Love in a distinctly chilly climate; FILM

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Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (18) is a film that seems to be making strong men weep and cynics attend in reverent silence, and not without reason. Though you might easily take it for a bleak social drama in its early reels, it soon dawns that Von Trier is really thrashing around in religious dilemmas. Like Bergman or, more aptly, like his great fellow countryman Carl Theodore Dreyer, he's grappling with some profoundly vexed (and no less profoundly unmodish) notions about spirituality, redemption, miracles and the nature of good - indeed, of sanctity. In Emily Watson he has a wonderfully true and harrowing female lead, who richly deserves her "Felix" award as European Actress of the Year. Working with cinematographer Robby Muller and others, he has arrived at an idiosyncratic and apt style for his harsh fable, at once intimate and grandiose. It's impressive work. Yet it has a faint air of the bully, too, as though insisting that not to take it on its own grimly earnest terms would be cheap, possibly heretical. There are, however, causes for doubt.

Von Trier's narrative is quite simple, if hardly an everyday story of country folk. Bess (Watson) is a troubled young virgin who lives on a remote island in Scotland, as a member of a terrifyingly severe church. She marries an oil-rig worker, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), who looks as if he failed his audition for Abba by being too portly and unkempt. Bess loves Jan with an immoderate passion, and is devastated when a drilling accident leaves him paralysed. Never exactly blithe, the film's tone now waxes more grim by the sequence. Jan asks Bess to give him erotic fulfilment by having sex with other men, then describing it to him. Revolted, but convinced that only these escapades are keeping Jan alive, she becomes a kind of holy whore. Meanwhile, her family and her doctors have her sectioned, and the church casts her out. Try not to wish too fervently for a happy ending.

Improbable as it may sound, Breaking the Waves has no shortage of beguiling qualities - you can put up with a lot of grief from Bess after being privy to the beautiful smile she gives the camera in the first scene - and while it's not often plausible, it's not often dull, either: this is some of the liveliest misery you'll ever witness. (One of the bonuses is the soundtrack, a choice selection of early-Seventies prog-rock from the likes of Deep Purple, so wildly incongruous that one suspects Von Trier, in the teeth of all the evidence, of deliberate waggery.) Too much of it, though, won't wash. For example, Von Trier has pronounced that he intends Jan to be as much of a sacred innocent as Bess, but the part simply doesn't play that way. For most of the film he's a blank, and you side with Bess's doctors and sister-in-law (played with utter conviction by Katrin Cartlidge) in suspecting him of unfathomably sinister motives.

You may also have your suspicions about Von Trier, especially if you found his earlier work, such as Europa, not merely pretentious but faintly per-nicious, too. While it may be admirable for a director in these tawdry days to be fascinated by the process of redemption through degradation and torture, it might have been somewhat refreshing (at the risk of sounding, perish the thought, like a Sensitive Guy) for him to have let a bloke do a spot of the redemptive suffering for a change. And if there's more humanity in this drama than in his more swaggering films, thanks in no small part to Emily Watson's presence, there's also a layer of permafrost. Breaking the Waves never feels like a hollow or fraudulent film, but - a rebellious afterthought - the real miracle of Von Trier's search for the miraculous may be that it escapes that fate.

The director Ron Shelton has carved himself a fruitful little niche as an eloquent, good-natured jock, and in Tin Cup (15) he's returned to the sports-plus-romance format that gave him his first hit in Bull Durham. He's also picked up his old team-player Kevin Costner, and cast him as a golfer with the talent of a champ and the temperament of a loser. The temperament is the stronger, so our man scratches a wage by coaching, until a gorgeous shrink (Rene Russo) turns up for les- sons. Before long they're trading professional skills, then they're trading saliva, and he's off to compete in something called the US Open. The film's nothing special, but it's genial enough, and doesn't end quite as you'd expect - very nearly, though.

Were this a less numbingly over-provided week, John Herzfeld's feature debut, Two Days in the Valley (18), would deserve a much more detailed boost than space permits. It's gleeful stuff: a cruel, sparky farce which begins with a contract killing and then runs off over the hills and far away into conspiracy and loopy character studies. The meaty cast includes Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels and James Spader, though the best scene belongs to a moonlighting director, Paul Mazursky, as a has-been on the business end of some glorious professional Schadenfreude.

Set in Belfast on the eve of the ceasefire of 1975, Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal (15) follows the attempts of two Loyalist hit-men - one (James Frain) dangerously erratic, the other (Ian Hart) just plain sick in the head - to start the shooting war again after the IRA bombs a pub. Apart from the doubtful implication that the heads of both terrorist factions are essentially mature if rough-mannered elder statesmen (Michael Gambon, who plays the Loyalist chief, is a dourly impressive member of a strong cast) the film is one of the more substantial fictional portraits of the Troubles, properly nauseated at the horrors it has to show in close-up.

Boston Kickout (18), a quasi-autobiographical piece written and directed by Paul Hills, does its best to impress by looking fierce and sullen, like an angry truant, but keeps drifting towards self-pitying soap opera. It seems truer when Hills doesn't put so much effort into acting hard, and merely evokes the agonies of enforced leisure and aimlessness that traditionally afflict all school-leavers, whether or not they have to live in Stevenage, the poor petals.

Our five candidates for the half-term treat can have only summary treatment, thus: Dragonheart (PG), directed by Rob Cohen. Plot: dragon-slayer with American accent (Dennis Quaid) encounters melancholy and forgiving dragon with Scottish accent (courtesy Sean Connery). They skirmish a bit, become chums, and set about overthrowing a tyrant king with a Mancunian accent (David Thewlis). Good bits: the dragon cradling his face reflectively in his jaw; Pete Postlethwaite as a wandering scholar and poetaster.

Bad bit: it actually descends to that "the peasants are revolting" gag, which was, scholars have proved, already ancient in AD984.

The Wind in the Willows (PG), directed and written by Terry Jones, who also stars as Mr Toad. Plot: nasty gang of weasels set about asset-stripping an environmentally sensitive area, with the unwitting aid of a cold-blooded aristocrat, Good bits: a lovely strain of hallucinatory Edwardianism (cycling rabbits, Michael Palin's avuncular features on the endless pre-war sun) that should earn it a place in any future history of English psychedelia; Steve Coogan, solemn and touching as a swotty Mole. Bad bits: too much over-frantic chasing and capering, and gags at any price. Nostalgia dotards and lovers of Kenneth Grahame will wince, or weep.

The Adventures of Pinocchio (U), directed by Steve Barron. Plot: much the same as in the Disney version, or the old Italian book, probably. Good bits: the face of the sea monster; John Sessions as a pedagogue with a granny wig. Bad bits: almost everything else, especially the sappy, doe-eyed little hero (animated), who missed his proper calling as a fire log. Alaska (PG), directed by Fraser C Heston, son of Charlton. Plot: pilot crashes in the wilderness, his brats set off to rescue him and pal up with a polar bear cub en route. Good bits: none. A Goofy Movie (U), directed by Kevin Lima. Plot: seems to be about how Goofy's pubescent son Max gets into trouble at high school and then has the hots for some kind of teenage girl-animal, but, frankly, after half an hour of this stuff, I urgently needed to get in touch with my inner child. He told me that he wanted to bunk off too, so we went home.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.