FILM / Once more with not so much feeling: Sommersby (12); Un Coeur en Hiver (12); Mr Saturday Night (15)

ANYTHING you can do, we can do blander, is the Hollywood motto of the moment. Moguls, discovering that Francophilia isn't an Irish leading man, are plundering European art-house cinema for stories. Sommersby is an intelligent but empty reworking of Le Retour de Martin Guerre: 16th-century France has become post-Civil War America, sex symbols have been swapped (Richard Gere for Gerard Depardieu), and the whole thing has been blown up and embroidered. Only the heart hasn't been transplanted.

The story, an old French folk tale, works well in its new setting, as it feeds off superstition and frayed nerves. On to a jittery Tennessee plantation swaggers Richard Gere, to reclaim his land and family. It's Jack Sommersby, returned from six years' fighting, unless I miss my guess. He's a little slimmer, better read, and, frankly, nicer; but it's the same old Jack. Or is it? His wife Laurel (Jodie Foster) seems to have her doubts. She dusts off an old photograph to reveal a stouter Jack - together they might have been known as Laurel and Hardy - a stolid patriarch rather than the slim rake she now has on her hands, and soon in her arms. There's another funny thing: before Jack went away they slept in separate rooms; now the mariage seems to have gone from blanc to bonk.

There's a problem with this story, as we discovered in Martin Guerre. It's too good. It's so naggingly intriguing that it drains the colour from the characters, who are reduced to questions. Jack becomes Is-he-or-isn't-he, and Laurel Does-she-or-doesn't-she-know. More interesting posers about love and identity are never put. It's like one of those Roald Dahl stories in which everything seems to be working to the twist.

Richard Gere's brand of bogus, mechanical acting is perversely suited to a character who may be a pathological liar. His repertoire of tics - the eyelash flutter and numbed nodding in shock - perfectly fit the sham actor. But the stakes have been raised from Martin Guerre. The returned Martin was better to his wife than the old; the new Sommersby benefits his community too. He's a progressive, giving land to blacks, and standing up to the men in white sheets. You can be a fake and genuine at the same time, we're meant to feel.

Laurel is Jodie Foster's 29th film role and her first romantic lead. With bunned hair, a bonnet and long skirts, she is out of Louisa May Alcott, and fights a losing battle against seeming Little Womanish. She's not as silent as Madame Guerre, a Tammy Wynette who stood by her man - whoever he was. But she looks out of place, dutiful and infatuated, where before she's been streetwise and independent. You can't fault her performance, but it's hard to feel it either.

British TV graduate Jon Amiel directs slickly and unsubtly, italicising every sly hint or shade of irony. When tobacco is being planted, the work is intercut with Gere heaving down on Foster in bed, to suggest that he's an agent of regeneration. Foster has described this film as 'a great date movie'; but it's so straightforward, it will probably appeal mainly to kids. It's photographed by Phillippe Rousselot, who shot A River Runs Through It, and he gives us another dazzling, dappled countryside. There's a virtuoso, wordless opening, showing Gere's journey, under lilac skies and snow, criss-crossing to frosted, feathery evergreens, one perfect composition gliding into another. Close your ears to Danny Elfman's swelling muzak, which sounds as if it's been pinched from a cross-Channel ferry, and feast on the pictures.

'Maxim and I understand each other without talking,' reports Stephane (Daniel Auteuil), narrator of Un Coeur en Hiver. He and Maxim run a violin shop for maestros, and they're as minutely tuned to each other as their fiddles to the fork. They dress with the same impeccable elegance: grey charcoal suits, light blue shirts, and stylishly sober ties. Maxim (Andre Dussollier) is the front man, sweet-talking customers. Stephane is the technician, making tiny adjustments to finger boards and bridges. Together they seem like two halves of the same brain. Expansive, genial and diplomatic Maxim; practical, morose and unyielding Stephane. When Maxim falls in love with stellar young violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Beart), all this harmony gives way to the sort of buzz that is afflicting Camille's troublesome G-string.

The rarefied musical world, where a hair's- breadth deviation from discipline can be ruinous, is reflected in the film's precision and delicacy. Like an ornamental pond, it's carved up by the tiniest ripple and then returns to calm. Great passions are registered by raising an eyebrow rather than tearing of hair. We only know Camille is falling for Stephane from the pounding pizzicato of her Ravel.

Stephane's emotions are the most enigmatic. Seemingly smitten by Camille, he courts her, but when she responds, withdraws. He resolved to make her love him, he claims, without himself loving her - director and co-writer Claude Sautet was inspired by a Lermontov story about a man seducing a woman for the pleasure of rejecting her. If that smacks of evil, Stephane seems more scared than bad, listlessly trying out tunes he knows his heartstrings won't play. 'There's something lifeless inside me,' he confesses. At a dinner party, he argues the value of having no opinions. His cynicism springs from a terror of involvement: the only person he ever loved was his irascible old music teacher (Maurice Garrel). And yet at times we feel he may be disavowing passion to keep it at bay.

Daniel Auteuil is moodily magnetic, half way between sulking Achilles and scheming Iago. With his blinking, shifty eyes, he seems to nurse an obscure hurt. His real-life wife Beart gives a beautifully nuanced portrait of a woman slowly surrendering to passion, and of the pain of rejection. She finally scrapes her chestnut locks into a bun, shadows her eyes, and confronts Stephane with her anguish - pulling her hair up and letting it down at the same time. We close with a shot of a rueful Stephane, which may be the limit of his emotion. All this picking over feelings gives the film the air of an haut monde Eric Rohmer, but it's tauter, with no word or shot wasted.

'That's showbiz,' commiserates a Hollywood director, snatching away the part he'd dangled in front of Billy Crystal's ageing comic, Buddy Young, who used to be Mr Saturday Night but is now suffering, as he puts it, from cancer of the career. The film follows Buddy from early days, giving his Jewish household the giggles, through years wowing Catskill country clubs, a flop on Ed Sullivan, when he was billed after the Beatles, to the present, with bookings as thin as his dyed hair. There were plenty of ups, but they weren't as high as his talent deserved. Pettiness pulled him down: he couldn't take a bad break without throwing a tantrum. We see enough of Buddy's act, with its lightning one-liners and deadly put-downs, to know that he was good, but he clearly lacked the grandeur to be great.

Bearing the brunt of Buddy's bad humour is his brother Stan (David Paymer), once part of the act but now manager. He hadn't the comic cruelty that was Buddy's gift and downfall. There's no schtick without schmaltz, and the scenes between Buddy and his long-suffering family can slip into sentimentality. But mostly the film's a revelation. Crystal, who also directs, made his name on Saturday Night Live, and has been strait-jacketed in conventional acting roles. In films like When Harry Met Sally and Throw Momma from the Train, he seemed whiney and unfunny: presenting him as a lovable grouch has softened his edge. Here his wit is unsheathed, and he slaughters us. It's the best thing he's done, but it bombed in America. That's showbiz.

'Sommersby' (12): Empire Leicester Square (497 9999) and general release. 'Un Coeur en Hiver' (12): Lumiere (836 0691), Camden Plaza (485 2443), Gate (727 4043), Odeon Kensington (371 3166). 'Mr Saturday Night' (15): Odeons Haymarket (839 7697), Swiss Cottage (722 5905), Kensington, Screen on the Hill (435 3366), Whiteleys (792 3324), MGM Chelsea (351 1026). All nos 071.

Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey