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Stylish Savagery 

Wednesday, Apr 14 2004
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The sophistication -- sexual and otherwise -- that once epitomized French cinema certainly hasn't gone out of style. However, Gallic filmmakers increasingly present civilization as merely a polished illusion barely masking society's brutality. Their movies, while teeming with style, verve, and wit, pose a stark question: Do liberté, égalité, and fraternité stand a chance in today's cutthroat world?

The audacious Mon Idole (My Idol) presents a universe in which the ultrasuccessful suffer neither rules nor consequences. An ambitious underling on a hit reality-TV show brown-noses his way into a weekend with its big-league producer (the titular deity) and his wife at their country estate. As the Fassbinder-esque situation morphs from weird to nightmarish, the apprentice finds himself in over his head. First-time director Guillaume Canet, who also stars as the would-be Machiavellian, displays an ample imagination but a lack of malice, and the seeds of a chilling fable sprout instead into an absurdist fairy tale.

The brooding protagonist of In the Company of Men is another seal pup who thinks he can swim with the sharks. The adopted son of a thriving arms dealer, Leonard stands to inherit a fortune until his ego and guilt get the best of him. Arnaud Desplechin, whose previous films revealed an obsession (even by French standards) with philosophical dilemmas, draws freely on Hamlet, not Neil LaBute. A beautifully acted meditation on morality and responsibility, Company nonetheless would have benefited from less talk and more punch.

While Desplechin tracks his power players with a hand-held camera, Raoul Ruiz employs elegant tracking shots. An impeccably constructed puzzle packed with pitch-black chuckles, Ruiz's That Day is set in a Swiss police state "in the near future." A family in financial straits hatches a plot to kill its youngest member, a loony bird (Elsa Zylberstein, in a truly touched performance) about to receive her late mother's inheritance. The hit man, sprung from the local asylum to do the job, unexpectedly bonds with his target and instead parks his knife in everyone else. Ruiz channels Buñuel's disdain for propriety, and this flawless allegory goes down like merlot with an arsenic aftertaste.

A shotgun goes off in the first reel of South of the Clouds, fired by a hunter out with his buddies; 75 movie minutes later and a thousand miles east, he declines to pull the trigger on an animal in China. Choose life, the aphorism admonishes us, and the 70-year-old Adrien finally does -- after a placid existence spent raising cattle and a semieventful week on a cross-continental train ride. I blame Jim Jarmusch, a favorite of the French, for paving the highway for arbitrary, banal road trips like this.

In After You, micromanaging Paris maitre d' Daniel Auteuil interrupts José García's suicide attempt, then works overtime to restart his new friend's life (inevitably screwing up his own in the process). Instead of a rapid-fire farce, Pierre Salvadori has inexplicably made a leisurely buddy movie. Worse, his romantic-comedy depiction of Paris seems downright naive next to his fellow filmmakers' savvy diagnoses of political and personal corruption. Of course, there's a place for movies like After You, which pretend that a venal, savage world isn't lurking behind the wispy curtain.

Mon Idole: Sunday, April 25, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

In the Company of Men: Thursday, April 22, 2:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 24, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki

That Day: Saturday, April 17, 8:50 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, April 19, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 21, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki

South of the Clouds: Friday, April 23, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 27, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

After You: Sunday, April 18, 8:40 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Tuesday, April 20, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 22, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 25, 6:30 p.m., Century Cinema 16 Mountain View

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Michael Fox

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