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High summer and the film critic’s living is easy: fun for holidaying tinies, the occasionally furtive release of a no-hoper more kindly overlooked by holiday reliefs than their unforgiving seniors, relaxation with comedy, teen frolics, the odd schlock . . . 

Not this week. The new releases are dominated by a quinquagenarian, still powerful, still leaving one bleakly uncomforted. In 1956 The Seventh Seal created the medieval world so vividly that audiences felt that if this was not how the Middle Ages were, this was how they should have been: an artistic truth greater than mere fact. Ingmar Bergman’s vision of a plague-ravaged Europe of flagellants, witch-hunts and strolling players is calmly appropriated as his own dominion by Death (Bengt Ekerot), playing chess with a wandering knight – Max von Sydow, his face combining the secretive and the naked in a way that recalls Alec Guinness but admitting vulnerability where Guinness retreated into enigma. Bergman’s compassion is usually identified with the troupe of simple players, a depressingly Pharisaic illustration of who’s damned, who’s saved and your helplessness to change it. The film’s ferociously reiterated message that the meek shall inherit the earth is balanced by immense theatricality that works on alternate viewings. If you were unimpressed last time, see it again. If it bowled you over last time, leave your memories intact. Ungenerously, perhaps, the word “contrived”, once uttered, will not be unsaid.

Even more contrived is the interminable Private Fears in Public Places, based on the Alan Ayckbourn play – note the English seaside poster decorating a dernier cri Parisian flat that is director Alain Resnais’ sly hommage to the sage of Scarborough. The French title is Coeurs but Foies would be more apt since a change of diet and some brisk exercise would shake these glum smarties out of their liverish mooning. Ayckbourn’s exquisitely interlocking human strands, sometimes unobserved by the characters themselves, understandably attract Gallic logic; what is missing is his insight into English middle-class social reticence and emotional inarticulateness, the tragicomic cross purposes of frustrated small lives, the ugly ducklings who grow into dowdy ducks.

Transferred to a Paris of designer chic, the story is initially clobbered by the casting as siblings of the dashingly distinguished white-haired André Dusollier and pretty young Isabelle Carré, who looks more like his daughter. Both are allegedly lonely and lovelorn, he discovering solitary pleasure in porn videos, she resorting to personal ads in a sad quest for love. Whom are you kidding, M Resnais? The film’s loners are quintessentially English and self- conscious acting results, notably from Lambert Wilson’s bibulous ex-army man haunted by his past and Sabine Azéma as a devout Christian with a nice, or nasty, sideline.

Tantalisingly, Resnais has a feel for the evil that stalks our everyday lives – “There’s a lot of it about,” says the little man in Ayckbourn’s Man of the Moment – and for the playwright’s ability to chill suburban sunlight with a diabolic presence. But the film’s unvarying pace and ultimate lumbering disjointedness inspire respect rather than engagement.

Thank God for Hairspray. Resist over-analysing this gloss on the stage musical of John Waters’ original dirtier-minded jollity – can one be ironic about the already ironic? With added commercial polish? Exactly whose tongue is in whose cheek? Enjoy the uncomplicated good nature, warm heart and unexpected wit of this comic-strip fable about 1962 Baltimore, the fat girl (Nikki Blonsky) who achieves her dancing ambition and helps to integrate a local racist TV channel run by superbly stylish villain Michelle Pfeiffer. The television dance show is visually smack in period, James Marsden’s presenter almost Thunderbirds-like in inhumanly chiselled good looks, Zac Efron’s teen idol perfect down to kiss-curl and eye-liner, the youngsters bopping in suits and starched petticoats, the girls sporting that “inappropriate hair height” exemplified in England by Helen Shapiro. Wonderful support from Allison Janney and veteran Jerry Stiller (chubby Tracy’s dad in Waters’ original) while we get a flash, I use the word advisedly, of Waters himself.

The biggest draw may be John Travolta, grossed-out in fat suit and drag, as large Tracy’s larger mother. Not as overtly grotesque as Divine, not so obvious a drag act as Harvey Feierstein, Travolta’s stranded somewhere between panto dame and actually playing it straight, as in a sentimental duet with a bemused- looking Christopher Walken as his/her husband. But Travolta’s glory lies in the carefully studied aspirant gentility of Baltimore diphthongs, a mixture of Loyd Grossman and prewar D’Oyly Carte South Kensington, that make lines such as “How am I suppowesed to negowetiate these pleats?” into phonetic coloratura. Director- choreographer Adam Shankman has his cast bouncing, stomping and whirling infectiously.

More of a kids’ treat, I suspect, than Firehouse Dog, which begins as a funny animal story when its canine film star vanishes and is adopted by firefighters. The movie turns into a juvenile detective story slightly too late. The jokes aren’t that many or funny, the thrills are tardy, the dog is mercifully uncute but correspondingly not very involving.

Nor is Chelsea, the principal figure in Buy It Now, a mockumentary showing a 16-year-old New Yorker selling her virginity on eBay. Egged on by pals Tiffany and Stacy (the fact the actresses’ real names are Chelsea, Tiffany and Stacy is possibly the film’s most depressing feature), Chelsea thinks this will kill two birds with one stone and afterwards buys a Prada bag. She then gets depressed and cuts her wrists. Portentous treatment doesn’t clarify the film’s motives. The moral that teenagers advertising virginities on eBay, part of an everything-for-sale consumerism, is not a good idea, needs more than this to escape the banal.

At least Ghosts of Cité Soleil is recorded fact: a study of violence in the most dangerous place in the world (official), the titular festering eruption off Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Against a landscape of rubble and rags, armed gangsters boast, threaten, philosophise, resign themselves to the early deaths that, closing credits say, came to them. More than harrowing: a glimpse of hell on earth. Comparison with Prada-loving Chelsea is materially unthinkable but morally horribly close.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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