Cinema: Young, gifted, black and overdressed

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The Independent Culture
Babymother 15

La Vie de Jesus (no cert)

Character 15

Cousin Bette 15

Acheerful - but not very accomplished - British musical, Babymother uses a reggae soundtrack as ammunition for a battle- of-the-sexes plot. The director, Julian Henriques, pits the feisty chatting of Neeta, his heroine (Anjela Lauren Smith), against the cheesy crooning of her on-off boyfriend Byron (Wil Johnson). It's a clash that culminates in an uproarious musical slanging match in a club in Harlesden, north-west London, with the competitors decked out in a riot of gold PVC and feathers. This isn't the sort of cinema to which a notebook and pencil should be taken. It's best watched in its proper environment - a big cinema packed with girls in Dayglo minidresses yelling, "Go, girlfriend!" at the screen. Treat it as the focus for a social event, and its faults will probably seem irrelevant.

There are plenty of them to overlook. Most of the dialogue, for a start: "Been missing your body'n'all," coos Byron. "And me too, Mr Honey Tongue," Neeta replies. Henriques's script has an irritating predilection for scenes of pointless argument, and fails to offer much more than the most basic characterisation. This shortcoming doesn't help his cast.

For instance, Caroline Chikezie and Jocelyn Esien (playing Neeta's two best friends Sharon and Yvette) have such sketchily written parts, they can't help being hopelessly out-acted by their costumes.

For a director who seems to be trying to affirm the joys of single motherhood, Henriques is disappointingly unwilling to flesh out the relationship between his heroine and her two children. But he has used his film to achieve an interesting synthesis of genres, combining grimy social realism with a distinctly Jamaican strain of melodrama. The mix will be instantly familiar to anyone who saw last year's Dancehall Queen. It's a bit like seeing a Ken Loach-type miserablist slip into a spangly boob tube and shake its pudenanny.

Too much French cinema is about insufferable young people wittering on about Kierkegaard. Even last year's A Toute Vitesse - Gael Morel's film about boredom, alienation and racism in rural France - couldn't resist making one of its characters a teenage novelist. First-time director Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jesus shares the themes and setting, but its dramatis personae aren't so infuriatingly accomplished. They are also refreshingly ugly: if you wheeled Dumont's lead David Douche around in a cart, you'd be able to have the most lavish bonfire night of your life.

And it's this kind of surprising detail that makes Dumont's debut a noteworthy event. An unfussy realism pervades the film - from Freddy's awkward visit to a dying friend in hospital, to scenes in which he and his girlfriend (Marjorie Cottreel) have (what certainly looks like unsimulated) sex in a field. In fact, Dumont is so good at communicating smalltown lassitude and tedium, his film occasionally becomes rather boring itself. But this isn't a problem. In fact, it's a necessary quality: without long scenes of Freddy and his mates staring into the middle distance, La Vie de Jesus would lose its impressive authenticity.

That Character won this year's best foreign language film Oscar is convincing evidence that the voting system is in need of reform. At the moment, every country nominates one title for the Academy's consideration, which means that local politics inform the decision as strongly as aesthetic judgement. Not that Mike van Diem's costume drama is a bad piece of work, exactly. It's a sprawling Dickensian melodrama about a little Dutch boy (Fedja van Huet) who discovers that he's the illegitimate son of Rotterdam's most reviled bailiff (Jan Decleir, in a creaking leather trenchcoat and black fedora, just so you know he's the villain). It's a an inoffensively competent piece of period film-making, a bit overlong, a bit overplayed by its cast. There's not a TV aerial in sight, and everyone looks suitably constricted by their collars.

Divided up into half-hour chunks, it would make a very palatable Sunday teatime serial. But the notion that it is the best film made last year in a language other than English is ludicrous. L'Appartement, anyone? Ma Vie en Rose? Gadjo Dilo? If you have any other suggestions, send them to the Academy on a postcard.

Costume drama goes bonkers in Des McAnuff's Cousin Bette - Balzac played as vicious pantomime by a cast unafraid to go madly over the top. Jessica Lange seethes as the tortured seamstress who takes revenge on those who have disregarded her; Hugh Laurie exudes fruity bafflement as her patronising relation; Aden Young is an artist with a big shirt; Kelly Macdonald is a little schemer in crinoline; Elisabeth Shue is a Parisian courtesan who shows her bum a lot, and Bob Hoskins - in an accent that wavers between Brooklyn, Peckham and Inspector Clouseau - skittles about under a wispy Norman Mailer wig.

Condensing Balzac's dense plot into 108 minutes of cinema means that the pace of McAnuff's film becomes increasingly barmy as it moves along. In one eventful scene, Hugh Laurie's character has a stroke, Kelly Macdonald suffers a fainting fit, and Aden Young massages profiteroles into Elisabeth Shue's breasts. If Sid James were still alive, I'm sure there would have been a part in it for him. MS

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