CINEMA / Can't see Woody for the tricks

AS Woody Allen's life grows trickier, his art gets tricksier. In Husbands and Wives, his camera juddered about like a nervous tic. In Shadows and Fog, he borrows the full paraphernalia of German Expressionism. The film is set in an unnamed middle-European town (Prague?) at an unspecified time (the 1920s?): a tracing-paper world of slate greys and charcoals, looming shadows and lamps guttering into the gloom. Carlo Di Palma's photography is so murky you could choke on it. The plot is cadged from Fritz Lang's M: a killer on the loose; both law and outlaws anxious to restore the status quo. We see the strangler, in shadow, at the start of the film. With his knee-length cloak, pointy ears, and spatulate fingers, he's a ringer for Murnau's Nosferatu.

Allen has clearly gone to great lengths to create this look. It's surprising that he does so little with it. He's stuck between a Kafkaesque fable of the repressive state and his habitual light romantic comedy. He plays a cringing clerk, close-cropped and tweedy, summoned by a dawn rap on the door to perform an unstated role in the underworld plot to stop the murderer. From his baffled innocence and portentous name (Kleinman: Little Man), we're supposed to think it's Woody K. But he's awfully like Woody A: stammering, wringing his hands, and flush with the best Jewish jokes around.

Around him Hollywood stars glitter, at odds with the dour European setting. When we're not in the streets trailing the murderer, we're at the circus or the whorehouse. John Malkovich plays a sad clown, with a sword-swallower wife (Mia Farrow) and a roving eye - focused at present on the high-wire walker (a winsome but bearable few seconds of Madonna). Allen invests the fairground scenes with none of the chaos and menace of their German models. They're picturesque interludes. The brothel scenes are even prettier. The whores, all scrubbed and bloomered, include Kathy Bates and Jodie Foster: they've had more Oscars than punters. Still, they get many of the best lines. Allen: 'I've never paid for sex.' Foster: 'You just think you've never paid for it.'

The only actors who seem at home are Donald Pleasence and John Cusack. Pleasence, as a pale pated, grave-voiced pathologist searching for the nature of evil, is killed too early for the town's good, and the film's. Cusack is the brothel's best customer. A student dulled by ennui, he has the air of Hamlet home from Wittenberg. The rest of the cast have come on from a fancy- dress party on the Upper West Side.

Allen has only ever been a moderate parodist, both in print and on screen. He's too self-centred an artist to lose himself in the work he's guying. Shadows and Fog feels flimsy and unfinished. The hankering after Kafka comes as no surprise. 'Your self-esteem is a notch below Kafka's,' Allen tells Diane Keaton in Manhattan: a barb that could as well be aimed at him. It was perverse of him to ape Expressionism, which was all about showing states of mind with scenery; Allen's characters have always worn their neuroses on their sleeves. You don't need a winding stairway to express unease when you have an analyst's couch.

The film is, in fact, not Allen's latest, but his last but one. For reasons of prurience, Husbands and Wives was pushed up the order. Shadows and Fog is in some ways more revealing. John Malkovich's character can't have taken much imagining: the morose jester, miserably married to Mia Farrow, and fearing that a family would destroy his art. 'Believe me,' he moans, 'nothing is more terrifying than attempting to make people laugh.' It's Allen's own lament. Only now are we seeing how much of himself he's laid bare. Is it any wonder that he needs breaks from the terror of self-exposure? Shadows and Fog is worth seeing for its museum-piece beauty and its sprinkling of good gags. But to regain the heights, Allen will have to open up again.

Agnieszka Holland's Olivier Olivier starts like an idyll: a pair of children playing in a French cornfield beside a vet's surgery. But the day is overcast and the children are squabbling and unappealing - Nadine (Faye Gatteau), a resentful older sister, and Olivier (Emmanuel Morozof), sallow and selfish, with dark devious eyes. Their parents are even grimmer. Serge (Francois Cluzet), the vet, is so distrait he leaves a syringe in a cat. He doesn't treat his wife (Brigitte Rouan) much better. Their marriage is dying of indifference. It takes Olivier's disappearance to snuff it out. When Olivier walks in, six years later, after working the Paris streets, there is sweetness and light for a second, before the gloom rearranges itself.

In Europa, Europa, Holland turned the true story of a Jewish boy who spent the war as a Hitler Youth into something overblown and empty. Here she's taken a real-life yarn, from a newspaper cutting, and given it the ring of truth. The film has an eye for the shifting moods of the family. Before Olivier leaves, he's his mother's boy; on his return, his father reclaims him. The family dynamic is altered. While over them all hangs the spectre of Olivier's unknown past. The revelation is a poignant jolt, but it's the mundane build-up which is most moving.

Gregg Araki's The Living End is a gay road movie - Guide Bleu meets Gide. A young film critic, Jon (Craig Gilmore), picks up a James Dean-like wastrel, Luke (Mike Dytri). They're both HIV-positive. For Luke, this prompts an anarchic hedonism: drink, screw and be murderous, for tomorrow we die. Jon clings to the remnants of his former life, but more tightly to Luke, who he's fallen in love with. He feels altered, but doesn't know why. Is it love or death that's changing him?

Gay or not, the film is a straightish road movie: a charismatic seducer drives his besotted lover into deeper and deeper danger. It's Breathless - and comfortless. At its worst it's just a rant: the credits lash out at 'a big white house full of Republican fuckheads'. At its best, it pricks homophobia with telling wit.

Stay Tuned is a comedy by Peter Hyams which wanders all over the dial but rarely picks up any laughter. Mr and Mrs Average America get sucked up by their new satellite dish (which looks as if it's come from NASA), and landed in the world of cable television. There they star in the pap they watch, as the film limply spoofs a gamut of shows. It hasn't made up its mind whether it's an adventure story (Mr and Mrs Jones in the TV of Doom) or a farce. It ends up resembling the thing it's satirising: witless, predictable, and full of C-grade performers. Stay away.

'Shadows and Fog' (15): Lumiere (836 0691). 'Olivier Olivier' (18): MGM Swiss Centre (439 4470). 'The Living End' (18): MGM Piccadilly (437 3561). 'Stay Tuned' (PG): MGMs Fulham Rd (370 2636), Tottenham Court Rd (636 6148) and Trocadero (434 0031), Whiteleys (792 3324). All numbers are 071.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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