FILM / A Shadow of Doubt; Le Parfum d'Yvonne

Hollywood is a past master at conjuring fears into family entertainment. Child abuse; child rights? It will grasp those nettles, sure, but in the form of dopey comedies like North (about a boy who tries to divorce his parents), Getting Even With Dad and Baby's Day Out - all cunningly encoded versions of modern anxieties about kid power. When America takes the big issues seriously, they'll be ghettoised in TV movies-of-the-week.

Europe isn't afraid to tackle this stuff head on, which can sometimes make for deadly dull cinema, but which can also, on occasion, yield something entirely absorbing. In Aline Isserman's A Shadow of Doubt (15), a 12-year-old girl accuses her father of molesting her. As the title indicates, the film is couched as a psycho-thriller which deliberately hesitates a while before we learn the truth of her testimony, although it pitches us strong, contradictory clues.

The father, whose name, Jean Leblanc, is also that of a French bird of prey, likes to chase his children, videotaping them against their will. The daughter invents elaborate stories, about the mice which inhabit a tree trunk or a princess imprisoned in a castle. Her parents think of her as an Alice in Wonderland - not a happy comparison, given the cloud hanging over Lewis Carroll and his young protegee.

This is an intelligent, subtle and thoughtful film (Issermann, a journalist and founder-member of the daily paper Liberation, researched the subject for over two years). The film holds its case- study up to the light and inspects all the facets carefully for any flaws and impurities. The social services are, by turns, nosily intrusive and the heroes of the piece. The wide, tangled web of lies and destructive relationships spreads right back to the parents' own troubled childhoods: there's no neat pattern of guilt and innocence.

The film is impressively well-performed, both by the strong cast of stalwarts who play the adult roles and, in particular, by the young Sandrine Blancke, who radiates a fragile, pre-Raphaelite beauty as the child-woman afraid to denounce the man she loves.

It also avoids the trap of flat realism. Poetic imagery - a breathless underwater chase, a bird in flight - dramatises the characters' fears and fantasies. Issermann keeps the camera tight on their faces - somewhat imprudently, perhaps quoting the great Danish director Carl Dreyer, who shot one of his films, The Passion of Joan of Arc, entirely in big close-up and believed that 'the most fascinating landscape is the human face'. She also shoots in CinemaScope, which is unusual for an intimate film, but allows her to frame her solitary figures in menacing pools of darkness.

If A Shadow of Doubt exceeded expectations, the week's other French film, Le Parfum d'Yvonne (18), was a disappointment. The director, Patrice Leconte, is a familiar figure with British audiences for Monsieur Hire, about a gloomy, voyeuristic tailor obsessed with the beauty across the way, The Hairdresser's Husband, about a man with a fetish for tonsorial grooming, and Tango, about two male obsessives on the road. In all of these films, romantic love proves fatal, and seduction and destruction mesh with varying degrees of misogyny.

Le Parfum d'Yvonne is - surprise - about male obsession. During a long, hot summer in the late Fifties, in the cushioned luxury of a posh hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva, an unlikely trio drifts together: the beautiful, manipulative Yvonne (played by the Danish model Sandra Majani); a flamboyant, very out homosexual (Jean-Pierre Marielle); and a mysterious 'Russian prince' (Hippolyte Girardot), who is actually just a young draft-dodger - the troubles in Algeria are coming to a head. The film is sexy, elegant, often droll, but it also stays in the shallows, with the characters never emerging long enough for us to care who they are.

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