Now that's what I call continental

GAZON MAUDIT / FRENCH TWIST Josiane Balasko (18) WHEN SATURDAY COMES Maria Giese (15) LA MADRE MUERTA Juanma Bajo Ulloa (18) A BOY'S LIFE Todd Haynes / Raoul O'Connell / Peggy Rajski (no cert)
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The Independent Culture
Film-goers hesitating between Gazon Maudit, a sophisticated French comedy about gender stereotypes and polymorphous sexuality, and French Twist, a broad English-language sex farce about a woman who takes revenge on her cheating husband with another woman, need not remain in an agony of indecision. They are one and the same, the movie in question being released in both a subtitled and (coming soon) a dubbed version, in an attempt to pitch it at different markets. Bids to do this in the past - The Boat, Fassbinder's Lili Marleen - have met with mixed success, and Mel Brooks's dubbed version of another French comedy, Les Visiteurs, looks unlikely to see the light of day. But it's an interesting experiment.

Critics being on the whole a snobby lot, we saw the subtitled edition, which possibly creates expectations that the film could never pretend to meet: essentially it's a light and mildly subversive farce - think La Cage aux Folles with a sunny southern French setting (Roussillon) and much to-ing and fro-ing, shouting and gesticulating in a loud Mediterranean sort of way. Josiane Balasko, an actress-comedienne best known in Britain as the dumpy mistress in Bertrand Blier's Trop Belle Pour Toi!, has developed a second career as a writer-director (Gazon Maudit is her fourth film); here she also plays the butch lesbian who seduces Victoria Abril's voluptuous housewife - both women, especially Abril, are very engaging.

The secondary characters are thinly drawn, but likeable enough, even Abril's slimy, unfaithful husband; the plotting embroils them in every kind of erotic permutation including an odd, edgy lesbian/ straight man coupling. The film flags in its latter sections - one feels it could lose a good 10 minutes - and pummels home some of its points about hypocrisy and tolerance a little loudly. But it's a rare opportunity to see a different kind of European - what we used to call "continental" - movie.

When Saturday Comes issues from another female director, the American/ Puerto Rican film-maker Maria Giese, who casts a slightly quizzical eye over the beer-and-footy working-class culture of the north of England; her producer-husband James Daley comes from Sheffield and supposedly supplies an insider's perspective. The result, alas, is an embarrassing series of own goals, an unintentionally comic, Monty Pythonesque view of life up north, from the opening scene where its young hero is told by a grim- faced schoolteacher, "You've got two choices - you can go down the pub, or you can work in a factory," via stories about pit ponies worked to death to an unplanned pregnancy and a tragedy at t'mine.

Difficult to believe the film is set in the mid Nineties - at any second you expect to see a young Albert Finney shuffling along the back-to-backs, cloth cap in hand. It takes a Ken Loach to inject this sort of setting with freshness and vitality (and anyone who doubts his skill should compare Kes - which includes many similar situations, including a delicious football scene - to this pale and cliched epigone). The calibre of the cast conspicuously exceeds the raw material; Sean Bean as a slightly long-in-the-tooth football protege who hopes sport will free him from the ghetto; the ever-reliable Pete Postlethwaite as his coach and mentor; and Emily Lloyd - an actress whose bright star-quality has miraculously not yet been eclipsed by her unerring nose for dud projects.

The brisk prologue of La Madre Muerta introduces Ismael, a burglar who kills an art dealer at point blank during a midnight raid - a murder witnessed by the victim's young daughter. Years later the girl, now grown up but mentally disturbed (or retarded), returns to haunt the criminal; he kidnaps her but finds himself obsessed by this eerily beautiful child-woman, neither able to murder her nor to let her go free.

This, the second film by a relatively unknown young Spanish director, Juanma Bajo Ulloa, is a mix of high Gothic gloom and macabre humour: well- staged setpieces like a scene where Ismael tries unsuccessfully to attack the young girl's deaf minder but is thwarted by a chain of absurd coincidences are choreographed with clever, Delicatessen-style precision. But the characters don't quite come alive, especially (and despite a good performance from the actor) the key figure of the anguished, repentant criminal; elegantly directed, the movie has a cold, cerebral quality which somewhat muffles its emotional impact.

A Boy's Life is a package of three American short films chronicling the coming out of gay males of different ages. By far the most striking, formally and thematically, though also the least successful, is Dottie Gets Spanked, from Todd Haynes, the director of Poison. Six-year-old Steven is "unhealthily" obsessed with the blonde star of a silly Fifties' sitcom; one episode in which he sees her get spanked triggers off a delirium of guilty masochistic fantasies. It's a complex, provocative piece which finally collapses under its own ambitions.

The two other films, A Friend of Dorothy and the Oscar-winning Trevor, are brighter and more conventional: morally uplifting tales of sad gay kids coaxed out of their closets by cute suitors. Sweet, lively and well performed, they have an old-fashioned, slightly didactic feel. There's also a problem with this kind of thematic programming: the same dramatic situations - uncomprehending parents, peer-group derision, intense identification with older female showbiz icons - recur in all three movies and, while these must be an intrinsic part of the gay experience, they do make the evening seem repetitive and a mite unbalanced.

n On release from tomorrow