Gawky, grubby, down-at-heel ... but happy

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The Independent Culture
LES APPRENTIS Pierre Salvadori (15)

BACK OF BEYOND Michael Robertson (nc)

HAPPY GILMORE Dennis Dugan (12)

HUSTLER WHITE Bruce La Bruce / Rick Castro (18)

There may be nothing as trenchant in Les Apprentis as the beautiful opening credit sequence - a series of dissolves on an apartment door which mark the passing of four years, accompanied by the voice of Antoine (Francois Cluzet) as he spends those years trying, unsuccessfully, to compose a letter to the woman who left him. Antoine lives in the apartment with Fred (Guillaume Depardieu), a gangly loafer who sustains them with the junk food he steals ("We only eat what fits in your pockets!" Antoine complains). Together, they try to plug the yawning days. Fred pursues Agnes (Claire Larouche), a local girl who agrees to sleep with him if her boyfriend can watch. Antoine gets a job writing for a magazine, until he and Fred bust into the office safe. They drink vodka for breakfast. Antoine has a breakdown. The days just get longer.

Pierre Salvadori's sour comedy suggests Withnail and I without the savagery, or Bertrand Blier on his best behaviour. It's this restraint in the face of excess which makes the picture so sweet. Salvadori's debut, Wild Target, proved that he wasn't afraid of wicked humour, but in Les Apprentis he avoids driving comic scenarios to their extremes, settling instead on a gently parochial tone. He leads us into contrived, farcical situations which we're given ample opportunity to anticipate - Fred's clinch with Agnes being disrupted by her pernickety boyfriend; and an earlier scene where an estate agent ushering prospective buyers around the apartment stumbles on Fred and Antoine in bed together.

But Salvadori locates emotions within these situations which are anything but predictable. When Agnes's boyfriend pulls up an armchair to watch the live bed show, Salvadori doesn't press the scene for laughs, and he doesn't make it seem absurd or sordid. He respects his characters too much to do that. We assume the liaison went swimmingly; Salvadori simply cuts to a peaceful shot of the threesome snuggled up in bed, Fred tugging for his share of the duvet.

And the estate agent, with her expression of embarrassed horror, turns out not to be outraged after all. In fact, in a surreal touch, she's perfectly willing to dispense domestic advice to Antoine, demonstrating how you can clean windows using only water and balls of newspaper. Perhaps Antoine's punishment for burglary - a karate bout with his boss - is stretching credulity, but the humiliation is still tangible enough for the scene to sting.

Salvadori's actors have a mournful air of resignation about them which fits the picture's drizzly feel. Francois Cluzet has Dustin Hoffman's fidgeting, neurotic restlessness, and a mouth that twitches at the corners. He's an expert at self-pity - the emptied eyes, the shoulders set in a permanent shrug - but he has a nice moment of childlike coyness, when Fred reprimands him for stealing a sheet of stamps during the office robbery.

Guillaume Depardieu has inherited his father's bumbling coarseness, but he's a bewitching actor in his own right, and far more pleasing to the eye than his pere. Despite a selection of vomit-coloured shirts, which he climbs into whenever he wants to impress someone, he's much more than the sum of a sadistic costume designer's ideas - wearing orange and mustard wing-collared affairs, with his lank hair greased back behind his ears, he's trying to persuade himself and everyone else that he's the bee's knees, and that's very endearing. He gets the film's best line, too: "Sometimes when I'm next to you," he tells Agnes humbly, "I think I should have a bath." Les Apprentis is a lot like him: gawky, grubby, down-at-heel, but salvaged by streaks of blinding optimism.

With Back of Beyond, the Australian actor Paul Mercurio wades further from the glory of Strictly Ballroom and toward his only possible future: daytime soap opera. He certainly has the lack of talent for it, as a mechanic whose petrol station plays host to three diamond thieves. Minor characters deliver pat observations - a travelling saleswoman stops by to note that "You don't get a second chance at happiness", while an Aboriginal ghost warns, "It's not easy letting go when you love someone." The screenwriter will undoubtedly be accompanying Mercurio to the land of Neighbours.

You wait years for a sports movie laced with sick jokes, then two come along at once: last week's Kingpin and now the golfing comedy Happy Gilmore. Both have running gags about artificial limbs. But Happy Gilmore has the brilliant, jittery Adam Sandler, and a scene with Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed from the Rocky films) sitting on a golf course playing "We've Only Just Begun" on a grand piano. It is therefore the better film.

It's hard to know what to say about Hustler White without using diagrams. This is gay pornography shot on dirty 16mm, with spiky dialogue, a few scattergun movie references, and a scene involving an amputee which ... no, I'd definitely need a diagram to explain that one. There's an audience for it, however small, though it will doubtless be a novelty for them to see a film that doesn't come wrapped in a brown paper bag. Though you feel it should.

n On general release from Friday