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Whither British cinema after <em>The Full Monty</em> and <em>Notting Hill</em>? Jonathan Romney read

Does anyone make art films in Britain? And if they do, is anyone interested? Last year I got a barracking in print from the producer and director of the commercially successful British film Little Voice for suggesting that their picture was symptomatic of the low aspirations of too much British cinema. A brassy crowd-pleaser, the film knew exactly what audience it was after and which buttons to press to attract it. The gist of the film-makers' counter-attack was that there was nothing wrong with a film going for its audience and getting it, and in a sense that's true: plenty of films made here target a particular audience and miss it miserably. But in the past few years of its current bullish semi-renaissance, British cinema has largely resounded to one mantra: what's wrong with making films that people actually want to see?

The answer is that it can be terribly sterile to second-guess public tastes: you end up making films that people feel they've seen before, or forget in a hurry. It's unlikely that 1999 will be remembered as the year of Swing or Virtual Sexuality or Rogue Trader. The best formula for memorable cinema surely lies in taking risks, going against the grain, trusting in a film-maker's vision. I hesitate to invoke an unsavoury foreign label such as auteur cinema, but that's clearly what we need more of, at the very least to temper the current crop of mainstream output. Auteur films, art films, anomaly films - whatever you call them - at least stand a chance of creating their own audience, of finding a public that never dreamed it wanted to see such films, because it never knew those films were possible.

Cultivating that public is traditionally the function of film festivals, and for British cinema, this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival bodes particularly well. Not only has it chosen especially good British debut features for its opening and closing films, but what lies in between covers a range of output that couldn't have been better designed to spur debate. There's a sort of symbolic quality to some of the selections. There's the long-awaited return of Bill Forsyth, whose Gregory's Two Girls is, perhaps ominously, a sequel to 1980's Gregory's Girl, a film that in its day spurred a brief swell of confidence on the part of British (and particularly Scottish) independent cinema, just as Trainspotting did in 1995. There's also The Darkest Light, the first film co-directed (with Billie Eltringham) by Simon Beaufoy, whose script for The Full Monty best evokes the current brash, have-a-go image of British film.

But as a reminder of how precarious such up-for-it spirit can be, there's also the new film by Nottingham's sometimes inspired chancer Shane Meadows, one of the few new British directors to promote himself successfully as a face as well as a name. Meadows is a DIY autodidact whose no-budget films with his friends, featuring spiky wigs and spiky non-sequitur dialogue (seek out his superb Small Time), showed an utterly wayward comic imagination. Unfortunately his debut feature twenty-four:seven revealed an ungainly sentimentalist behind the tough shell; fans are hoping he'll recoup lost ground with A Room for Romeo Brass.

Just to prove that hard-core art films still get made once in a while, there's a real anomaly in the form of I Could Read the Sky, which must be the most abstract British film to be made on any significant budget for some time. The final feature from the BFI's wound-down production division, Nichola Bruce's film, from the book by the novelist Timothy O'Grady and the photographer Steve Pyke, is a sort of radio play for the eyes, chronicling the reminiscences of an elderly Irish immigrant in London. Bruce's liquidly shifting images evoke the textures of memory in a mixture of technology and impressionism that feels closer to animation than live action. I can't say I enjoyed it exactly, or even that it holds the attention throughout, but I have to admire its quixotic intransigence.

For a completely arresting and distinctive vision, the film to see is the festival's opener, Ratcatcher, the debut by the young Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay. She's already been acclaimed for her shorts, and Ratcatcher shows her entering the feature league with astonishing confidence. Set in Glasgow during the refuse collectors' strike of the mid-1970s, this is one of the most lucid, unsentimental films made about childhood in this country. Its young protagonist, James, played by the skinny, stone-faced William Eadie, lives with his family on a canalside estate and is hit, in the film's first few minutes, by a trauma that stays with him through to the end. Ramsay's bold stroke is then to refer to that trauma barely at all, simply letting us infer its effect on the boy's psyche. Not obviously narrative in shape, Ratcatcher is a strongly structured but still impressionistic tableau, a reconstruction of a particular reality of recent Scottish life, yet resculpted, given a dream-like amplitude.

You may feel you need a shower after you've seen it: Ramsay pushes the all-pervasive grit and muck for all their metaphorical potential, without forcing the issue. It is not quite a nightmare-of-childhood film: it's leavened by a distinctive, sometimes surreal humour, as in a dizzy fantasy about mice on the moon. Rather overlooked in Cannes this year, Ratcatcher may prove to be one of the British benchmark movies of the 1990s: it displays a fully formed vision that's as strong as anyone's since Terence Davies.

It's bold of the festival to kick off with a film that's considerably more downbeat than gala audiences traditionally prefer. But it closes with one of those rare films that you can call "feel-good" with a clear conscience. Beautiful People will probably prove to be one of the festival's two British crowd-pleasers (the other is the Asian comedy East is East, which I haven't seen yet, but it went down a storm in Cannes). Written and directed by the Bosnian-born Jasmin Dizdar, Beautiful People manages to be uplifting and savage at the same time and pitches Yugoslavian political satire against a Mike Leigh-ish comedy of British manners to bracing effect. This is the only British film I can remember (in years? Ever?) that convincingly captures the knockabout sprawl of Robert Altman's comedies. Its many characters include a Serb and a Croat slugging it out to the death even in adjoining London hospital beds, while various British toffs, thugs and anguished softies go about their confused business. At heart, Beautiful People is a semi-realist sitcom pushed the extra few yards and, even if it sometimes loses its focus, it has a way of pulling itself together again with agreeable brutality - there's a wonderfully black joke about the usefulness of heroin. Of course, if British cinema-goers were asked in advance if they actually wanted to see films about Yugoslav vendettas in London or vermin-dodging Glasgow childhoods, you can be pretty sure what the answer would be. But these films were made against the prevailing commercial wisdom, and there's every chance that, come their release, audiences will prove that wisdom wrong.

"Ratcatcher" plays in Edinburgh on Sunday 15 and Tuesday 17 August and is released on 19 November; "Beautiful People" plays in Edinburgh on Sunday 29 August and is released on 17 September