CINEMA / Tango through the motions

THE FRENCH director Patrice Leconte's recent work has been almost a cinema of sexual solipsism, devoted to the solitary and fetishistic - only the lonely need apply. In the film that made his name in Britain, Monsieur Hire (1988), he made a tragic hero out of a voyeur. Then came a wistful comedy about a man's life-long devotion to breasts and barbers, The Hairdresser's Husband (1990). Now he serves up a misogynistic menage a trois in Tango (15): a lark about lady-killing that might be retitled Three Men in a Bate.

The raging trio consists of daredevil aviator Vincent (Richard Bohringer); Paul (Thierry Lhermitte), a young husband tethered to a stifling marriage; and a judge, played by Philippe Noiret, whose life excludes all females, except a cat, Sandrine. We meet them separately, ignorant of how their destinies are crossed. Vincent is seen goggled-up, wreaking with his biplane a terrible aeronautic revenge on his wife and her lover. Paul humiliates his wife (Miou- Miou) with another woman and then chafes at finding the boot on the other foot. The judge enjoys a boiled egg and glass of red, and spends the evening, with only feline company to offend, breaking wind. It turns out that he is Paul's uncle and Vincent's benefactor, having seen to his acquittal, believing 'wife-killing isn't murder'. The three set out to kill Paul's wife, travelling the French roads like a chauvinist riposte to Thelma and Louise.

It sounds dangerous stuff, a red rag to bullish feminists. But Leconte never pushes the boundaries of taste any further than the art-house door. Even the whirlwind flying scene at the opening, when Vincent with exhilarating callousness loops-the-loop without checking his wife's seat-belt, has an anaesthetising neatness. The image of the film is the tango, which, like the hairdresser's husband's weird little jig, is a courtship ritual, stately and absurd at the same time. Leconte is settling again for the crimped bitter-sweetness summed up in the grindingly refined music of Michael Nyman, who has scored his last three films. Though the sexist devils have the best tunes, they come over as sad rather than bad, their sexism a form of misplaced romanticism.

There are attempts at escape from this prison of taste. When Paul finds his wife astride a taxi-driver, a flaming row douses the love-making. 'If you don't need me,' suggests the prone driver, 'I'll go now.' Such comic moments fall flat as Leconte neither drives them forward with the manic energy of farce nor stops them deadpan for black comedy. The film limps on, lifted by the acting: Noiret's shambling charm, Bohringer unhinged as the flyer, Lhermitte callow and coltish as the husband aching for pastures new. Miou-Miou puts the feminine argument with knowing grace despite having the weakest hand. But Tango, designed as a danse macabre, ends as a plod through familiar steps.

Storyville (15) starts with the camera skimming a muddy-brown Louisiana river, an apt image for a film that glides over the muck of Southern politics without ever quite taking the plunge. James Spader plays Cray Fowler, fighting for a seat in Congress, with a mighty family behind him, and battling to find the truth about his father's suicide on the day he was due to testify to a federal grand jury about shady property dealing. Soon we're wading in a quagmire of corruption involving a crooked Vietnam vet (Philip Carter), a beautiful Chinese girl (Charlotte Lewis) and her extortionist father.

The plot bowls out of control, collapsing in a crass courtroom climax, but the people are worth watching. The Fowlers are a family of lushes, a bourbon dynasty presided over by the slurring, semi-comatose mother, Piper Laurie, and her boozy brother, Jason Robards. James Spader is well-cast as the slick young heir, seediness already in his soul. His fallen-cherub face gives him the right look of dissipated aristocracy. There's a deal of Kennedy there and a hint of Clinton (especially in the leaden speeches). He glad-hands and grins, without showing an ounce of real understanding. Visiting the Chinese girl's low-life club, he passes a room in which a pornographer and his model are squabbling, and smiles serenely. He's at home amongst sleaze.

If director and co-writer Mark Frost had mined this seam of seaminess to its core, he might have matched the rancorous portrait of Southern politics in Robert Rossen's rousing 1949 film All the King's Men, adapted from Robert Penn Warren's novel about Huey Long. Instead, Frost tries to ape the cultish surrealism and off-key humour of Twin Peaks, which he co-created with David Lynch. Certain shots and sequences - like the slow close-up of blood dripping down a door-handle after Spader puts his hand through a window - are of an absurdity that can only suggest they are Peak-ish attempts at gruesome wit. Frost brings off the odd Lynch-like touch, such as when Spader visits a black tenant exploited by the Fowlers and we get a chilly shot of the man's giant intertwined fingers. More often he suggests that Twin Peaks' quirkiness was largely Lynch's.

The wordless Baraka (PG) showcases the wonders of creation, whisking us round the world in 96 minutes: the sort of film God might make as a promo. A snow monkey blinks at the camera, looking both young and ancient. Time-lapse photography turns a sky from grey to pink in seconds. Holy men pray, waters cascade. A flock of birds shot from above seems to rest on a cellophane veil over the earth. What does it all mean? Some have found it obscure, but if anything it's slightly simplistic: spirituality contrasted with commerce, wide open spaces with the mass of humanity. For every craggy vista there's a crowded city scene: Japanese businessman cramming into mortuary-slab sleeping compartments, New York cabs speeded up to look like a crazy colony of yellow ants, factory workers reiterating mechanical motions like Chaplin in Modern Times. Never mind that the same pernicious technology gave director Ron Fricke, who also photographed Koyaanisqatsi, his heady shots: breathe in the beauty.

Bambi (U) can also be read as an eco-message movie: an attack on the wicked ways of 'Man', his heedless devastation of nature for sport, culminating in a forest fire. The little deer is now 51 and beginning to show his age. His fluttering eyes and fawning ways drew more snorts than sniffles from the stoney critics I sat with. The animation now looks antique, and it's hard to imagine the yodelling choirs ever sounding right, but it still sees off most of the new kids' movies on the block.

For cinema details, see Review, page 78.

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