Cinema: Dial M for Michael

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The Independent Culture
A Perfect Murder (15)

Rien ne va plus (15)

The Dream Life of Angels (18)

Deja Vu (15)

Kuhle Wampe (no cert)

Hamam - The Turkish Bath (15)

Mulan (PG)

This week, I learnt to love Michael Douglas. And what did it for me? That gelled hair that curls over the back of his neck. His Alan Partridge leather driving gloves. That sinister fold of middle-aged fat that brims over his too-tight collars. That snarling, desiccated voice, like Marge Simpson's psycho brother. His glacial nastiness. His horrid Bob Monkhouse tan. I could probably go on all day, but that's how it is when you're in love.

His new film, A Perfect Murder, is a remake of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. But I suspect that the director, Andrew Davis, didn't accept the job just to profane the memory of a classic thriller. Despite having box- office darling Gwyneth Paltrow to take on the Grace Kelly part, his focus is on Douglas, Douglas, Douglas. Davis's film is a full-throated paean to the star's irresistible awfulness.

Back when he was a zeitgeisty figure, Douglas's screen persona - a ravenous tom-cat who has somehow managed to avoid the vet's scissors - was a cause for discomfort. Now he is gloriously out of sync with the current Hollywood idea of what men should be like, and it reflects rather well on him. Can you imagine him doing a scene with Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck? Of course not. He is so emphatically Eighties that when he walks on to the screen, you expect him to have Limahl on one arm and Julie Burchill on the other.

Douglas plays multimillionaire stockbroker Steven Taylor, an art collector whose taste - if my eyes didn't deceive me - extends to the work of Beryl Cook. When he discovers that his trophy wife Emily (Paltrow) is having an affair with a lauded young artist named David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen), he does some detective work. This presumably includes watching the recent version of Great Expectations, in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a trophy wife who has an affair with a lauded young artist. Steven discovers that Shaw's real name is Winston LeGrange (though how that can be anybody's real name, I'm not sure), and that he's a wanted criminal. So he hires him to murder his errant wife.

Douglas is perfectly cast as the raging cuckold. The script is neatly tailored to his method of approaching every scene with searing hobgoblinish contempt. It also seems to contain a few sly swipes at his sagging physical condition. In their first scene together, Paltrow beams at him and declares, "You look so handsome." Then she turns away towards the camera, making the kind of face that people make when they've accidentally gulped sour milk from the carton. But Patrick Smith Kelly's uproariously bad screenplay is mainly on Douglas's side, and allows him to talk the most exquisite nonsense. He gets a corker of a line about Paltrow being "the crown jewels of a man's soul", and when he confronts Mortensen's character in his studio, he growls, "the anger in your work, the colour of despair ... where does that come from?". "I dunno,"replies Mortensen. "Inside, I guess."

But for Paltrow, the film is a disaster. The part is dependent on a star quality that she hasn't really got, and the film's flat lighting somehow succeeds in making her look zitty and washed-out. She also bears the burden of her director's interest in slo-mo sex with a wamma-wamma-wamma drum-machine soundtrack. And when he's not making her moan like a tumescent wildebeest, Davis has got her doing her frightened bunny-rabbit face. It's not her finest hour.

Does it do justice to the original? Of course not. But there are two moments in which Davis hints that he might have some trace of Hitchcockian flair: one in which Douglas, wearing yellow Marigolds, roots through a dead man's pockets and finds a handful of boiled sweets, and another in which he does something unspeakably violent while wearing a Pac-a-Mac.

Hitchcock is also the inspiration for Claude Chabrol's Rien ne va plus, a jaunty comedy-thriller about two unlikely con-artists (Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault). From its quaint title sequence - an animated roulette ball bouncing over the actor's names - to its intrigues in off-season Swiss hotels, there's something reassuringly old-fashioned about Chabrol's caper. Despite some nasty business with a boat-hook and an eyeball in the final half-hour, his characters retain their quiet good manners throughout. The central relationship, between Huppert's poised, professional seductress and Serrault's shambling con-artist, is refreshingly chaste. Indeed, Chabrol keeps you guessing whether they are a romantic, quasi-familial or purely professional pairing. They would have made better Avengers than Fiennes and Thurman, that's for sure.

Staying with French cinema, Erick Zonca's The Dream Life of Angels made a bit of a splash in Cannes this year, and deservedly so. It's an attractive, loosely woven story about two young women trying to hang on to dead-end jobs in Lille. The casting is perfect: Elodie Bouchez - with her beautiful smiley mouth overstuffed with big teeth - is immediately sympathetic as Isa, the young drifter who pursues a difficult relationship with the unpredictable Marie (played with a terrifying streak of wildcat violence by Natacha Regnier). Zonca's understanding of the grammar of such friendships is sure. There is much in this film that, despite a rather melodramatic conclusion, has a bright note of truth about it.

Which is more than you can say for Henry Jaglom's Deja Vu, a film of such extravagant, ludicrous emptiness, it caused an outbreak of hysteria at the preview screening. Victoria Foyt and Stephen Dillane are a pair of strangers who have the oddest feeling they've met somewhere before. They meet again at a weekend house party, where some of the most extraordinary bollocks in the history of cinema gets talked. Dillane (poor man) has to deliver a post-coital Kierkegaard quote to his co-star without a hint of irony. Unfortunately, Jaglom's work is so cack-handed, he composes the shot to make a piece of braid on the pillow look like a dead wasp hanging out of Dillane's nose. If it were not such a difficult claim to verify, I would gladly offer a fiver to any reader who could sit through the movie with a straight face.

The BFI have re-released the Bertolt Brecht-scripted movie Kuhle Wampe (1932), a stirring piece of agitprop that urges Communist solutions to hyperinflation and mass unemployment. It's propaganda film-making par excellence, with just the right balance of soap-boxing and subtle argument. It also dispels the notion that Nazism brought about the militarisation of German society. Judging by the film's incidental details - over-serious scout groups, domestic wireless sets blaring imperial marching music at teatime - they were halfway there already.

Just space to mention this week's other releases. Hamam - The Turkish Bath is a sweet little movie about a surly Italian interior designer who inherits a steam bath in Istanbul and finds himself discovering an interest in young men as well as Ottoman plumbing. Mulan, meanwhile - Disney's latest cartoon feature - is a grandiose epic set in ancient China. Since Disney are one of the smartest players in global capitalism, I'm sure it began life as a strategy for cracking the biggest market in the world. However, thanks to the dazzling skills of their animators and a sharp script (by Rita Hsiao and others) this is Disney's smartest effort since Beauty and the Beast, terrifying and witty by degrees. Even Eddie Murphy (as the voice of the spunky heroine's dragon sidekick) is hilarious - but this may be just because he has to keep it clean, and you can't see his terrible mugging to camera.

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