London Film Festival Diary: No more sex and violins

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The Independent Culture
For two decades, French-language cinema has conveyed the impression that our closest neighbours are a bunch of adulterous DPhil students, publishers, designers and violin-makers wracked with existential angst. Thanks to the work of more class-conscious directors such as Bruno Dumont (La Vie de Jesus), Erick Zonca (The Dream Life of Angels) and Yolande Zauberman (Clubbed to Death), that's beginning to change. Rosetta, by the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Filmed in a pitiless verite style, it's a sharp study of a young woman (Emilie Dequenne) desperate to find employment and gain some self-respect. The Dardennes have a good sense of the chill banality of poverty, and let it show by putting their heroine through a series of humiliating, neurotic rituals. She stuffs toilet paper - the tough, grey, municipal kind - into the broken seals of her caravan home. She fills and refills a water bottle from a standpipe. She scrabbles in the cold sludge of a riverbank. It's a film of plausible, cheerless sobriety, and nobody mentions Kierkegaard or interior design.

ABCD stands for American-Born Confused Deshi. "Some people have taken it all the way up to Z," says its director, Krutin Patel. "`Emigrated From Gujarat' is the next bit, and after that it's something about a `Hotel In Jersey' ..." The expression is derogatory, by the way, so don't get smart and try to use it. Patel's film is one of the sweet little treats of the festival, a low-key, precisely observed social comedy about brother and sister Raj (Faran Tahir) and Nina (Sheetal Sheth), first-generation Indians in America struggling to strike a balance between their two cultures. I detected a touch of Jane Austen's Emma about the heroine, Nina - not just because Sheth's performance owes something to Alicia Silverstone's in Clueless. And it's got Madhur Jaffrey doing a well-judged star turn as Nina's interfering mother - and the kind of ambivalent ending that would have your average lily-livered studio executive screaming for the axe.

Your one-minute guide to Ride with the Devil, courtesy of its makers and stars: does it have a gay subplot? Yes, according to director, Ang Lee, who went into a press-conference reverie about "guys sleeping with each other and penetrating each other's bodies with guns". His cast had other kinds of physicality on their minds: "I deprived myself of nourishment in order to hurt myself," announced Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. "If I felt pain I knew I was doing a good job." I wondered if US test screening audiences had been shocked by the film's portrayal of the American Civil War as closer to Kosovo than Agincourt, and was told by the writer-producer, James Schamus, that only "the media elite" were interested in questions like that.

The London Film Festival's first full week has included a mix of some movies you'll get to see anyway if you can wait a few weeks, and others that you'll probably never get another chance to see in your life. Edtv, for instance - Ron Howard's take on a plot which is very similar to that of The Truman Show - opens all over the country on 19 November, so there would be little point in travelling to catch it, even if it was a masterpiece. Which it isn't. Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang Nak, however, is unlikely to materialise at your local multiplex, and may never be screened again in the UK after Wednesday - though it outperformed even Titanic at the Bangkok box office. If you like weird Thai ghost stories in which people get eaten by Komodo dragons and trepanned in their graves, get on the bus to the National Film Theatre.

The London Film Festival (0171 928 3232; continues to 18 Nov