Film: When in Romania, do as the gypsies do

Click to follow
Even if it weren't a film full of sly surprises, Tony Gatlif's Gadjo Dilo would be notable for one thing: it is a treasure house of Romanian bad language. "May your head swell and your cock shrink! Get lost, or I'll insult your mother! Eat my cock with polenta!" They must really put some thought into these things. Gatlif's film is the story of Stephane (Romain Duris), a young Parisian with a little bit of gypsy in him, who travels to Romania in search of his dead father's favourite folk singer, Nora Luca. (Born in Algeria of gypsy origin and French nationality, Gatlif himself has complicated roots. This film is the third in his famous "gypsy triptych".)

Though Nora eludes him, Stephane discovers something more intangible - his natural affinity to the culture his father left behind. He puts down roots in a small village where most of the inhabitants suspect he is a chicken-thief. A grubby old lecher, Izidor (Izidor Serban), treats him as a surrogate son, and a local divorcee, Sabina (Rona Hartner) takes a more carnal interest in him.

But the plot isn't the remarkable thing about this film. By the conclusion of the movie, it has degenerated into the barmiest melodramatic excess. Up to this point, however, it is absorbing ethnographic film-making with a tender, mischievous eye. Gatlif's bawdy sense of humour prevents it from turning into a National Geographic film, and his unpatronising attitude to the gypsies - many of whom appear in his film as themselves - ensures that there is no uncomfortable disjunction between the power of the camera and that of its subjects. Sabina may be the stereotypical gypsy passion queen - all flashing eyes, floating hair and tigerish libido - but it's Stephane who remains the Gadjo Dilo ("funny foreigner") of the title.

The pleasure is in the detail. In one scene, Stephane attends a wedding. We see the groom's party marching up to the front door of the bride's house, where her father waits with an axe in his hand, yelling his opposition to the match. Then the groom's father brings out of bottle of Russian vodka. Suddenly, the pair are embracing like brothers, and you realise that the whole confrontation has been an elaborate nuptial ritual. Never mind the ending - which makes Brazilian soap opera look understated - just enjoy the journey towards it.

Philip Saville's Metroland (15) isn't half so interesting, possibly because its anthropological focus is upon a culture that's difficult to take seriously - the English middle classes. Based on the novel by Julian Barnes, Saville's film follows two suburban boys, Chris (Christian Bale) and Toni (Lee Ross) from their idealistic teens to their compromised thirties. The film opens at the ends of this process, when the year is 1977: Toni is a drunken, unsuccessful poet and Chris - after a brief spell being artistic in a Parisian garret - has settled in "Metroland", the mock-Tudor ghetto at the end of the Metropolitan line.

The film works best when sending up its characters. There's a rich irony in seeing Bale and Ross, got up as hopelessly middle-class schoolboys, ranting about "sticking one up the bourgeoisie's fat bum". And there's a pleasing Reggie Perrin-style sequence in which Chris has a vision of his wife, Marion (played by Emily Watson), looking up from the ironing to tell him to sleep with other women.

But Saville doesn't seem to know when to stop laughing at these characters and start empathising with them, which makes much of the film ludicrous. For instance, after a failed attempt at adultery, Chris makes things up to Marion by saying, "Who'd have fast food when you can eat at the Ritz?" Saville seems to be asking his audience to take this seriously. The main problem is that we've seen all these themes explored more efficiently elsewhere. Tony Hancock's The Rebel is more eloquent on suburban aspirations to cosmopolitanism, and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is a more sophisticated treatment of thirtysomething discontent. Next to Bob and Terry, Chris and Toni are two-dimensional creations.

British directors usually lose their sense of humour when they make costume drama. This doesn't seem to happen to the French. Phillipe de Broca's Le Bossu (15) - based on a popular 19th-century roman feuilleton - is a cheerful, lavish, rip-roaring fancy-dress party. The dashing Phillipe de Nevers (Vincent Perez) swashes a glamorous buckle, the chevalier Lagardere (Daniel Auteuil) has to defend himself from blackguards with a rapier in one hand and a baby in the other, and the Duc d'Orleans (Phillipe Noirret) excuses his terrible swordmanship by claiming that he slipped on a macaroon. If it wasn't for a whiff of incest and occasional outbursts of extreme violence - Lagardere and de Nevers dispatch their victims by skewering them between the eyes - this would be near-perfect family entertainment.

When in The Life of Stuff (no cert) you see Ewen Bremner in his Y-fronts, bleeding at the shoulder, shaving his hair off in clumps with the help of cold water, a Bic razor and a tin of Ajax, you wonder why he considered this ordeal worth going through in the cause of such otiose material. Simon Donald's film - based on his own play - has to keep forcing its characters into gruesome situations involving pills, knives, vomit, piss, petrol and severed toes because - apart from the sensory kick that these elements produce - it is completely vacuous.

The NFT is screening this film this week after it failed to get a proper distribution deal. Donald has complained to the Glasgow press that his film has been ignored by distributors because it is "a nasty, awkward wee black comedy, and it hasn't got Leonardo DiCaprio in it". Since this potted synopsis is also a fair description of Trainspotting, I think he should wake up and smell the vomit. You won't see Life of Stuff at either your local Odeon or arthouse cinema because it is a poor piece of work. By the time one character suggested, rather miserably, "Let's give it five minutes and then fuck off for some chips," I was wishing I'd already got my place in the queue. MS

also released

Gadjo Dilo




Le Bossu


The Life of Stuff

no cert