Cinema: Shooting from the lip

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It Takes only seconds for Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (15) to slap its cards on the table. A bewigged nobleman strides briskly through the corridors of Versailles; presents himself haughtily to an enfeebled old buffer who sprawls, close to death, in a chair; explains that he was one of the many victims claimed by the dying man's sharp wit in his glory days; pulls out his penis - in extreme close-up - and sends a long and pungent stream of pee all over the howling invalid. (The low mumbling and shuffling noise you may hear at this point is caused by legions of Sense and Sensibility fans making for the exits.) Statements of intent seldom come much plainer. Ridicule is going to urinate on the conventions of the period film from a great height.

For one thing, the screenplay, though very loosely inspired by the Countess of Boigne's Memoires, isn't based on a literary classic: it's all the work of Reni Waterhouse, who seems to have built up his anatomy of pre- Revolutionary France with the same gleeful leaps of imagination that distinguish good science fiction. And as with some sci-fi, the world of Ridicule runs according to a ruling principle which is hard to swallow if easy to grasp. At the court of Louis XVI, which the film represents as a pit of human snakes, writhing with ambition and terror, a talent for verbal wit and repartee - bel esprit - is prized so highly that it can open every path to preferment. Conversely, to be put down by a piercing epigram can mean social death, sometimes leading to the real thing - the ridiculed may find their state so painful that they hang themselves.

To this quasi-sci-fi logic, Waterhouse adds a plot straight out of the western: the good guy rides into a dirty little town and makes a name for himself shooting it out with the local bad guys. Strictly speaking, there's only one real shoot-out - a duel fought towards the final reel - but the clashes with paradoxes, litotes, irony, bathos and wordplay are set up exactly like those old confrontations in saloons and deserted streets. (It's my life or his'n, pardner: hand me down the thesaurus.) To an English-speaking audience, such shafts of laboured wit will not seem terribly funny - one sneering toff explains that the British do not understand wit, possessing instead something called hiuma. They are, however, a sight more thrilling than a lot of the gunplay you'll encounter in an average month.

Ridicule's intrepid young wit-slinger is Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling, whose sharp, interesting face is fairly new to the cinema), an impoverished provincial aristocrat of progressive views, who wishes to drain the swamps of his region and so save the peasantry from malaria. Despite his fundamental good nature, he has more than enough mental dexterity and malice to make his way through the agonisingly indirect dance of manners which leads to the King, and before long starts to realise that he is becoming as infected by the court's vileness as his peasants are by mosquitoes. His moral struggle is made flesh, perhaps a trifle too schematically, in the contesting charms of two women: Madame de Blayac, rotten beneath her white body powder (watching Fanny Ardant preen and scheme and scowl in this part, you realise that the Almighty obviously intended her, rather than Glenn Close, to play the lead in Les Liaisons Dangereuses), and the idealistic young Mathilde de Bellegarde (Judith Godreche), as virtuous as she is fair, even if she does plan to marry a senile roue so as to finance her various proto-scientific schemes, including the development of a diving suit.

Patrice Leconte, who has disclaimed any prior interest in historical films, or indeed in history generally, shoots the action as if he'd never been told that the 18th century was a stately age: he cuts fast and uses tracks and hand-held camera and what looks suspiciously like a Steadicam, thus creating the impression that the film is motoring along merrily even when all that's really happening is that gloomy aristos are loitering in an antechamber. If he doesn't quite manage to make Ridicule seem like more than a pleasingly eccentric and well-read entertainment, he never lets it seem too self- important, either, and the film's avowed distaste for the sickliness of bel esprit should win it a receptive audience in the land of hiuma.

As you might expect of the director of The Black Stallion, Carroll Ballard's goose epic Fly Away Home (U) is the kind of family entertainment that doesn't require parents to leave their sense of discrimination at the door, and is emotionally restrained enough to be genuinely lyrical rather than merely slobbering. (All right, let's get this over with: it's worth a gander.) It's the familiar story of a child (Anna Paquin, she of The Piano and a precocious Oscar) who, after losing her mother in a car crash, heals both herself and her father (Jeff Daniels) by learning to care for animals - here, a flock of similarly orphaned geese which she must train to fly south for the winter with the help of a miniature plane. (At last! A movie about imprinting!) What isn't predictable is the glorious, digitally- enhanced sights Ballard contrives for the birds' migration, from an autumnal Canada heavy with allusions to the paintings of Andrew Wyeth to a sequence Magritte might have relished - a triumphant flight along the skyscraper canyons of Baltimore. Respect, too, to Mark Isham's refreshingly slop- free, fiddle-based score.

It may be half a century old, but His Girl Friday (U) screams out for more column inches than the other new releases. Cary Grant adopting the pompous, Napoleonic pose of a hypothetical statue; Cary Grant whinnying at a dead phone as his standard Gatlinggun delivery finally crashes and burns into inarticulate frustration; Cary Grant bugging his eyes ever so slightly as he enquires, with barely contained prurience and Schadenfreude, about the possible violent death of a little old lady; Cary Grant feigning dewy-eyed remorse as he swindles yet another innocent fool ... just four of the reasons (many of the others also involve Cary Grant) why His Girl Friday is such a rapturously wonderful comedy. If you have never seen Howard Hawks's genderswapping spin on Hecht & MacArthur's The Front Page (Hildy Johnson becomes a woman, and what a woman: Rosalind Russell, a Cruise missile in teetering high heels and ziggurat hat), then one of life's more delicious experiences could be just around the corner for you.

If you're already a convert, you may find yourself a little nonplussed to be reminded how dark much of its action can be: simultaneously hard- bitten and jolly, it's a farce played out in the shadow of the gallows, and its action includes a murder, a suicide attempt, political corruption, red-baiting and a tooth-rottingly cynical view of the human food chain. It's also one of the least soppy romances in the history of screen comedy, one of the few to admit that there are times when the thrill of professionalism can rival or exceed the excitement of love; and it's the talkiest of all the great talkies, with torrents of overlapping, headlong dialogue that leave you feeling as breathless as if you'd just had to rattle out the lines yourself. Yes, there may well be a handful of movies funnier than His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks made some of them, Preston Sturges made some of the rest) but there aren't many others that wade so far into the cesspool and still come back grinning. And did I mention that the star is Cary Grant?

White Man's Burden (15), written and directed by Desmond Nakano, is an alternative-reality parable that might have made a cracking half-hour in the Twilight Zone series but looks way out of its depth on the big screen. In an imaginary America, where the power elite is black and the underclass is white, Louis Pinnock (John Travolta ) is a decent factory hand whom a local businessman (Harry Belafonte) thinks has ogled his wife. Louis is fired from his job and beaten up by cops; he then loses his family and winds up taking his rich enemy hostage. There are one or two mildly provocative moments en route, but Nakano misses too many tricks - some really inventive new forms of racial slang, for instance.

Mercy demands the most rapid dispatch possible for Ismail Merchant's uniquely preposterous The Proprietor (12) which, alas, stars Jeanne Moreau (look on my works, ye mighty, and despair) as a world-famous novelist wandering around New York and Paris, haunted by memories of the Occupation and interacting with lots of arty and unbelievable types. Its worse than daft: it could be used in film schools to show how to make an actor's smallest movements, gestures and turns of phrase seem utterly phoney.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.