FILM / Delirium from a heart of darkness

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Providence (PG) - Director: Alain Resnais (Fr / Switz)

Stranger than Paradise (15) - Director: Jim Jarmusch (US / W Ger)

Coffee and Cigarettes (PG) - Director: Jim Jarmusch (US)

This week's re-releases, Providence and Stranger than Paradise, shouldn't have much in common, one being a mid-career work (1977) from a French New Wave director, Alain Resnais, the other the first film, made in 1984, of oddball American Jim Jarmusch. Yet they send relatively similar messages to the viewer's mind and bottom, messages of mitigated boredom rather than qualified excitement.

Providence is the more ambitious, and so it should be, since it can boast a fine team of contributors. The cast is English-speaking, British men (Gielgud, Bogarde, David Warner) and American women (Ellen Burstyn, Elaine Stritch), while the script is by David Mercer, best known for some outstanding television plays in the 1960s. His chosen mode here is a sort of cautious surrealism, with a famous writer, terminally ill, beguiling his sozzled insomnia by imagining fragmentary stories about his family. Perhaps three-quarters of the film is given over to the night's interrupted fantasies, with a coda in daylight, which reveals the great man's family, gathered to do him honour on his 70th birthday, to be far more ordinary, innocent and loving than he had made them out in night-time pettiness, fear and pain.

The one thing surrealism can't afford to be, though, is cautious. If no urgent truths break through when the pose of coherence is dropped, why bother? The hero's fears are curiously abstract - scenarios of persecution by military forces, for instance - as he even acknowledges in voice-over. The only exception is the image of a corpse being dissected, which seems in this context unduly confrontational. More characteristic is Denis Lawson, in an early role as a famous footballer, trotting in and out of scenes where he doesn't belong.

The screenplay achieves not the shattering return of the repressed but the uneasy going-over of adult failures. Clive Langham (Gielgud) seems to retain nothing in the way of early experience, and the tragedies that haunt him - the suicide of his wife, already dying of illness, the estrangement of his son - happened rather late in life to qualify as traumas.

Providence is less a full-blooded film than a pallid literary experiment happening to take place in a cinema. Its precedents would certainly be literary, from Finnegans Wake (without the richness and difficulty) to The Tempest, another story of an elderly magician setting out on revenge and achieving bittersweet reconciliation. Gielgud's Langham is like a dry run for Prospero, though he produces a belch at one point with disconcerting gusto.

Dirk Bogarde gets to wear Yves St Laurent suits in his father's fantasies, and to deliver epigrammatic lines in tones of wounded suavity. At one point he explains his dislike of violence by saying that 'it reeks of spontaneity', a nice moment which nevertheless yields a stick to beat the film with. Providence reeks of unspontaneity, of calculated disruptions that challenge nothing much. Miklos Rozsa's music, by turns ominous, lush and pastoral, delivers comparatively excessive emotions. Resnais might have chosen to turn the film into a visual poem, but his direction remains stubbornly prosaic.

By daylight it is revealed that Bogarde's character is capable of wearing open-necked shirts and baggy cardigans, capable too of love and loyalty. The old man's dogs, frolicking by the festive picnic table, come across a hedgehog, image of Langham's prickly vulnerability, image too of a film that wraps a soft, conventional agenda in an armour of defensive surrealism.

Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise is showing with a recent short, Coffee and Cigarettes (Somewhere in California), that shows a striking continuity with it. Jarmusch favours a studied inconsequence contradicted by touches of formality. He likes performers who are not primarily actors, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop in the new short, John Lurie in Stranger than Paradise. And in both films there is something refreshing that becomes stultifying, as it dawns on you that a series of stylish refusals is all you are going to get.

In Stranger than Paradise, Eva (Eszter Balint), visiting America from Hungary, stays with her cousin Willie (John Lurie) in New York before moving to their aunt's in Cleveland. A year later, Willie and Eddie (Richard Edson) visit her. On impulse, all three go to Florida. They split up, more by accident than anything else.

The film flirts with a number of genres. It might be a romance, but nobody seems that interested in anyone else. It might be a road movie, except that the camera can hardly see out of the car window, and the photography virtually eliminates the differences between the various locations. It might be a buddy movie, except that the buddy communicates so little. 'You're all right,' is as far as the screenplay goes in the direction of warmth; in the other direction, it goes as far as 'shut up'.

Jarmusch has the sense to fill with music the gaps he has opened up. There's undemanding modern string quartet music to convey a cosily alienated perspective on modern life, and there's its opposite, the intensity of Screamin' Jay Hawkins singing 'I Put a Spell On You' on Eva's portable cassette player. There's just enough on screen to stop you feeling short-changed, though when Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark) puts in a brief appearance, the camera doesn't want to leave her. The viewer too is oddly attracted to this unminimal character, with her muttered Hungarian, her excesses of hospitality, her lack of cool.