Consider The Alternatives

Andrei Konchalovsky's fascinating, misshapen film looks at Stalin's reign of terror through the eyes of a naive pawn, Ivan Sanshin (Tom Hulce), who worshipfully served the leader as his personal projectionist. Instead of piling on the Stalinist horrors, the director shows how the willful innocence of the Russian people aided and abetted the system's evil. The public scenes, shot inside the Kremlin, depicting the deceptively avuncular Stalin (Alexandre Zbruev) and the charming, lethal KGB head Beria (Bob Hoskins), bristle with tension. Unfortunately, the domestic drama between Ivan and his wife, Anastasia (Lolita Davidovich), isn't nearly as compelling as the Kremlin scenes, and the tale's considerable power dissipates in its final quarter. But Konchalovsky has hold of a great subject here; what he's saying about the Russian character illuminates the dark past, and gives little comfort for the future.

Claude Chabrol's lifelong obsession with the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie has prepared him well for Flaubert's immortal tale of the adulterous 19th-century provincial wife who hurls herself against the stone wall of French convention. The most faithful of the many cinematic adaptations of the novel, Chabrol's keeps a clinical, ironic distance. It is with detached horror that we watch Emma Bovary's stifling marriage to the doting mediocrity Charles (Jean-Francois Balmer), her swooning affair with the amused aristocrat Rodolphe (Christophe Malavoy), her desperation in the face of indebtedness. Isabelle Huppert as Emma gives a brilliantly nuanced performance, touching but slightly chilled. Crisp and intelligent, this is not a "Madame Bovary" that sweeps you away on a cloud of romantic folly. It's an anatomy of passionate selfdeception, observed with surgical but sympathetic precision.

The director of the great "High Hopes," Mike Leigh, once again burrows deep inside the lives of the English working class, this time with a hilarious, somewhat grotesque, but always affectionate family comedy. Low on plot, rich in character, the film is organized around scenes of food and drink. The nurturing, hyperactive mom (Alison Steadman) is always serving up family meals, while her pathetic, rotund pal Aubrey (Timothy Spall) whips up prune quiche and clams in ham for the not-so-grand opening of his bizarre restaurant, The Regret Rien. In the film's most astonishing performance, Jane Horrocks spews adolescent rage as the bulimic Nicola, undergoing a gorge-and-purge ritual with chocolate bars behind closed bedroom doors. Jim Broadbent--as the father, an amiable dreamer who never finishes any of his home-improvement projects-and Claire Skinner, as Nicola's levelheaded twin sister, round out the extraordinary ensemble. This lively, tender farce never reduces its characters to sociological or psychological cliches: everything it has to say about the vital chaos of family life seems freshly discovered.

The first half of this outrageous mother/daughter murder-melodrama is vintage Pedro Almodovar. For openers we discover how the heroine (Victoria Abril), a TV newscaster in Madrid, killed her stepfather when she was a little girl. Now she's married to a brute who was once her mom's boyfriend, and somebody shoots him dead. In one of the best scenes, Abril reports her husband's burial on her newscast-and confesses to the murder. But is she telling the truth, or just getting back at her mother? Mom (Marisa Paredes) is a dizzyingly self-centered singer whose act is aped by the local transvestite star Lethal (Miguel Bose). In a jaw-droppingly funny sex scene, Abril is athletically seduced by the drag queen in his/her dressing room.

Almodovar wants to have his wild soap opera both ways. His mother/daughter hothouse melodrama is an affectionate sendup of '5Os Hollywood tearjerkers, but it's also meant to move us. Here Almodovar fails conspicuously. Abril and Paredes's struggle to love and forgive each other seems more rhetorical than real, and the antic convolutions of the plot become increasingly arbitrary. What begins as an intoxicating champagne cocktail goes flat. Ultimately, surprisingly, the film's wildly beating heart is cold.