of the filthy rich, as played by three fine-looking actors, in a seamlessly styled facsimile of the post-war era. Two of Kalin’s pet topics – decadence and depravity – were lightly surveyed, the film relying heavily on the telegenic Julianne Moore’s consummate acting. Strangely, Savage was summarised by the MIFF guide as the tale of the murder of high society wife Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) whose ‘unorthodox attempts to “cure” her son’s homosexuality’ lead him to despatch his mother with a knife in their posh London apartment. Less about Barbara administering taboo medicine to her noisome son Tony (doe-in-the-woods Eddie Redmayne) the biopic is more a leisurely, ornate study of the bakelite empires great grandson’s symbiotic – bordering on oedipal – relationship with his desperate-to-please possessive mother. Gloriously moustached, Stephen Dillane inhabited Brooks Baekeland, heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, with a fitting restraint against the sensually filmed backdrop and though some may accuse the film of not quite delivering a depth to the pathos of a family who prove, one again, that truth is stranger than fiction, well – I still had my cake when the credits rolled.

The never-ending cauldron of society’s foibles and fantasies bubbles up everywhere, affording filmmakers inexhaustible screen material. The Israeli Dror Sabo’s No Exit is a dark, satirical take on the perversity and corruption within the empire of reality TV. A sleazy bankrupt television producer pulls the ultimate ratings heist, co-opting a young Israeli filmmaker, his girlfriend, best friend and a desperate famewhore – all seduced by pop culture’s promises of success – into a collusion that ultimately allows the studio to get away with murder, all for the viewing pleasure of the TV nation. Thoughts on media cannibalism and US-Israeli industry back-patting aside, the earnest acting and unrelenting asexuality concluded in a mild assault on the cake-o-metre.

Neighbourhood Watch might infer the fruitfulness of peering over the shoulder of South Korea’s burgeoning film industry. Still, the dialogue in well established auteur Kim Ki-duk’s psychodrama Shi Gan (Time) often surrenders to a kind of soap-operality that is a little distracting from the plot (completely cuckoo – yet not improbable) and though it is self-effacing and plucky it does hamper the Freudian hilarity of the plastic surgery love battle that occurs between a young modern moneyed Asian couple in pursuit of ul-jjang (a perfect face).

On Cuckoo: the legendary shenanigans of the inexplicable Gonzo Journalist, recollected by a pot-pori of actors, (Cusack, Del Torro and co) the trophy wife, friends (a leather-vested, verbose county sheriff) and collaborators (Ralph Stedman), meant, predictably, after an eyeball’s full of Buy a Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S Thompson on Film most folks walked out of the cinema feeling like terribly boring and restrained individuals. Hunter would have walked away feeling bored. Maybe. Stock footage of the actual protagonist was terrific, his tight-jawed diatribe always seductive, somehow. Conventions insisted that the filmmakers trot out some talking heads, in this instance the Hollywood bad boys (Johnny Depp and Sean Penn), who also popped up in The Clash film Joe Strummer: the Future is Unwritten. Even though really, this supporting material was essentially a distracting exposure of the actors’ narcissism (excluding the infallible Bill Murray) they spilled a few good yarns. But overwhelmingly, the infirmity of this documentary was the decision to tread the well-worn path and flog the dead pony and write a ho-hum love letter to Hunter S. Pudding ensued.

One of the festivals flotsam and jetsam was Austrian It Happened Just Before, woeful narratives of women, reluctantly exploited and trafficked throughout Europe, spoken through predominantly male protagonists. It was a sombre popcornless ninety minutes – a poignant, Teutonic ennui, a rare lack of artifice highlighted the gender disparity and the disappointments of the exploited underclass. I think I crushed my cake out of sheer moroseness. Still speaking of documentaries, Billy the Kid, a portrait of a strangely magnetic high school teen was talked up and rightly so, this film was a firecracker, and clocked in as the favourite audience doco. Debut filmmaker Jennifer Vendetti was low on lights but seized Billy’s bewitching lack of guile with a tasteful sincerity and humour.

“Radiant City”

Showing in the company of Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon The Brain! and with the southern-fried gothic meets steamy salvation appeal of Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan all slathered in Christina Ricci, Samuel L and JT, another Cannes treasure was Roy Andersson’s You, the Living (Du Levande). His similarly themed Songs from the Second Floor floored me, and Du Levande with its sickly pallor, Nordic non-sequiturs and wondrous tableaux did the same. Interposed throughout with the phrase ‘tomorrow is another day’ (delaying idealism) the tragi-comedy – wallpapered with Gustav Danielsson's emaciated, communist chic – delivers a beguiling query into the strange meaning and meaningless of existence. Jarmuschian in the manner of staging a collection of painterly vignettes that do not necessarily remain loyal to or really even hinge on an overarching narrative, Andersson’s wry, gloomy humour is consistent – with more emphasis on the fatalistic, tentatively hopeful despair of his players than the capitalist critique present in Songs.

Fourth-time director and indie staple David Gordon Green smoothly exploited the disarming sound of a gunshot to punctuate the lives of his characters in Snow Angels. This device, fast becoming a convention (think Babel) worked well in setting the wintry tone – gentle, occasionally mirthful but subdued – with Sam Rockwell (playing the alcoholic born-again Glenn) and unusually real Kate Beckinsdale (as Rockwell’s estranged wife Annie) sucking you in with a deftness that prevents you from wondering why you are so interested in the crumbling lives of small town Americans strapped into the bible belt. And the speckled scenes of snow falling, pubescent love and some rabid Jesus talk got me a bit woozy I bet.

I came up trumps with Radiant City, a killer documentary from Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns (‘king of surreal comedy’) and journalist Jim Brown, on the phenomena of suburban sprawl. Surburbia’s voracious consumption of the American landscape with its ‘zombie monoculture’ is magnified through this intimate yet calculated representation. Cashing in on sitcom, reality TV, soft parody and factoids galore and filmed with shades of mockumentry Radiant City is swish and informative; a repository of good celluloid. There was a measure of Christopher Guest in the histrionics and deadpan delivery of the hired help, in this case a facsimile of different suburbanite families. It’s nice to see a genre re-jigged and jimmied when it’s this scrupulous an example. The soundtrack features songs from Joey Santiago of The Pixies (it sounds good), and wide-angled cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin hangs a salon of painterly backdrops that give those cookie cutter dystopias a melancholic romance. Look out for theorist James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, and interview dynamite ‘80 percent of everything ever built in North America has been built in the last 50 years. Most of it is brutal, depressing, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading’. This film transfixed me from curtains up and I had some baked goodness to escort me through the slow, crowded and clogged exit from the cinema.

The Melbourne International Film Festival shut up shop with This is England, a revisionist take on the skin-head culture of Thatcherite England; it’s supposedly full of some kind of electricity. Look out for it. It’s won awards and sounds like a champion. Somewhat sated by my piece of the overall action, I am distinctively lacking in a Japanese school-girl scene, and will look out for wunderkind Hirokazu Koreeda’s Hana Yori Mo Naho, a highlight of this year’s programme which also celebrated Japanese cinema with a retrospective of Shohei Imamura’s career (The Pornographers, Vengeance is Mine). If I crunch the sums of what I covered in this years Bonanza of over two hundred films, my numbers don’t really add up to much, I only skimmed the surface. There is an inventory of films to chase down on DVD or on the Bigger Screen that will definitely keep me going til next year. Still overall, I ate some cake, I didn’t eat some cake and maybe next year I’ll try the pavlova-o-meter, and see how that goes down in the five mile long queues that even the discreet flash of a media pass can’t leap frog you over.