Schizoid Celluloid II

After a flurry of preliminary "minifest" activity over the past couple of weeks in Boca Raton, Hollywood, Coconut Grove, and Fort Lauderdale, the 13th annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival goes into full swing this weekend, beginning with Friday's official opening night presentation. As I indicated last week, the festival has evolved from a sort of cinematic buffet into more of an international food court. But that doesn't mean quality fare is missing from the menu; you just have to be more selective when you order.

A few other off-the-cuff observations: The festival continues its long-standing preoccupation with sexual matters, from opening night's El Faro (The Lighthouse) to closing night's Claudine's Return (reviewed below), with several other prime examples in between. (See "Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival" listings for a full schedule.) The festival also does more with drama than with comedy, and one of its strengths continues to be finding and showcasing first-rate female performances that otherwise might not get the attention they deserve.

That said, here's the second installment of our guide to some of the highlights of the festival.

Little Voice
The title character in this strange, wonderful British film is a young, working-class woman so excruciatingly withdrawn she can rarely bring herself to speak at all. When she does it's in the soft, barely audible voice that inspired her nickname. Hidden away in her attic room, traumatized by the loss of her father, Little Voice -- or LV, as she's also called -- consoles herself with a vast record collection. As she sits fixated on a Judy Garland song, she's like an autistic child, sealed in her own world, unreachable except by music.

Downstairs her brassy, bawdy mother never seems to shut up. She spews a barrage of mindless chatter as a distraction from the dismal reality of her life, which includes an initially amusing but ultimately sad and desperate quest for sexual attention. Worst of all she's willfully oblivious to her daughter's secret talent -- a magnificent knack for re-creating the musical performances of her favorite stars, including Garland, Shirley Bassey, even Marilyn Monroe.

The movie would be all but unthinkable without Jane Horrocks as LV, a character she brought to life on stage in Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (a part Cartwright, for that matter, wrote with her in mind). Horrocks has distinguished herself in small roles in such films as The Dressmaker and Life Is Sweet, and she was funny and unforgettable as Bubble, the ditzy office aide on TV's Absolutely Fabulous. None of this, however, hinted at the explosive talent she displays here.

LV's gift goes far beyond mere impersonation, as a has-been (or never-was) talent agent bedded by her mom quickly realizes the first time he hears her. It's as if LV is channeling the music directly from its sources. For a few shining minutes, she steps out of herself and becomes a graceful, confident performer.

The agent, played by Michael Caine at his dissolute best, sees LV as his ticket to the big time and, after much cajoling, convinces her to make a public appearance. The catch is that Little Voice insists this will be her one and only gig. She's dead serious, although no one believes her, especially after they see her on stage, belting out such songs as "Hey, Big Spender," "I Wanna Be Loved by You," "Falling in Love Again," and a particularly stunning rendition of "Get Happy."

The cast is rounded out by other exceptional performers. Brenda Blethyn, much lauded for her performance in Secrets & Lies, displays surprising comic flair as LV's mother. And Ewan McGregor, whose versatility continues to amaze, meshes beautifully with Horrocks as a similarly shy telephone repairman instinctively drawn to LV.

If there's a problem with the picture, it's that it leaves us, like LV's audience, hungry for more of her electrifying stage show. As flaws go, that's not such a bad one to have. (Closing Night -- Saturday, November 14, 5 and 7 p.m., Coral Ridge 10, 99 minutes)

Vychova Divek v Cechach
(Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia)
This romantic drama, originally made for Czech TV, is one of those "what if?" scenarios that generates so little dramatic interest that it ends up more of a "so what?" story. The blandly handsome Ondrej Pavelka plays a starving novelist and schoolteacher -- married nine years, father of one -- who debates whether to accept a lucrative offer to tutor the college-age, near-catatonic daughter (Anna Geislerova) of a millionaire. Before you can say, "Is this all a dream, or what?" the smart-alecky script (by Vaclav Sasek, based on Michal Viewegh's bestseller) spins out a prolonged speculation on how the writer's life might have turned out had he taken the job. A gauzy, soft-core porn cheesiness is applied to the increasingly heated sexual relationship imagined between teacher and student, and efforts to explore the links between reality and fiction are heavy-handed and dishonest. (Wednesday, November 11, 7:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Sunday, November 15, 1:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 115 minutes; in Czech with English subtitles)

Suzie Washington
Think The Fugitive with a Slavic accent, and you'll have a rough approximation of this melancholy Austrian thriller about a teacher trying to get to her uncle's home in the United States using a fake visa. As the title character (she borrows the name from a stranger on a bus), Birgit Doll isn't accused of anything nearly as ghastly as murder. She's simply a would-be emigre from an unidentified former Soviet republic, a country she equates with the act of suicide. But the absurd circumstances surrounding her escape from custody and attempts to elude the relentless authorities would no doubt strike a familiar chord with the TV and movie fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble. Unlike Kimble, however, this character is never fleshed out. Doll stoically does what she can with the part, but writer-director Florian Flicker seems so intent on making Suzie an Everywoman that he strips her of the biographical details that might make her singular. (Sunday, November 8, 8:45 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Friday, November 13, 2:45 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 87 minutes; in German with English subtitles)

Crackers
This maddeningly erratic Australian comedy sometimes comes across as the mutant offspring of The Karate Kid and There's Something About Mary, which is not necessarily a good thing. It features a protege-mentor relationship between a troubled adolescent and his strange but wise great-grandfather, but it also goes for the jugular in terms of gross-out humor. Abundant gags involving flatulence and dog excrement are featured, for example, as well as a scene in which a pet ends up on the grill. (Don't ask.) The context for this frequently forced zaniness is a Christmas gathering that brings together four generations of a contentious Aussie clan. Despite the broadness of the material, there are some inspired funny bits here and there, and the cast does a surprisingly good job of enlivening characters that are essentially two-dimensional. (Monday, November 9, 9:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Tuesday, November 10, 5 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Sunday, November 14, 4:45 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 92 minutes)

Elles
An unlikely but highly effective ensemble of international talent saves this French melodrama from slipping into soap opera. At the beginning we see a TV journalist (Spain's Carmen Maura) researching a story on aging women and their wishes by interviewing four friends on camera: a college literature professor (Miou-Miou of France), a beauty salon owner (American actress Marisa Berenson), a singer and stage star (Guesch Patti, also French), and a caterer (Swiss-born Marthe Keller). The film then backs up a few days to show the events in these intertwined lives that lead the women to make their very different wishes. Portuguese director and cowriter Luis Galv‹o Teles deftly manipulates the movie's handful of overlapping stories, and he accommodates the material's shifting moods and emotional currents with amazing skill. (He's like a less self-indulgent Henry Jaglom). The five leads are flawless, and their work is complemented by two strong male performances -- Joaquim de Almeida as Maura's on-again, off-again lover, and the young Frenchman Morgan Perez as Keller's 19-year-old son, who falls in love with Miou-Miou. Despite all the angst along the way, the happy ending feels genuinely earned. (Saturday, November 7, 5:30 p.m., Bill Cosford Cinema; Tuesday, November 10, 7:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 115 minutes; in French with English subtitles)

L'Ecole de la Chair (The School of Flesh)
Your reaction to this steamy French adaptation of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima's novel of obsessive passion will likely hinge on your feelings about its star, French actress Isabelle Huppert. Like her American counterpart, Meryl Streep, Huppert is sometimes criticized for the icy perfection of her performances, and she can be, as the French like to say, formidable. Here, however, her hauteur gives way to a surprisingly emotional turn as a well-to-do single woman who embarks on a volatile relationship with a mysterious, much younger man (Vincent Martinez). The two have little in common but hot sex, in which the sullen, self-absorbed young man continues to engage with other women and men, and yet Huppert can't seem to shake her desperate attachment to him. Vincent Lindon has a handful of good scenes as a flamboyantly effeminate gay man who befriends Huppert, and Marthe Keller turns up in a small but pivotal part. Beautifully shot in a wide-screen format by director Beno”t Jacquot. (Tuesday, November 10, 5:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Thursday, November 12, 7:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 102 minutes; in French with English subtitles)

Claudine's Return
Until it collapses into half-baked metaphysics in its final third or so -- just as the previously enigmatic title begins to make sense -- this quirky little melodrama offers some nicely observed moments and a pair of admirably understated performances. The mostly no-nonsense work of Christina Applegate, formerly of TV's Married... With Children, will probably get all the attention, but the most finely shaded performance is that of the quietly intense Italian actor Stefano Dionisi, who had the title role in 1994's Farinelli. She plays a laundry woman at a motel on an island off the coast of Georgia who also moonlights as a stripper. He's a drifter who becomes the motel's handyman and her lover. Antonio Tibaldi's direction has some of the grittiness and well-absorbed local color of Victor Nunez's Ruby in Paradise, which was featured in the festival a few years ago. Too bad the out-of-left-field finale undermines so much of what precedes it. With a pointless, blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Valerie Perrine. (Closing Night -- Saturday, November 14, 5:15 and 7:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 90 minutes)

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