OTHER RELEASES : This is a deadly dialogue alert

Outbreak (15) Wolfgang Petersen / US Le Colonel Chabert (PG) Yves Angelo / France La Frontera (15) Riccardo Larrain / Chile Look Me in the Eye (no cert) Nick Ward / UK

In Outbreak, thousands of people succumb to a vicious disease which first reddens your face, as though you've been scrubbed with a loofah, then renders you with the complexion of a pizza junkie. Then you die. The virus arrives in Cedar Creek, California, from Zare, via an infected monkey. Dustin Hoffman is Sam Daniels, a virologist alerted to the disease as it hits the African rain forest. Wolfgang Petersen directs so fast you swallow most anything, even that a squirt like Hoffman could be assigned the task of saving mankind.

He and his team are satisfied that the virus is not airborne, but they have reckoned without that monkey, which sparks a calamitous chain of events. Petersen topples the dominoes with military precision: the route from infection to death is so lovingly executed, you can almost forget he's depicting the end of the world as we know it.

This relish lifts the film whenever it gets bogged down in science or gloom. Petersen's glee is especially tangible in the scene where a carrier splutters his way around a cinema. It's a hokey episode - it removes you from the action (as do the doctors: "Apparently they got it in a movie theatre", they conclude gravely, all but peering out at us). But it has you smiling just the same, safe in the knowledge that, unlike other killer virus movies (The Andromeda Strain, The Cassandra Crossing), it is prepared to use irreverence in the event of an emergency.

Hoffman knows full well that this will hardly rank as the performance of his career which, conversely, could make it one of the performances of his career - he has so little fibre to fret over that he feels like a real human being for the first time in years.

The script is adequate, a patchwork quilt of rewrites; Carrie Fisher did some uncredited work - you can recognise her jazzy rhythms and sharp zingers. But poor Morgan Freeman has to stress the urgency of the plague with the words "These. People. Are. Americans". If the jets of pus and the corpses spread out like cold meat don't put you off your popcorn, lines like that will.

Even more corpses lurk in the opening sequence of Le Colonel Chabert. It is 1807, the aftermath of the battle of Eylau: the horses look like overturned tables, their legs stiff with rigor mortis; the plum-coloured soldiers are being piled high in mass graves. Somewhere in there is the Colonel (Grard Depardieu), mistakenly pronounced dead. What a shock, then, for his wife (Fanny Ardant) when he returns 10 years later, having hired her lawyer Derville (Fabrice Luchini). Ardant has since remarried, and Depardieu wants the riches he is owed.

Yves Angelo, who shot Germinal, directs his first feature, gracefully photographed by Bernard Lutic: the camera edges toward rooms that lie across hallways, homing in on clandestine conversations, or changing direction at whim, as though lured by a whiff of perfume. It seems to press the actors into corners too, exposing clues to their duplicity.

Angelo hasn't quite mastered pace, though. As long as the plot is muddy, there is a rumbling tension to the piece. Once Luchini is muscled out by the reunited couple, everything runs dry. Depardieu has proved he can play uncouth. And you can believe his tale - he looks dug-up, like a bad spud. But there's not enough room for him to manoeuvre; he feels bland as a stock heavy opposite the too-fragile Ardant.

Luchini is the film's bright spark, a sly weasel who whips the movie out from under its star's not inconsiderable nose. Lawyers, however, will be none too pleased at the wily stereotype he perpetuates.

Small-town loonies - you love them, I love them and, judging by the domestic box-office which La Frontera has generated, Chileans love them too. After questioning a colleague's abduction by the dictatorship, a maths teacher (Patricio Contreras) is exiled to a remote village whose inhabitants need the word "exile" explained to them. There he finds peace, contemplation and a deep-sea diving expedition to locate the hole in the ocean bed. At two hours, the whimsy is spread terribly thin, but the writer-director Ricardo Larrain conjures an intriguing array of oddballs whose eccentricity masks a sore disillusionment. The film closes with biblical overtones; while its canvas remains more modest, it's a charmer. Imagine Salvador Dali had collaborated on a sitcom with Galton & Simpson and you're getting close.

At school, if you didn't understand a film, that meant it was cool. Oh, how we would have lapped up Look Me in the Eye (at the NFT), a jamboree bag of metropolitan tableaux, Freudian imagery and off-cuts from the oeuvre of Roeg and Antonioni (with a dash of Dennis Potter to dirty). I expect it's all about voyeurism and sexuality, though it makes very little sense. Still, King's Cross, and the actress Caroline Catz, look darkly alluring, and pretentious 14-year-olds who know no better will adore it.

n On release from tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey

Arts and Entertainment

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