A few things Alan Titchmarsh would never do with a rake...

The Rotterdam Film Festival may be Cannes' quieter sibling, but, says Jonathan Romney, it's where the real action is
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The Independent Culture

Entirely free of PR hoopla, and blasted in January with Siberian winds, Rotterdam is nevertheless a place where film buffs love to be.

Banner headlines and photo opportunities aren't really Rotterdam's thing - although Takeshi Kitano did cause a bit of a stir this year by tap dancing at his press conference. Nevertheless, Rotterdam is a festival at which reputations are made, in a more considered and sometimes more lasting way than in Cannes or Berlin. In 1999, French director Catherine Breillat, who had been making films since the mid-Seventies, was the subject of a retrospective that featured her latest work Romance, and this event helped put her on the list of, if not the most famous, at least the most controversial directors today.

Breillat returned to Rotterdam this year to launch her 10th film Anatomie de l'Enfer (Anatomy of Hell), cannily marketed as "le X-ième film de Catherine Breillat", since the director promised this would be not only "the conclusion of a decalogue" but also "the X of X-rated film". Like Romance, Anatomie co-stars prolific Euro-porn icon Rocco Siffredi, playing opposite Amira Casar as a gay man paid by a woman to take lessons in the fraught dynamics of male-female relations. The action is virtually limited to one set: the bedroom where the man goes over four nights for a sort of seminar on the philosophy of sex.

Practical demonstrations involve such objects as a tampon, a stone dildo and a garden rake, used in a way that would give Alan Titchmarsh a fainting fit. Hardcore the film certainly is, with its graphic genital close-ups, but a turn-on it isn't, with Breillat determined to investigate the horror rather than the pleasure of sex.

Breillat turned up before the premiere screening to request the audience to watch it in absolute silence - I can't quite see that washing when the British critics get together in Soho Square, but you see her point. Take the film on its own terms, and its severe control is undeniable: if Ingmar Bergman had ever made a porn film, from a Strindberg script, it couldn't have been more austere. Siffredi, solemn and just a little shell-shocked throughout, proves he can act, while Amira Casar, currently Ted Hughes's lover in Sylvia, is coldly commanding in a performance of the sort that routinely gets called "courageous" - this one really is, in every sense. In fact, a caption points out that a body double is used for the female close-ups - much against the intentions of Breillat, who complained that it was a sign of "retrograde" times that no actress was prepared to go all the way.

Sterner and grimmer than Romance, the film might not cross the Channel quite as easily. One reason is that the intensely solemn discussions about sex, firmly in the Georges Bataille tradition, lose something in translation: lines about "the Nothingness that is the imprescriptible All" are probably not Rocco's usual pillow talk. Another reason is that the BBFC may raise an eyebrow, less over the sexual content than over one scene in which a baby bird comes to a (literally) sticky end.

Another extreme director whose name made a splash in Rotterdam a couple of years ago is hyper-prolific Japanese genre-bender Takashi Miike. His latest film Zebraman, a world premiere here, turned out to be a scatty, overwrought superhero parody, but if you don't like one Miike film, there's always another along shortly. Zebraman is the second film he has unveiled since he showed his yakuza nightmare Gozu in Cannes in May. Impressive - but just beaten to the punch by French-based Chilean globetrotter Raul Ruiz, who has made three since then. Latest works featured in a Ruiz retrospective included Vertigo of the White Page, an improvised video piece billed as "un reality show de Raul Ruiz", and A Place Among the Dead, a piece of cod-noir set in 1958 Paris, about a writer tangling with an existentialist killer. A salty mash of Hitchcock, Simenon, Boris Vian and a dash of metaphysics, this was almost mainstream stuff by Ruiz's usually oblique standards, and was the second most entertaining thing I saw here.

The most entertaining? What if I told you it was a Belgian road comedy with wheelchairs? In black and white? No, seriously. Aaltra, directed by and starring Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, is about two grumpy middle-aged men who lose the use of their legs in a bizarre agricultural accident then head to Helsinki to protest. This sublimely nutty black farce features dialogue in five different languages, a plethora of Tati-esque sight gags, Jason Flemyng as a bewildered English motocross rider, and a jaw-dropping karaoke performance by a Finnish biker. All this and a cameo by Finland's finest Aki Kaurismäki, who turns up at the very last moment to deliver the punchline to this shaggy-dog story - and in French, at that.