FILM / Needle and the damage done: L 627 (15) Bertrand Tavernier (Fr); Raising Cain (15) Brian De Palma (US); Man Trouble (15) Bob Rafelson (US); Danzon Maria Novaro (Mex)

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The Independent Culture
Lucien 'Lulu' Marguet, of the Paris drugs squad, is affixing a new plaque to his unit's very conspicuously unmarked van. Le joint francais, it says, a punning sign for a fictional plumbing company. It's a moment of small, self-indulgent levity in what is otherwise a glum line of work (and besides, the police budget not normally running to this kind of frippery, he has paid for it out of his pocket).

You could describe Bertrand Tavernier's L 627 as a comedy, in some part anyway, even if its dark humour comes from very near the steps of the gallows (or guillotine?). But it has been received here as a gritty, drama-documentary return to terrain covered by Roger Graef 10 years ago in his celebrated TV series Police. You can see why: its relaxed story- structure meanders along through stake-outs, busts and (often literal) post-mortems; its cops take things day by day with zero long-term progress in prospect.

It's a long way from Maigret to Marguet: operating out of a ramshackle demountable, the narcs, our hero included, are cynical, venal, lazy, racist, brutal and frequently more exercised by the Minitel rose (France's pornographic PC network), dumb practical jokes, card games and pastis than by their mission to eradicate drugs from the City of Light.

One might be surprised that the local police have apparently applauded the picture, except that Tavernier offers more than a close-quarters look at a single institution. His last work, La Guerre sans nom, seemed at first like a powerful documentary about the Algerian war, but emerged as a fierce attack on France's negligence of its own brand of Vietnam veterans and of this festering sore from its past.

And in L 627, through stray remarks and casual incidents, he gradually moves from the fly-on- the-wall perspective to a larger, bird's-eye view of a country in chronic crisis: worm-eaten by graft and disillusion at every level, and as run down as we are by years of the same jaded old faces running the show (in this case the Socialists, who are canvassing re-election this spring - and have condemned the movie).

The title refers to the article of the Public Health Code relating to drugs offenders, the point being that these cops are entwined in red tape, wasting their time on endless paperwork with typewriters out of the ark and chewed-up carbons, and netting small-fry users while the sharks swim free, in order to swell the arrests statistics. A little less benign and Lulu (played, like the others, by an actor unknown in Britain, Didier Bezace) could be a tough, redneck, Dirty Harry-like rogue cop.

The film's ambitious scope, combined with Tavernier's intention to show a group of characters, not a single protagonist, leaves the film with a fuzzy centre: it makes sense to introduce Lulu's family very late in the game, since the film embraces the cliche of the cop whose work eclipses his private life. But it also fudges two key relationships - with his grandfather, and with a waif-like, HIV- positive junkie with whom he has a half-paternal, half-romantic fixation. The character's unreality is enhanced by his odd, Groucho Marxian appearance, his conscience concealed behind glasses and a large moustache.

One detail brings him to life. L 627 (which looks nothing like a documentary) is shot with great elegance and control, and one of its most striking stylistic flourishes occurs in a scene that transports us into a church. High on an upstairs balcony, we see a wedding in progress. Before we can fidget and wonder why we're there, the camera swan-dives, in one great swoop, down into the nave, along the aisle and into a corner at the side where Lulu is discovered behind a video camera - his pay is so lousy that he fleshes it out by taping weddings. He uses the same camera to spy on and entrap dealers, and you understand that a voyeuristic compulsion is at work - the view- finder may, as he says, help him understand life better; it also acts as a safe, insulating screen.

As a device to draw us deep inside an actor's psyche, voice-over narration has really gone out of style (note that Ridley Scott ditched it from his recently-released director's cut of Blade Runner). So it augurs ill when, well into Brian De Palma's Raising Cain, the female lead abruptly starts confiding in us about an unhappy love affair that happened long ago but is suddenly crucial - one senses a desperate attempt to sew together an unravelling plot and suspects that key connecting scenes were cut out late in the editing.

The premise has been borrowed from Peeping Tom: traumatised as a boy by his child-psychologist father in the cause of scientific endeavour, John Lithgow has matured into a fully-fledged, multiple-personality sadist in his own right. But we are soon deep in a tangle of dreams, fantasies and incredible resurrections, all shot by De Palma with his usual exhausting brio.

Man Trouble is a more severe let-down from another established director, Bob Rafelson, who made Five Easy Pieces, a key work from the American art cinema of the early Seventies. That film was written by Carole Eastman and starred Jack Nicholson, and Man Trouble, the eagerly- awaited reunion of those three talents, only shows how Hollywood has sagged into lazy, feel- good genre cinema.

Where Five Easy Pieces looked at male fecklessness and the congenital inability to commit to a relationship, the new one takes on the theme from a female point of view. Ellen Barkin is a classy concert soprano whose men are all snakes in the grass, from her prickly estranged husband to the nutter threatening her with phone calls and letters, and the no-good boyo (Nicholson, in a role that hardly streches him) who rents her a guard dog (also male, and horny). There's the germ of a light comedy about the battle of the sexes, but also some disconcerting scenes of violence, and the film never manages to wrest laughs from a story about harassment and attacks on single women.

Danzon is a summery romance from Mexico about a woman who loves, loses and travels from grimy Mexico City to the balmy port of Vera Cruz in search of her cavalier. It's a kind of bittersweet musical fable (the title refers to a local dance) about the follies of romantic delusion, embellished by confident direction and credible and likeable performances.