The best rental of the month, Amy Heckerling's sparkling comedy Clueless (CIC, rental), does make you bubble inside but its portrait of air-headed modern-day Valleygirls (by way of Jane Austen's Emma) is blessed with incisive wit and a supremely well-judged performance by Alicia Silverstone. A better Austen film than Sense and Sensibility.
The other films worth surrendering an evening to this month are the ones that mess with your head. Funny Bones (Buena Vista, rental) is a low-key comedy which is concerned with the agony, not the ecstacy, of humour. Oliver Platt plays a failed comic who flees an embarrassing Vegas debut, and the reputation of his father (Jerry Lewis), and disappears to Blackpool, where he aims to hunt down the essence of comedy. What he finds is Lee Evans, a slightly disturbed slapstick performer whose inspired routines are underpinned by trauma. The film is quite a mess - a loose sub-plot involving Oliver Reed as a drugs kingpin named Dolly only trips up the dramatic rhythms. But Evans is truly dazzling, suggesting that a bottomless grave of pain and unhappiness lies beneath his elastic tomfoolery. Gus Van Sant's To Die For (Polygram, rental) strives for a similar brew of darkness and light, with a spot of well-honed satire thrown in. But despite an otherworldly, hypnotically lobotomised performance by Joaquin Phoenix (as a stoner seduced into murdering Nicole Kidman's slobbish husband), the picture finally tells us nothing more than that celebrity corrupts.
La Separation (Guild, rental/ retail pounds 15.99) would be a stultifying bore but for the presence of France's greatest living actors, Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil. I suppose that what they generate here is commonly described as "chemistry", though that word is too tame to hint at the scalding emotions which are bared in this torturous study of a decaying romance.
You could hardly describe the film as accomplished - there's an indigestible collision of the morbid and the sentimental in the director Christian Vincent's screenplay, and that makes him seem as vain and indulgent as his characters. Auteuil and Huppert, their sullen faces and fidgeting hands shot in close-up, remain captivating; for whole minutes at a time, they make you forget that you're watching art-house cinema at its most overwrought. Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce pull off a similar trick in Carrington (Polygram, rental), in which their fine performances (as Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey respectively) put Christopher Hampton's stilted direction in the shade. Both films pay considerable rewards for your stamina and understanding.
To coincide with Trainspotting mania, Danny Boyle's first feature Shallow Grave (Polygram, pounds 13.99) is available in widescreen format. But "shallow" says it all. For a really vibrant debut from a British director, peruse The Young Poisoner's Handbook (Polygram, rental), Benjamin Ross's hallucinatory tale of murder and madness in 1960s Neasden.Reuse content