Dir: Claude Lelouch.France. 2005. 135 mins.

Men And Women is an amalgamation of the first two parts inClaude Lelouch's E30 million trilogy Le Genre Humain designed for the export market and worldpremiered last week in Los Angeles at the City Of Lights, City Of Angels filmfestival. Of those two parts, the first, Les Parisiens, was a resounding flop at the French box officewhen it was released last Sept; the second part Le Courage d'Aimer will open in France this Oct.

The problem with Men AndWomen is that, while it brims overwith Lelouch's customarily lush trappings, the job of melding two two-hourfilms into one 135 minute cut leaves many loose ends and dangling plot strands.It's a sprawling, messy saga telling multiple parallel stories all with grandthemes of love, infidelity, chance and death, but in its shortened form, it ismarred by constantly shifting focus and over-abundance of characters, many ofwhom appear once and never reappear.

Foreign buyers will thinktwice before committing to such an uneven (and obvious) edit, although thereare opportunities aplenty for lengthy DVD versions and more chance of criticalsupport than there were in France. Foreign critics are likely to be less harshon Lelouch's indulgent epic than the French critics were on Part One, since thedirector's cultural baggage has negligible resonance outside France.

Existing Lelouch fansoutside France will certainly lap up his soapy yarn awash with melancholyFrancis Lai songs and fanciful characters. Like vintage Lelouch ensembles from LesUns Et Les Autres to LesMiserables, Men And Women (the title is in English for export purposes) is aguilty pleasure. Now 67, Lelouch still has an effortless knack for compulsivepopulist storytelling. Whether contemporary audiences can connect to his oldformula is the issue this opus will determine.

Popping up throughout is thelate Ticky Holgado as a homeless man on the streets of Paris who hints to allthe characters he comes across that he is God, and indeed knows personaldetails about them that nobody else but God would know.

After introducing us to God,Lelouch takes us to street singer Massimo (Ranieri), an Italian dressed up asSanta Claus and belting out a number on a street corner in Paris. It'sChristmas 1999 and the millennium is on its way. Out of nowhere, he isapproached by the tall, beautiful Shaa (Maiwenn), a young woman keen to make itin the music world. She suggests they duet on the street, and the two fall inlove.

They get work singing in ajazz club run by Francis Perrin. There, Massimo is watched with desire bybarmaid Anne (Seigner), while an impresario watches Shaa and asks her to ditchMassimo, sign up with him and record her first album. In doing so, Shaa betraysher one true love in favour of a career. Massimo is devastated, but finds support and comfort in the arms ofAnne.

Anne meanwhile has a closerelationship with her identical twin sister Clementine (also played by Siegner)who works as the housemaid to a coquettish actress Sabine (Arielle Dombasle).One day, Sabine is showing her mansion to a potential buyer, fast foodmillionaire Michael Gorkini (Leeb) and he immediately seduces her.

The film then moves forwardto 2003 (and the second part of the trilogy Le Courage D'Aimer). A filmdirector called Claude (yes, and played by Lelouch himself) calls his agentdesperate to get hold of film rights to a new book written by Shaa in which shereveals her betrayal of Massimo, who has himself become a major recording star.

Claude meets with Shaa andpersuades her to play herself in the film and approach Massimo to play himself.Massimo agrees but refuses to forgive Shaa for her betrayal.

Meanwhile Sabine and Gorkinihave married, but Sabine longs for a more intellectual partner and cheats onhim with her driver, a thief (Soulier) who is dating Clementine. Gorkini andClementine team up to unveil the adultery and in the process themselves fall inlove.

The film ends with the firstscreening of Claude's film about Shaa and Massimo, two attempted suicides (onlyone of which is successful), news of a tragic death and the double marriage ofthe twin sisters.

Lelouch's faithful composerLai kicks in some new songs including the infectious "Le Bonheur, C'est MieuxQue La Vie", Shaa and Massimo's trademark number which is heard several timesand was the original title of the second part in the trilogy.

Prod co: Les Films 13.
Worldwide sales: Les Films 26 (+ 331 56 80 26 26).
Prods: Jean-Paul de Vidas, Claude Lelouch.
Scr: Lelouch, Pierre Uytterhoeven.
DoP: Gerard de Battista.
Prod des: Francois Chauvaud.
Ed: Stephane Mazalaigue.
Mus: Francis Lai.
Main cast: Mathilde Seigner, Maiwenn, Arielle Dombasle,Massimo Ranieri, Michel Leeb, Ticky Holgado, Xavier Deluc, Francis Perrin,Yannick Soulier, Michele Bernier, Alessandra Martines, Claude Lelouch, PierreArditi