FILM / Every picture tells a Storyville: Adam Mars-Jones reviews the week's new releases, Mark Frost's Storyville and Tango, a black comedy

IF DAVID LYNCH was responsible for the lurid side of Twin Peaks, his collaborator Mark Frost seemed to be in charge of the less eye-catching business of construction and plot logistics. To see how paradoxically flat the unrestrainedly bizarre can fall in the absence of such basics, you have only to cast an eye at Lynch's Twin Peaks prequel, Fire Walk With Me, while Frost's new film, Storyville (15), shows off his less strident talents, as screenwriter and director.

In the movies, New Orleans and corruption go together like beans and rice, but Storyville puts them together a little differently. Partly, this is for a simple reason: the novel from which the film is drawn was set in Australia, and a Louisiana setting has been slotted in at a relatively late stage. This does no harm, since a little local colour goes a very long way: a single shot of damp, unrefreshed pavements is worth a dozen references in the dialogue to the constant steamy heat of the city.

The unexpected formality of southern speech is well used, from Jason Robards indicating his glass and saying, 'Freshen me up . . . unstintingly,' to Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, when asked if she's seeing anyone at the moment, replying, 'Legions.' Nor is the chauvinism underlying the politesse neglected: in Louisiana, someone from Tampa, Florida, can routinely be described as a Yankie.

James Spader plays the heir to a rich family, running for Congress and therefore having to step outside his inherited position to make new allegiances. In the process he learns more than he would like about how the family fortune was built up. As he showed in sex lies and videotape, Spader has a gift for playing heroes whose integrity seems like a bad habit more than anything else. He can wear a white shirt, as he does for much of Storyville, and it looks like a double bluff, a villain's disguise.

The plot, concerning a murder for which the hero is framed, is pretty creaky, but you can love a plot, as you can love a house, for its creaks, and there are passages in Storyville where Frost's footwork is accomplished enough for him to get past the dodgiest step without a sound. There's a fascinating moment where the hero, in defiance of the genre rule that he should fight his way out of trouble singlehandedly, puts himself in the hands of a black power broker (Michael Warren) who has no reason to believe or trust him. When asked what he has to offer in exchange for help, he says, 'A congressman.' In other words, if he is elected, he will be in the pocket of the traditionally disenfranchised - a refreshingly loose conception of political virtue.

Sexual virtue is an equally relaxed notion in the film. The hero is more easily forgiven for having a one night stand with a young Vietnamese girl (Charlotte Lewis) whose father is unkind enough to videotape what goes on between them than he is for having married for convenience and not for love, particularly as his wife bears some resemblance to his old flame and true love, Whalley-Kilmer. On the other hand, Frost shows a definite worldliness when it comes to the campaign advertisement made by the hero's opponent, which takes something that could have been to his credit - rich boy working in the public defender's office - into a liability. This man was so good at his job, intones a sonorous voice over mugshots of criminals, that he let these people go back to doing what they did best. Frost directs without frills, his only mannerism being to hold the end of a scene for a few extra seconds, focusing on a blank face or a throwaway comment or a pair of ancient hands. This would be a risky procedure with less interesting minor characters than the 'Yankie' campaign manager or the elderly strip show promoter whose speech is so clotted it's as if he's been taking elocution lessons from a catfish.

Patrice Leconte has been making films for almost 20 years but it was only recently, with Monsieur Hire and The Hairdresser's Husband, that he made an impact internationally. He seemed to be moving towards a more personal cinema (there were autobiographical elements in The Hairdress's Husband), but now with Tango (15) he has done something of a U-turn, with a selfconsciously outrageous black comedy about what used to be called 'the sex war', before anybody had given the subject much thought. Misogyny is the more useful term. The film starts with a slow tracking shot down a country road in summer. Birdsong, crickets, snatches of engine noise and music but no human presence, until a group of girlish feet - sandals, white socks - passes crisply through the frame in the opposite direction from the camera's movement. The camera slows down and begins to track back towards the girls. This is a sly piece of film language, with the apparently objective survey of the camera revealed to be motivated by its own interests and priorities, perhaps even its own gender, and nothing in the next 90 minutes of strenuous transgression lives up to it.

Vincent (Richard Bohringer) takes revenge on his wife for her infidelity. She pretends that the smell of sex is a new floor polish, but he isn't fooled. He gets someone at work to deputise for him, which since he's a professional sky writer leads to a rather wonderful moment where his wife, looking up at the sky from an unusual angle, realises that the loops and lines taking shape in the air are not her husband's writing.

Vincent is recruited as a sort of amateur hit-man by Paul (Thierry Lhermitte) who can't forgive his wife for leaving him, though he himself was constantly unfaithful. The party is made up by Philippe Noiret as Paul's uncle, a lawyer who has a suitable blackmailing hold over Vincent, and can compel his obedience. The three of them set off by car in pursuit of the errant wife. On their way, they have dealings with a number of women, and utter a very great many sentences that define or characterise women as a class.

The trouble with Tango is not that it is shocking but that it is shockingly derivative. There is an echo of Bunuel in a scene where the elderly bellhop at a luxury hotel, hanging around outside a beautiful woman's room, turns out to be her husband, but otherwise this is definitively Bertrand Blier territory. With films like Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Tenue de Soiree and Trop Belle Pour Toi, Blier has been making mischief with masculinity since the 1970s, and Patrice Leconte can't match the force of his parodies and inversions.

If Tango was a film about three disillusioned women seeking violent revenge on an unfaithful man, Leconte would have to work much harder for his laughs. The most revealing scene in the film shows the Noiret character, whose motto is 'A good hand job beats a bad marriage', watching porn videos in his hotel room and swigging cognac with what seems very close to desolation. Tango doesn't amount to a lot more than a very Gallic way of saying, 'Can't live with 'em . . . can't live without 'em'.

(Photograph omitted)

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