RIDICULE

Director: Patrice Leconte. Starring: Fanny Ardant, Charles Berling (subtitles) (15)

Comedians today don't know they're born. When they talk about dying in front of an audience, it's a figure of speech, but at the court of Louis XVI, in late 18th-century France, a barbed wit would save your life. The fate of a man could hang on the bite of his rejoinders, the precision of his put-downs. And if you didn't get a laugh, then you had two options: a lifetime of disgrace, or a swift death.

In Patrice Leconte's film, the innocent Ponceludon de Malavoy (Berling) finds himself in the company of the aristocratic parasites Madame de Blayac (Ardant) and Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau), who see him as nothing more than an insubstantial hors d'oeuvre - until his own ripostes prove him unexpectedly tart to the taste. He appears to astonish himself by cutting his new acquaintances down to size; there's the startled pride in his eyes of a man who has just hit a bullseye with a gun which he didn't even know was loaded.

Despite failing to heed the advice of his ally at court, the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), who warns him to laugh only with his mouth closed, and never at his own jokes, Ponceludon is a big hit among the rapier wits. But his mission is serious: he seeks the King's help to instigate drainage plans back in his rural home town, where the disease-ridden Dombes marshes are killing off the peasants. A good cause isn't enough to win Ponceludon favour, though. He has to have the one-liners to back it up.

Ridicule is a very smart, beautifully written comedy - about wit, though in itself fizzy rather than actually witty. It is, of course, hamstrung by the paradox of needing to despise the very characters who lend it that fizz. In their brittle language, the courtiers might have resembled ancestors of the Algonquin set, but Leconte gives us a portrait closer to what we know of Andy Warhol's Factory clique, celebrating the stringent elitism and etiquette, but alert to the flashes of fraudulence. During a game in which competitors must improvise comic verse, Ponceludon catches Madame de Blayac cheating, but only reveals his discovery to the cheat herself. Shopping her would be to his disadvantage, since her patronage is essential to gain favour with the King.

The film borrows Ponceludon's self-serving approach. Leconte revels in the customs of the courtiers, using their cruelty to give the film its momentum until his allegiance to Ponceludon forces him to concede to emotion over wit. Mostly, this is a smooth transition, though the contrast between the powdered Madame de Blayac, and Ponceludon's fresh-faced love, Mathilde is clumsily accentuated.

As played with sublime sensuality by Fanny Ardant, Madame de Blayac remains the picture's most complex and fascinating creation. When we first see her, she is having her entire body powdered, and is naked but for a constellation of dust rearranging itself around her. When she steps out of it, she leaves behind two bright mahogany footprints in the inch of powder which has settled on the floor.

It's a delicious image, and a fair reflection of the way she is presented; she's a slave to her powder puff, with only occasional and accidental glimpses of the human being beneath. Her instinct for self- preservation and mastery of power games are articulated with great intelligence. But in feigning strength, she shows her weakness. She has disguised herself with words for so long that she's frightened to express the emotions behind them.

FLY AWAY HOME

Director: Carroll Ballard. Starring: Anna Paquin, Jeff Daniels (U)

In the car crash which begins Fly Away Home, 14-year-old Amy (Paquin) loses her mother. The girl wakes up in a hospital bed; her world is in pieces. She moves in with her estranged father, Thomas (Daniels), and finds herself sharing his affections with his girlfriend, and his Ontario farm with numerous sculptures and experiments - most prominently, the various light aircraft which are helping him keep his head in the clouds. But Amy feels lost until she finds a batch of goose eggs, and decides to watch over them, not knowing that geese latch onto whomever they set eyes on when they hatch. The adventure escalates when Amy discovers that the orphaned geese need guidance to help them migrate: she has no option but to turn to her magnificent dad and his flying machines for help.

Jeff Daniels is wonderfully dishevelled in that role, and conveys a naive recklessness which you can believe might prove endearing. It's all in the beard - his rebellious face-furniture gives him a likeable beatnik quality.

Anna Paquin also gives an excellent, intuitive performance, though the real winners here are Caleb Deschanel's gorgeous photography and the cool, unforced direction of Carroll Ballard.

WHITE MAN'S BURDEN

Director: Desmond Nakano. Starring: John Travolta, Harry Belafonte (15)

A laboured anti-racism drama which muddles the issues that it sets out to illuminate. In a society split into affluent blacks and poverty- stricken whites, factory worker Louis Pinnock (Travolta) loses his job and his home, and has his family broken up because of financial troubles. Hungry for revenge, and desperate to see his son again, he kidnaps the weathy factory owner, Thaddeus Thomas (Belafonte), but his plans go badly wrong.

Never mind that the whole scenario is deeply flawed; the entire film is executed with a paucity of wit and imagination, and remains consistent only in its naivete.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY

Director: Howard Hawks. Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy (U)

Hawks's sizzling 1940 comedy about a hard-nosed reporter, Hildy Johnson (Russell), desperately trying to resist her editor and ex-husband, Walter Burns (Grant), as he attempts to woo her back into his employment and his life. But as a big story breaks surrounding a man on death row, Hildy finds her old life harder than ever to forsake in favour of dull new fiance Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy).

Charles Lederer's script moves faster than a speeding bullet, and you will need a sharp ear to keep track of the wisecracks. Hawks paces the whole thing with incredible verve, as though he is choreographing a musical, and the scenes where the three leads collide in one room with all their attendant grudges and rivalries may be the sharpest and funniest you will ever see.

THE PROPRIETOR

Director: Ismail Merchant. Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Sean Young (12)

After his plodding debut feature, In Custody, Ismail Merchant takes another ill-advised holiday from his partnership with director James Ivory, and cobbles together this story of an exiled author (Moreau) journeying from New York to Paris, where her childhood home is up for auction. There, she hopes to finally make peace with her troubled past. Moreau gives a sturdy, dignified, performance, but as a director, Merchant flounders way out of his depth.

GENERAL

RELEASE

ACTS OF LOVE (18) Small-town Lolita, with a nicely understated Dennis Hopper in his first real romantic lead.

THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO (U) Patchy live-action version of the classic.

ALASKA (PG) Superior kids' eco-thriller, with great scenery for the grown-ups.

AMERICAN BUFFALO (15)

Dustin Hoffman stars in David Mamet's talk-centred study of a small-time heist.

ANTONIA'S LINE (15) (subtitles) Oscar-winning feminist drama, spanning five decades.

BEAUTIFUL GIRLS (15) Breezy, bitter-sweet romantic comedy about a group of thirty-something buddies.

BEYOND THE CLOUDS (18)

Wandering film director John Malkovich links Antonioni's four tales of love and lust. As cool and mysterious as any of the auteur's previous work.

LE BONHEUR (EST DANS LE PRE) (15) (subtitles) Underwhelming French farce about the boss of a toilet seat factory who finds a new joie de vivre. With Eric Cantona's cameo.

BRASSED OFF (15) Moving drama about the decline of a mining community, seen through the eyes of a colliery band.

BREAKING THE WAVES (18) Emily Watson gives a towering performance in Lars Von Triers's harrowing epic. The melodrama is set to a powerful 1970s rock soundtrack and shot with a sea-sick, hand-held camera. It works. Brilliantly.

CARLA'S SONG (15) Ken Loach builds a beautiful romance between Robert Carlyle's Glaswegian bus driver and the haunted Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), then squanders it in a dull denouement which sees the couple heading off to Nigaragua to resolve her past.

CHAIN REACTION (12) Brainless and confusing action movie, with Keanu Reeves.

A CHINESE GHOST STORY (15) Loopy martial-arts ghost story with effervescent humour and eerie effects.

COURAGE UNDER FIRE (15) Gulf War drama starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan.

THE CRAFT (15) Andrew Fleming's black teen movie about high-school crones. More hits than misses - just.

CRIMETIME (18) A TV-show serial killer gets tips from a real psychopath in this disappointing thriller from The Vanishing director, George Sluizer.

THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS (18) Hollow sequel, with Vincent Perez taking over the role from the late Brandon Lee.

DAYLIGHT (12) When motorists get trapped in an underwater tunnel, Stallone goes up against the clock in this video-game disaster movie.

THE DAY OF THE BEAST (18) (subtitles) Gory, off-target Spanish black comedy.

THE DAY THE SUN TURNED COLD (12) (subtitles) A boy accuses his mother of killing his father in this sombre thriller from Hong Kong.

DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (PG) Mel Brooks's depressingly unfunny parody.

DRAGONHEART (PG)

Witty slice of SFX-laden hokum, with Dennis Quaid as a questing knight and Sean Connery providing the voice for his companionable dragon.

THE EIGHTH DAY (PG) Cloying French fable about a Down's syndrome sufferer.

EMMA (U) Gwyneth Paltrow is the irrepressible matchmaker in the latest, somewhat chocolate-box Austen adaptation.

EVITA (PG) Alan Parker's film of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The iconic Eva Peron is played with panache by Madonna, but the film lacks stylistic coherence and emotion.

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