Dir: Andreas Dresen. Germany. 2001. 105mins.

Andreas Dresen's last film, Night Shapes (Nachtgestalten), acclaimed in Berlin three years ago, had a large cast of characters and a sprawling, Short Cuts-style story. Grill Point is a very different animal: an intimate, tightly focussed piece about two couples confronting mid-life crisis. Improvised by the actors, it's a warm, sad and funny portrait of ordinary people with a touch of Mike Leigh to it and was much liked by local Berlin audiences. Too small-scale to make much of a splash internationally, the film could carve a modest art-house profile with the help of adventurous distributors. A number of the jokes and cultural references won't travel, although replacing the non-descript Grill Point with a more expressive English title might help: the German one, Halbe Treppe (half-way up - or down - the stairs), better evokes the characters' condition of emotional limbo.

This sense of nowhere is also conveyed by Dresen's choice of setting: Frankfurt/Oder, a faceless modern industrial city near the Polish border. Here, Uwe (Axel Prahl) runs a snack bar called Halbe Treppe and is married to Ellen (Steffi Kuehnert), a perfume saleswoman. Chris (Thorsten Merten) hosts a breakfast radio show on which he plays golden oldies and, in the guise of "Magic Chris", broadcasts a daily horoscope. His second wife, Katrin (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), works in a drab truck depot on the outskirts of town.

In, or about to enter their forties, they are all obscurely dissatisfied with their lives and with each other, and are beginning to ask themselves: "Is this all there is'" When Ellen and Chris drift into an affair, renting cheap hotel rooms by the hour across the border, the quartet is thrown into crisis. Bewildered and angry, Uwe makes heroic efforts to save his failing marriage, while the more self-centred Chris broadcasts messages to his wife and mistress in coded horoscopes over the airwaves, and becomes a local cult celebrity after his random predictions eerily come true.

Grill Point finds a rich vein of comedy in the characters' pain, aided by the four actors' engaging performances. Even so, it sags somewhat around the hour mark, as the relationships crumble into bickering and recriminations; at this point the audience starts to feel that the film - shot with hand-held DV camera - is struggling to justify both its running time and its presence on the big screen.

A significant asset is the soundtrack, by 17 Hippies, which has vaguely Middle-European shadings and is by turns festive and melancholy. It features in the film both as incidental music and as one of its best running gags, as a lone bagpipe busker, who drives Uwe nuts with his daily dirge outside the Halbe Treppe, is gradually joined by more and more companions.

Prod co: Peter Rommel Film Productions
Int'l Sales: Bavaria Film Int'l
Prod: Peter Rommel
Scr: Cooky Ziesche
Cinematography: Michael Hammon
Prod des: Susanne Hopf
Ed: Joerg Hauschild
Music:17 Hippies
Main cast: Steffi Kuehnert, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Thorsten Merten, Axel Prahl