Film: Lean and mean and full of genes

Film: Lean and mean and full of genes

UNLESS you are Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, Jude Law or one of the sleek, six-foot extras that populate Gattaca (15), Andrew Niccol's hi-tech parable may leave you feeling a little lumpen. Set in an imminent future in which parents can choose their childrens' characteristics like dial-a-pizza toppings and putative lovers test the purity of each other's DNA before agreeing to a first date, it's genuinely thought-provoking.

Gattaca is a film whose power lies more in the skill with which it exploits your anxieties than for the originality of its drama. The plot is recycled Aldous Huxley: the world is divided into a genetically-engineered elite of beautiful, brainy "valids", and an underclass of "in-valids" with dicky hearts, paunches and spectacles. Myopic "in-valid" Vincent (Ethan Hawke) buys up the blood and urine of an embittered, crippled, but biologically blessed ex-athlete (Jude Law) in order to infiltrate the powerful Gattaca corporation, and get his chance to be part of a mission to Saturn. Beating Gattaca's security systems - and the suspicion of star employee Uma Thurman - requires Hawke to strap himself up with sachets of Jude Law's bodily fluids.

Niccol's dystopia is a burnished world of beech and steel that glows under an ozone-depleted daylight. It is as clinical, contoured and beautifully lit as an Oliver Peyton restaurant. But Niccol seems to have been seduced by these attractive surfaces, and fails to make much of a case for warts- and-all individualism. Since Ethan Hawke is hardly a boot-faced hunchback, it's a little difficult to take any message about the joys of physical diversity from him. His character, moreover, isn't really a rebel of any kind, but a man convinced that he can surpass the physical and mental excellence of his eugenic "betters" by working out and genning up on rocket science. This isn't resistance. It's simply a more energetic form of conformity.

"There is no gene for the human spirit," insists the poster, but Niccol keeps the soul on the sub's bench. Instead, his film makes disapproving noises about genetic hegemony, and then slyly celebrates the virtues of the six-pack stomach. That said, it remains a furiously persuasive picture of a genetic totalitarianisman which may already be here. And this is reason enough to see it: Gattaca may nurse a secret passion for the alliance between body fascism and the petri dish, but its sheer plausibility demands your attention - even though it may leave you looking anxiously into the bathroom mirror, worrying about the state of your genes.

If the Riefenstahlian contours of the Gattacans leave you regretting last night's bag of chips, then you may be cheered by the carefree beering, whoring, farting and swashbuckling that goes on in Randall Wallace's The Man in the Iron Mask (12). You'll know the plot from the book or the six other filmed versions. Bad King Louis XIV of France (Leonardo DiCaprio) has an identical twin brother (Leonardo DiCaprio) imprisoned in the Bastille. The once celebrated but now rather tumble-down Musketeers - Aramis (Jeremy Irons, reprising the gentle sanctity of his Richard II), Athos (a creepily camp John Malkovich) and Porthos (a shambling, hairy Gerard Depardieu) have a plan to switch around the royal pair and thus save France from revolution (well, they weren't to know).

Wallace offers all sorts of glorious silliness in a Hollywood-style France where people say "mon dieu" and "enchante", but also "Once a musketeer, always a musketeer, huh?" Irons disguises himself as an obese priest; Depardieu shows his bum-crack and negotiates an unsubtle physical gag involving pigeon excrement; nubile court ladies roll out from under Leonardo DiCaprio and exclaim "Oh, Louis, you are right - a woman has never known love until she has known the love of a king!" After the censorious postbag I received when I was a little rude about Leo in my review of Titanic, perhaps I should let the final verdict on his performance be pronounced by my friend Lizzie, who has seen James Cameron's epic five times, and whose mother kindly let her skive off school to come to the press screening of The Man in the Iron Mask. "Very good," she says. And I agree. It's dumb-ass Dumas. But only the most tight-sphinctered curmudgeon would willingly resist its cheerful pleasures.

Personally, I think there's nothing more boring than middle-class literary types banging on about their extra-marital affairs. This is possibly why I've never really got on with Julian Barnes's novel Talking it Over, and why I approached Marion Vernoux's adaptation of the book, Love Etc (15), with some trepidation. Relocating the story to Paris, however, makes perfect sense, as Barnes's characters are just the types that French film-makers adore: articulate, over-educated, and able to live cosy lifestyles in beautifully appointed apartments without ever seeming to spend much time at work. Moreover, the mechanics of the three-way relationship between Pierre (Charles Berling, of Ridicule), Marie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of Jane Eyre) and Benoit (Yvan Attal) are much more plausible when translated into French. There's no word in English for menage-a-trois, and with good reason - they do this sort of thing much better than we do. Vernoux's deft handling of the plot's interpersonal intricacies bears this out, and though I'd quibble with her decision to convert some of the narration into a series of inappropriately daffy monologues, this remains smart, strong, emotionally cogent work.

The sexual complexity of Tsai Ming-liang's The River (no cert) makes Vernoux's Parisian threesome look like fairly uncomplicated arithmetic. Shot in pitilessly long takes, Ming-liang's movie details a series of incidents in the lives of a dysfunctional Taiwanese family. Mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) is having an affair with a pornographer. Father (Miao Tien) cruises the gay saunas of Taipei, and picks up rent boys in McDonald's. Their son, Xiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) has a painful neck injury that acupuncture, bone-crunching chiropractic sessions and exorcism will do little to assuage. Though it's not exactly a pleasure, Ming-liang's film is a rarefied cinematic experience, almost evacuated of dialogue, unfolding its story through fastidiously detailed images. Don't bother to read the subtitles, just surrender to the slow current of his scenes.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11.