Film: Also Showing

La Vie de Jesus (nc) Bruno Dumont n Cousin Bette (15) Des McAnuff n Babymother (15) Julian Henriques
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The Independent Culture
THE UNBLINKING, blank-eyed coolness of Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jesus is mirrored in the inscrutable face of the film's main character. Freddy (David Douche) is 20 years old, with a face like a Yorkshire pudding of at least three times that age. He lives in Bailleul, a town in northern France where a chip paper blowing along the road counts as big news. His passions, if that face could ever be said to express passion about anything, are his motorbike (which he crashes at least once a day), his chaffinch (which he enters in bizarre Sunday afternoon trilling contests), and his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel). Freddy and Marie don't do much: they walk up and down the street, or make love. Sometimes, after sex, Marie even gets to ride pillion on Freddy's bike. They are small fish in a small pond.

Dumont's first feature comes on like Los Olivados on downers, though it is largely free of even the most cosmetic editorialising present in Bunuel's film. The camera explicitly directs our focus only once, when we meet Freddy and his biking pals gathered around the bed of a friend who is dying of Aids. During the scene, we are guided toward a picture of Lazarus on the wall, which might sound incongruous but resonates sadly against the film's barren landscape, where the only miracle would be if Freddy got through the day without falling off his bike. In fact, Lazarus is a reference to the film's title, borrowed from Ernest Renan, whose writing strove to demythologise Christ by rendering him as human. Dumont plugs into the mood of Renan's work; the characters are earthy and even ugly, with ripples of racism providing the only focus in their lives, but there is a plain sanctity in his depiction of them which approaches the essence of compassionate film-making.

The picture neatly underlines the boredom of Freddy and his pals with grim humour. What do you do when you're growing up in Nowheresville? You play in the marching band. You squirt around on your piddly motorbike. You sit in parked cars and sing. Dumont has captured this world with painful accuracy. The combination of impassive camerawork and a cast of beautifully unselfconscious non- professionals gives the picture a raw tenderness that is quite breathtaking. And the attention to detail can really sting - Marie's delicate bird-shaped earrings, or the spattered faces of boys who have spent their afternoons spray-painting cars. But then maybe that's just because I'm from Essex, where you really aren't anyone at all until you get your first signet ring and speeding fine.

There isn't any substance to the comedy Cousin Bette, set in 19th century France and adapted from the novel by Balzac, though as a frothy confection it can't be faulted. Jessica Lange plays the title character, a spinster who slips into the role of benefactor to a feral young sculptor (Aden Young). But in pursuing both validation and love from the boy, Bette inadvertently begins a chain of jealousy and betrayal that implicates everyone she knows, from her late cousin's vain husband (a very funny, very poignant Hugh Laurie) to a rapacious actress (Elisabeth Shue).

It may be disappointing that the film doesn't exploit more than just the usual trappings of the costume drama, but then there is still a lot to be said for heaving bosoms, ostentatious embroidery and the sight of British character actors twiddling stringy moustaches and being crisply bitchy to one another. Although the staging can be flat, the director, Des McAnuff, keeps the picture rattling along with sufficient pace and flair to evoke favourable comparisons with Richard Lester. It is the presence of Jessica Lange, though, which gives Cousin Bette its alluring glimmer. With her deep, molasses eyes and purring voice, she is perfect as the scheming spider who gets stuck in her own web. Some trick to make malevolence this seductive.

The British reggae musical Babymother is vibrant and delightful, and you wouldn't expect to find those words associated with something set in Harlesden. A "babymother" is a parent who is still practically a child herself; the film's heroine (Anjela Lauren Smith) is just such a woman, and a would-be reggae star to boot - if only she could find a way to negotiate child-care and the interference of a calculating boyfriend. Despite its gritty tone, the picture buzzes with vitality and colour, often literally: it sometimes appears that the film stock has been splashed with Day-Glo paint. Indeed, the movie's real star is the costume designer Annie Curtis Jones, who loads up the cast with electric blue wigs, feather boas, plastic separates and gold chains as thick as arms. Crucially, the robust, sexy songs can make you tingle. This film is on heat.

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