Too much safety in the home

SAFE PASSAGE Robert Allan Ackerman (15) THE MAN IN MY LIFE Jean Charles Tacchella (12) SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT Ingmar Bergman (PG)

Safe Passage has to be one of the worst film titles of the year: quite apart from the fact that it's tame, nondescript and wholly forgettable, it also, in a screenplay that depends after all on a modicum of suspense, broadcasts the outcome before the opening credits have started to roll. Early one winter's morning, Susan Sarandon wakes up with a terrible premonition. It proves correct: one of her seven grown-up sons - the difficult one, who joined the Marines and is posted in the Sinai desert - may have been killed in a terrorist bombing. As the hours and thedays tick past without news, the clan reunites to settle old scores and share their anxieties. Is the son really in jeopardy? Need you ask?

The movie shapes up as a portrait of a family in crisis: Sarandon's husband, played by Sam Shepard (whose own plays have comprehensively explored the subject), has moved out and is camping in his office; she is restless and resentful that most of her adult life has been spent cutting up other people's meat; there are intimations of tension and rivalry between the sons.

Alas, they all turn out to be boringly well adjusted: there's barely a whiff of dysfunction in the entire brood. The reactionary subtext is that, although she seems at first frustrated, it's a fine, fulfilling job (full, as the film's ominous epigram has it, of "joy and significance") to be a wife and mom. It's slightly surprising to see Sarandon, a prominent Hollywood liberal and feminist, involved with this scenario.

Odd, too, to see the name of another woman, the producer Gale Anne Hurd who has based her career on a stream of action-adventure hits (all with strong, independent roles for their female leads) including Aliens, The Terminator and The Abyss. Safe Passage is a small scale, dialogue-driven domestic drama set almost entirely within a couple of rooms.

The scope could scarcely be narrower: it's one of those American movies that uses a political crisis (and the deaths of hundreds of other unnamed men) as a colourful backdrop to the real drama - what's going on within the four walls of the family home. With bombings in the Middle East back in the news, the head-in-the-sand stance looks even more objectionable.

Still, no film starring Sarandon can be all bad. She fleshes out a dull role, the long-suffering mother, into a character who's difficult, aggressive, infuriating and unpredictable, lending the banal material an edge of constant danger. You keep waiting for her to explode: in vain - the film is, after all, called Safe Passage.

I was thoroughly puzzled by The Man in My Life, directed by Jean Charles Tacchella, who once made Cousin Cousine, a silly, but commercially successful, romantic farce. Half this film appears to be missing as Maria de Medeiros, on the hunt for a rich husband, cuts a bright, erratic swathe through the plot: one minute she's sizing up a man for the job, the next she's back from a disastrous trip to Thailand (which the budget clearly didn't run to showing) and has written him off. A few beats later, she's about to marry yet another character whom we haven't yet seen. Most mysteriously of all, her real love is a hard-up bookseller, a glum, rum, profoundly unsexy individual (Thierry Fortineau) with dubious personal habits and an appalling Bee Gee hairstyle which might have once, circa 1973, almost looked acceptable.

The tone veers as wildly; to call it a comedy is really overstating the matter. The two best scenes, as one would expect in a French film, concern food and sex: the noxious husband, a restaurant critic, railing at the chef for the sea-urchin sauce (without sea-urchins in it) served at his wedding breakfast, while shortly afterwards, in the interests of a speedy divorce, his wife and lover summon a small posse of flics to catch them as they pose obligingly in flagrante.

The name of Ingmar Bergman is not widely associated with levity, and in his memoirs, A Life in Film, he recalls that it was only a long strike in the Swedish film industry in 1951 that forced him to knock off some commercials and comedies to replenish his coffers. He conceived Smiles of a Summer Night while staying in a Swiss hotel next to a clinic for rich roues dying of syphilis, completed it back in Sweden at a boarding house in the company of a young girl recovering from a severe penicillin allergy and shot it while suffering himself from "sickness and depression".

The result, a featherlight comedy about the erotic machinations of a group of couples at a country house party at the turn of the century, has a strong undertow of melancholy, morbidity even, but much surface elegance, sunniness and charm: celebrated homages include Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

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