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Ridicule Patrice Leconte (15) Fly Away Home Carroll Ballard (U) His Girl Friday Howard Hawks (U) White Man's Burden Desmond Nakono (15)
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The Independent Culture
Comedians today don't know they're born. When they talk about dying in front of an audience, it's a figure of speech, but at the court of Louis XVI, in late 18th-century France, a barbed wit would save your life - and stiffing meant just that. The fate of a man could hang on the bite of his rejoinders, the elegance of his epigrams. If you didn't get a laugh, you faced a lifetime of disgrace, or a swift death. TV companies today might immeasurably improve their output by introducing such a clause into every sitcom writer's contract.

In Ridicule, directed by Patrice Leconte (see interview page 8) the innocent Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) finds himself in the company of the aristocratic parasites Comtesse de Blayac (Fanny Ardant) and the Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau), who see him as nothing more than an inconsequential hors d'uvre - until his ripostes prove him unexpectedly tart to the taste. He appears to astonish himself, as well as everyone else, by cutting his new acquaintances down to size; there's the startled pride in his eyes of a man who has just hit a bull's eye with a gun he didn't even know was loaded.

Ridicule is a very smart, beautifully written comedy - about wit, though in itself fizzy rather than actually witty. It is, of course, hamstrung by the paradox of needing to despise the very characters who lend it that fizz. In their brittle language, the courtiers might have resembled ancestors of the Algonquin set, but Leconte gives us a portrait closer to what we know of Andy Warhol's Factory clique, celebrating the elitism and etiquette but alert to the fraudulence. During a game in which competitors improvise comic verse, Ponceludon catches De Blayac cheating, but reveals his discovery only to the cheat herself. Shopping her would be to his disadvantage, since her patronage is essential to gain favour with the King.

As played with sublime sensuality by Fanny Ardant, De Blayac remains the picture's most complex and fascinating creation. When we first see her, she is having her entire body powdered, and is naked but for a constellation of dust rearranging itself about her. As she steps out of it, she leaves behind two bright mahogany footprints in the inch of powder that has settled on the floor.

It's a delicious image: De Blayac is a slave to her powder puff, with only accidental glimpses of the person beneath. And she's acutely aware of her function and facade, as anyone who has risen to so influential a position would be. "It is well known that my bedroom leads to the King," she tells Ponceludon as he tries to seduce her. "Learn to hide your insincerity so that I may yield to you without dishonour." In feigning strength, she reveals her weakness: she has spent so long disguising herself with words that she's frightened to express the emotions behind them.

In the car crash that begins Fly Away Home, 14-year-old Amy (Anna Paquin) loses her mother. She moves in with her estranged father Thomas (Jeff Daniels), and finds herself sharing his Ontario farm with the light aircraft that are keeping his head in the clouds. Amy feels lost until she discovers a batch of goose eggs, and nurtures them, not knowing that geese latch on to whoever they first clap eyes on. Spot the opportunities for psychological repair-work that the goslings represent, and win a meal of oie a l'orange for two.

The adventure escalates when Amy discovers that the orphaned geese need guidance to help them migrate: she has no option but to turn to her magnificent dad and his flying machines for help. Although you might question the sensitivity of a man who nearly kills himself hang-gliding on the first morning that his recently bereaved daughter wakes up in his house, Jeff Daniels conveys a jolly recklessness that you can believe might prove endearing to those around him. It's all in the beard - he has a likeable beatnik quality which suggests he has at last bid farewell to the Befuddled Suburban Male, a role which was his in all but copyright.

The real winners here are Caleb Deschanel's lyrical photography and the unforced direction of Carroll Ballard, which frees you to shed a tear or two without feeling you've been bullied into it. If you were part of the generation that Ballard impressed with The Black Stallion in 1979, you won't need much persuasion to take your own children along to Fly Away Home. They'll be in expert hands.

His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks's sizzling 1940 comedy-drama, is re-released this week, with the bright, brash Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, a reporter trying to resist her editor and ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) as he attempts to woo her back into his employment, and his life. Charles Lederer's high-octane script moves faster than a speeding bullet, and a keen ear is required to keep track of the wisecracks. Hawks paces the whole thing with fearless verve, as though he's choreographing a musical; you'll be hours trying to prise the smile off your face.

Desmond Nakano's well-meaning but naive allegory, White Man's Burden, is set in a society split into affluent blacks and breadline whites, where a factory-worker (John Travolta) kidnaps his wealthy boss (Harry Belafonte). Never mind that the scenario is deeply flawed, the economic divide implausibly adhering to racial boundaries, so that we see neither poor blacks nor rich whites. The film is badly lit, clumsily paced and executed without wit. And we all know from Ridicule where witlessness gets you. So, which is it to be, Mr Nakano? Disgrace or death?

All films on release from tomorrow