Dir: Ira Sachs. US. 2004. 107mins

The winner of this year'sGrand Jury Prize for best American dramatic feature at the Sundance FilmFestival, Ira Sachs second full-length film certainly lives up to its title. Anentire spectrum of loneliness is explored in this intimate, naturalistic studyof a young Russian mother's cultural and emotional dislocation in Memphis,Tennessee; too bad there wasn't more dramatic colour to enliven theunder-stated storytelling.

From a commercialperspective, the sombre Forty Shades Of Blue could have done with somemore red meat. Like so many past Sundance jury winners, this low-key,European-influenced film presents a considerable marketing challenge for whichonly the most committed niche distributor would be equipped.

This is not to deny thefilm's poignancy: pre-disposed festival junkies will find that Sachs'studiously observed characters linger with them long after the haunting freezeframe that closes the film. And its atmosphere of quiet desperation ispalpable.

But try getting even theart-crowd excited enough into buying tickets these days for such a restrainedmood piece with few obvious sales hooks, other than the endorsement now of afestival whose jury winners have a mixed record at the box office.

In stark contrast to theother Memphis-set film at this year's Sundance, the enormously popular andcommercially enticing Hustle And Flow, Forty Shades Of Blue hadyet to secure a US theatrical distributor by the time the Park City festivalfinished.

European prospects lookbrighter, particularly given the foreign-fish-out-of-water aspect to thisAmerican tale. But even well-regarded social realists such as Ken Loach, whosework Sachs has cited among his influential touchstones, find their greatestinternational appeal nowadays on the small screen.

Despite the distinctivemilieu, with its Memphis-infused rhythm and blues flavouring, Forty ShadesOf Blue is in so many ways classic Sundance material. The theme ofalienated young people searching for love and purpose in their unresolved liveshas been a staple of the American independent film movement ever since thisfestival took off in the public consciousness.

Mercifully, however, Sachsavoids the solipsism so often associated with explorations of this kind. Thereare no self-regarding voiceovers and the semi-autobiographical elements ismerely a starting point for a story that pivots around an entirely inventedcharacter of Laura, played by Dina Korzun, the Russian actress who previouslystarred to festival acclaim in Pawel Pavlikovsky's Last Resort.

When we first meet her,Laura is the picture of opaque blonde beauty. Stoic to a fault, she rarelybetrays her stifled feelings despite living an obviously unfulfilled existencelight years away from her Russian upbringing. She was wooed away from Moscow bythe attention of a legendary music producer twice her age, a much-marriedcantankerous old curmudgeon by name of Alan (Rip Torn) who veers betweendrunken tantrums and drunken tenderness.

To all intents a boredtrophy mistress stuck in an alien land looking after their three-year-old son,Laura's only apparent outlet from the isolated tedium is her preoccupation withclothes and make-up.

All that changes with thearrival of Alan's estranged son (Darren Burrows). A glowering presence whodisapproves of his father's lifestyle, he warms to Laura's inscrutable sense ofself-sacrifice and she in turn sees a soul-mate who can help repair her damagedpsyche.

They end up in bed, an actof sexual liberation that awakens her identity but also conflicts with herdutiful gratitude for Alan's generosity. "I do not deserve all this luxury",she tells him by way of explanation, while at the same time commenting on thespoilt selfishness she sees in the Americans that surround her. As it happens,the son's behaviour turns out to be selfish too.

As an empathetic journey offemale self-discovery set in unfamiliar Southern terrain, Forty Shades OfBlue invites comparison with another Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner, RubyIn Paradise, Victor Nunez' lyrical film that made a star of Ashley Judd.Both films eschew the black-and-white exaggeration of typical movie melodrama,preferring to dwell on the small quotidian moments that are sensitive to socialand psychological detail.

But along with that carefullyshaded, contemplative storytelling manner, Nunez also offered uplift as Ruby'sjourney led her towards serenity. Sachs, on the other hand, stops shot ofoffering such salvation. His final frame is a much bleaker resolution that onlyhints at the possibility of future happiness - and even then suggests there ismuch more hurt to come. While such ambiguity may be in keeping with thecomplexity of the characters, it also makes greater demands on the audience'sengagement.

Rip Torn and Dina Korzundeliver standout performances, although Burrows' proves more problematic.

Prod cos: Charlie Guidance, Flux Films, High Line Productions,Mirage Enterprises,Tiny Dancer Films
Int'l sales:
Exec prods:
Geoff Stier, DianeVon Furstenberg
Margot Bridger, Ira Sachs,Mary Bing, Jawal Nga, Donald Rosenfeld
MichaelRohatyn, Ira Sachs
Julian Whatley
Affonso Gonçalves
Prod des:
Teresa Mastropierro
Dickon Hinchliffe
Maincast: RipTorn, Dina Korzun, Darren Burrows, PaprikaSteen, Red West, Jenny O'Hara, Jerry Chipman, Andrew Henderson, Emily McKennaCox, Liz Morton, Joanne Pankow