New Films: Born under the sign of Pyrex

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Gattaca Andrew Niccol (15)

The Man in the Iron Mask Randall Wallace (12)

The RiverTsai MingLiang (nc)

Love Etc Marion Vernoux (15)

Our pleasure at watching movies which imagine a possible future is derived from two paradoxical sources: enjoying those fantastical elements which push the vision beyond our reach, whilst shuddering at the proximity of certain details which make that vision a logical progression from the present. So in Strange Days, the practice of experiencing second-hand sensations on a headset was only one step on from virtual reality. Just as the audiences who marvelled at Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet saw him as a descendant to-come of their spanking new household appliances. Advances in genetic science lend a whiff of plausibility to the futuristic new drama Gattaca, in which natural conception is frowned upon, and the cream of society are created in test tubes, born under the sign of Pyrex.

The world is divided into valids (typical specimen: Gore Vidal) and invalids (typical specimen: Ernest Borgnine). Unlucky enough to be born into the latter group is Vincent (Ethan Hawke), whose ambition to join the prestigious Gattaca space programme is not tempered by his lowly status. Already smarting from a childhood spent in the shadow of his superior brother, Vincent locates Jerome (Jude Law), a valid no longer able to exploit the advantages of his position. Wheelchair-bound after an accident, Jerome has no place in a society where disabled ramps are an expendable luxury. He rents his identity out, but when one of Vincent's eyelashes is found at the scene of a brutal murder, and his valid lover Irene (Urma Thurman) is drawn into his deception, it seems that the masquerade is over.

There are plenty of potholes in the writer-director Andrew Niccol's script, into which the more inquisitive viewer can stumble, but mostly you are willing to forgive the ludicrousness of the whodunnit elements because the rest of the film positively glows with originality and inventiveness. As with any science fiction work, most of the pleasure is in the details: the smooth, featureless design which echoes early Cronenberg; the blood test, conducted at birth, to determine an invalid's risk of everything from heart disease to verucas; the close-ups of Vincent scrubbing his body to get rid of loose skin, each flake a potential betrayal of his lie.

Movies don't come much sillier than The Man in the Iron Mask. Rightly connecting with the rambunctious absurdity that throbs at the heart of Alexandre Dumas, the writer-director Randall Wallace has assembled a distinguished cast whom he then orders to whoop it up as if their lives depended on it. The disbanded, rickety old Musketeers who plot to swap the obnoxious King Louis XIV for his secret, imprisoned twin brother are played by Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and, as the dissenting d'Artegnan, Gabriel Byrne. Whenever these titans get a scene together, it's like watching the wildest lightning storm you've ever seen. In the dual roles of Louis and his twin Phillippe, Leonardo DiCaprio is also excellent.

The portrait of 17th-century France is as slapdash as you might have expected from a major Hollywood production - all those Parisians and not a French accent among them, except for Depardieu, who breaks wind more often than he gets a line of dialogue. But then if you arrive at The Man in the Iron Mask expecting a history lesson, you deserve everything you get. On the other hand, those expecting dumb thrills, frilly shirts and big hair won't be disappointed. Raoul Walsh would have approved.

Watching the brooding Taiwanese drama The River can feel like an endurance test at some points, like when the camera fixes on a shot and holds it for what feels like weeks. But if you stick with it, the film can really get to you. The story can't be described in conventional terms. A man who frequents gay saunas and a woman who is having an affair with a video salesman live in a house with appalling plumbing problems. Their son has a neck ache which renders him virtually paralysed. When something notable did finally happen, I was faintly disappointed - it reeked of contrivance, and broke the lullaby-like spell which the director Tsai Ming-Liang had worked so hard to weave. The River is an intoxicating, vaguely unsettling experience, but undoubtedly an acquired taste.

By contrast, Love Etc is so desperate to be liked that I wouldn't be surprised if the film-makers turned up at each screening to personally thank everyone for coming. It's a French adaptation of Julian Barnes' novel Taking It Over, with the hypnotic Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman torn between her loyal husband (Yvan Attal) and the attentions of his best friend (Charles Berling). Even without the unfavourable comparisons with Jules et Jim which the film invites, I wouldn't have been able to stomach its banal observations and theatrical trickery. But surely no one could resist the big confrontation between the tedious trio, where the philandering best pal struggles to retain his dignity and composure after being shoved face-first into a chocolate gateaux.

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