Film: Also Showing

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (15) James Ivory n Ever After (PG) Andy Tennant n Topless women Talk About Their Lives (nc) Harry Sinclair n Marquise (NC) Vera Belmont
BLAME THE rise of Ricki and Oprah and Jerry and Montell if you like, but the truth is that the only families whose stories make it onto our screens or bookshelves in the late 1990s are those who are dysfunctional and eager to prove it. There is no shortage of film-makers aiming their wrecking-balls at the homestead - notable demolition jobs poised to make a family near you squirm in their seats include Todd Solondz's Happiness, Francois Ozon's Sitcom and Hal Hartley's Henry Fool. Which makes A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, the new film from the team of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, strangely refreshing, and something of a novelty.

The family at the centre of the picture isn't without its troubles or idiosyncrasies - do you think you would have grown up normal if you had grizzly old Kris Kristofferson for your dad, speaking threadbare French and acting macho while your mother, Barbara Hershey, flounced around Paris acting glamorous one minute and scrapping with your school-teacher the next? But the issues which propel the script, adapted by Ivory and Jhabvala from Kaylie Jones's autobiographical novel, are dislocation and adjustment: everyone in the film is looking to belong; they are each just a touch out of sync.

The most obviously displaced character is Benoit, a French boy adopted by the writer, Bill Willis (played by Kristofferson, but based on James Jones), and his wife, Marcella (Hershey), while they are living in Paris in the 1960s. Benoit chooses a different name for himself - Billy - and is taken under the wing of his new sister, Channe, but is constantly prone to feelings of alienation as he enters his teenage years. An audience accustomed to watching stories of families ripped apart by betrayal and abuse may be underwhelmed to find that these feelings don't manifest themselves very dramatically. Billy just wastes his days watching television. When things are really bad, he finds himself driven to ... grow a dubious goatee.

It is this very understatement which is so entrancing. I can't pretend that the picture adds up to much - in common with the film-makers' last collaboration, Surviving Picasso, it feels more like a series of unfinished sketches, an impression compounded by the anecdotal structure. One casualty of this is that characters such as the beguiling schoolboy opera singer, Francis (the wonderful newcomer, Anthony Roth Costanzo), who befriends Channe, are casually discarded.

But what gives the film its warmth is the leisurely and melancholy narrative rhythm; this is complemented in turn by the cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre's watchful compositions which strongly recall De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and by a clutch of sensitive, nuanced performances, particularly from the younger cast members, Leelee Sobieski and Jesse Bradford, as the teenage Channe and Billy respectively. Personally, I'm holding my breath for the director's cut, which will hopefully reveal more of the funky Salome which Channe and Francis attend, with its inflatable furniture, intravenous drug use and shots of Salome doing perfectly unspeakable things with John the Baptist's head. Dysfunctional, me?

Real family problems abound in another of the week's new releases, in which a daddy's girl (Drew Barrymore) is tormented by her beastly stepmother (Anjelica Huston) after her father's death, but finds hope in the arms of a handsome prince in a codpiece. This is Ever After - or, more accurately, Cinderella 90210.

Technically, the movie is a period piece, but the colloquial language and revisionist behaviour cause you to nervously anticipate the introduction of some 16th-century version of rollerblading or shopping malls. The film's irreverence can be engaging - the story accommodates Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, only to quickly relegate him to the role of blundering matchmaker. And the usual pleasures are all present and correct: ruddy-faced peasants, prickly pantomime turns from Huston and Richard O'Brien, coy romance between Barrymore and the Scottish actor, Dougray Scott, whose suitably dippy expressions banish all memories of him as a brutal cop in Twin Town. Ultimately, it's quite hard to see the point of the movie, although 10-year-old girls currently paralysed by a first crush will think it was made just for them.

You don't call a film Topless Women Talk About Their Lives unless you suspect that there is nothing very special about it and that it may very well sink without a trace. And so it transpires this is yet another independent comedy-drama about the lives and loves of modern urbanites - in this case, a pregnant woman musing on the identity of her baby's father, and a misogynistic writer, among others - shot on a meagre budget that was raised by the director selling his limbs or his children, and all set to a scratchy indie-pop soundtrack. At least it comes from New Zealand rather than New York. Does it have anything original to say about the tangle that men and women get themselves into when they try to understand each other? Take a wild guess.

RG

Sophie Marceau, writes Roger Clarke, delivers a sluttish glamour to the role of Marquise, an 18th-century actress and courtesan of the court of King Louis XIV of France - a society toast before being replaced by the next more fashionable model. Ridicule meets a bargain-basement All About Eve, this is a self-consciously bawdy romp through the fickle mores of actors as well as a cartoonish evocation of the age of Racine (a wooden Lambert Wilson, who falls in love with Marquise). Vera Belmont wrote and directed, but just can't squeeze enough out of her own script, despite the bottom-pinching caperings and cartwheels of her overly loveable characters.

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