FILM / When the title says it all: The Best Intentions (12); The Butcher's Wife (12)

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The Independent Culture
SOME LINES should never be spoken on film. 'What are we doing here?' and 'I can't stand it' are always dicey, tempting the audience to mutter, we know just how you feel. My favourite, however, traditionally comes towards the end of a long and deserving movie, forcing you to wonder precisely what it deserved. The Best Intentions didn't let me down. Two and a half hours had already passed; we were deep in a big plate-scrubbing scene in north Sweden; in came the tortured priest, stamping snow from his soul, and stared at his unfulfilled wife. 'Anna . . .' We held our breath. 'We can't go on like this.' Oh yes you can.

The Best Intentions won the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year, but really isn't that bad. It is directed by Bille August, who made Pelle the Conqueror, and written by Ingmar Bergman, who made everyone look worried for 40 years. It tells the story of Bergman's own parents; he himself has a bit-part, or at least a bulge-part, fruitfully swelling Anna's stomach at the very end. She is played by Pernilla August, who fell in love with the director during filming, then married him.

That was a bold move, given the film they'd just been working on. The Best Intentions is not exactly a cheery advertisement for the nuclear family, although it keeps a lookout for massive fission. It has something of the scary honesty you feel in Ibsen, when he chisels away at the illusions propping up a family: ignore the loyalties which custom alone demands, he suggests, and you end up with a batch of people clinging together for drear life. Some of that frosty emotional logic settles on the very first scene of August's film: no credits, merely a plain dark hallway and the distant whistle of a train, just faint enough to sound like a wretched child.

And here he is: Henrik (Samuel Froler), now an earnest young man, soon to take holy orders, possibly as a result of taking too many secular ones from the rest of his family. Today he has come to spite his grandfather, 'a gentleman I respected for his inhumanity'. You long to know more, but the scene has already done its work: no hard feelings have been lingered over, and none, you feel, is going to be spared. August taps out these early encounters with surprising briskness, determined to prevent his long-haul movie from turning into a lazy one. He keeps up a steady patter of brief scenes; a lakeside idyll flashes by, as if it happened years ago and the characters were trying to hook it back into their minds. And I timed one sex scene at three and a half seconds, which for Scandinavian cinema must be some kind of record.

Mind you, the poor kids can hardly control themselves. The film tells the whole sorry story of Henrik's love for Anna, but nothing is as funny or provocative as their first scene together. He's late for dinner at her house; she smoothes his hair tenderly and tells him not to fluster; then they swap secret smiles over the table - when's he not staring at his artichoke, that is, and wondering how to eat it before it eats him. Finally, as he's about to leave, she says: 'My name's Anna and yours is Henrik, isn't it?' It's true: they've never met before. Love barged in so fast that courtesy had to wait.

You feel a rough charm spinning overhead here, exerting an old spell called up from Fanny and Alexander and Smiles of a Summer Night. Without it, frankly, the lovers wouldn't stand a chance. Henrik is a solemn role, and Froler, fresh from the Nervous Rodent school of acting, fails to cheer it up. As if musing on God's purposes were not enough of a burden, he has to confront the fact that trainee vicars in Sweden in 1909 were dressed exactly like postmen. One longs to know what Anna sees in him, apart from a chance to get parcels delivered quickly.

Pernilla August looks so clever and responsive, so free of vanity and mobile in her moods, that you can hardly believe she would fall for such a sluggard. In fact she's not the only one: the old dog has a mistress called Frida (Lena Endre) tucked away in a garret. The two women meet in a tea-shop and agree that Henrik 'hasn't got a real life at all'. You can almost see them deciding to give him up and go on holiday together. It's a wonderful scene, curiosity running far ahead of rivalry: Frida's last words are 'look after that cough'. Likewise, Henrik's best moment comes in conversation with his father-in-law Johan (Max Von Sydow), two chaps fearful of discussing matters of the heart and settling on tobacco instead.

These are some of the most casual scenes that Bergman has ever written. But that comic talent, his weakness for a swig of human oddity, seems to make him feel guilty, and I had an awful feeling that he would atone for it later on. Sure enough, the plain sailing heads for the rocks. The happy couple never really happens. When they marry, the plot hauls them up to a snowy parish in the north - a territory of vague disputes, political as well as spiritual; by the end, we no longer know why characters are choosing to leave or stay, live or die. Even more depressingly, the director follows suit, allowing scenes to ramble on well past their bedtime, and the film loses its grip. The only consolation is a terrifying small boy who turns up at the door like a demon from a fairy-tale, with the fabulous name of Petrus Farg.

Is The Best Intentions really a tragedy of errors? It certainly thinks it is, but somewhere behind that furrowed brow is a more balanced and companionable tale. It runs for three hours, but Bille August also made a television version of twice the length. You lucky Swedes. I never like the idea of elastic cinema, easily tugged into different shapes, and this one bears the stretch-marks. Henrik and Anna go to Stockholm to see the queen, for instance, then march out of the palace and argue loudly in the square outside. The whole episode smacks of television, and bad television at that: overcooked feelings in posh places. This is what happens when you try to do a Bergman and your camera lets you down. Raw drama gets softened into soap.

Nothing raw about The Butcher's Wife, which is bursting with careful additives. Terry Hughes's film is set in a city where children of all races play happily on fire-hydrants, old biddies sit out in the sunshine, and the breath of love rustles through green leaves. For some reason, it's called 'New York'.

The plot is daft as well, but more usefully so. Demi Moore plays Marina, a clairvoyant from Carolina who wanders barefoot through the block on the arm of her new husband Leo, the local butcher. That crucial role went to George Dzundza, although the producers would have got better results by giving it to one of his lamb chops. Until now, Hughes has directed sitcoms, and he still enjoys sticking the camera in people's faces and making them Do a Reaction, which in Dzundza's case is not a pretty sight. Others take it better - Mary Steenburgen, say, as a daffy music teacher. The film warms up at the point when she walks into a dress- shop and says, 'I'm looking for something dowdy and plain'.

Jeff Daniels plays a psychiatrist called Tremor, who falls in love with Marina. The film is such candy-floss that it may not realise what a great screwball clinch it could have staged: the seer versus the shrink, two lovers fighting to get a lead on human behaviour. Demi Moore isn't up to it, struggling under a huge heavy-metal wig, but Daniels is right there. He is that true rarity, the light leading man - our answer to Joel McCrea, waging a deadpan fight for decency in a lunatic world. The Butcher's Wife is engaging enough, and I love clairvoyant gags - saying 'it's for you' just before the phone rings. But Daniels points you towards the masterpiece it could have been.