Dir: Arnaud Desplechin. France. 2003. 118mins

One of France's more cerebral directors, Arnaud Desplechin has a reputation for risk-taking, as shown by his period drama Esther Kahn, which faced a prickly critical reception at Cannes in 2000. With his latest film, which played in Un Certain Regard, he has hardly gone out of his way to seduce his way back into public favour. Playing 'In The Company Of Men' is a daring but ultimately frustrating interface between film and drama. Its formal strangeness will assure its festival life, and Desplechin's reputation should give the film a modest presence in France; but the film's esoteric approach and downright slowness make prospects for foreign sales look slender.

The film is partly an adaptation and partly a variation of In The Company Of Men, the play by British dramatist Edward Bond (not to be confused with the film by Bond admirer Neil Labute). Leonard (Bouajila) is the adopted son of weapons magnate Jurrieu (Roussillon), whose company has just survived a hostile buyout by the powerful Hammer (Yordanoff). The ambitious Leonard wants a place on the board of directors, but when his father refuses, he turns his attentions to the company headed by William (Girardot), a drinker and gambler who has led his business into dire straits.

However, the two-timing of Jurrieu's adviser Doniol (Szabo) lands Leonard with astronomical debts. Driven to desperation, he tries to kill his father but is stopped by family domestic - and former navy man - Servun (Sangare), who takes the rap.

An already complex narrative becomes even harder to read given Desplechin's treatment, which begins as a rehearsal, with the actors commenting on their parts. The film then skips with not always apparent logic between filmed adaptation and rehearsal, occasionally interpolating extended scenes covering various characters' back-stories. Consigny excels in an intense, disturbing scene in which Leonard's adoptive mother coats her foundling child in blood to simulate birth (Desplechin uses a real baby, to alarming and questionable effect). Another equally gory sequence shows the reason for Servun's court martial following a nasty incident on a nuclear submarine.

Things take a drastic turn, however, when it is pointed out at rehearsal that the drama could use some female parts. Since there are none in Bond's play, the actors decide to borrow characters from Shakespeare, and to graft in sections from Hamlet and other plays - hence the incongruous introduction of Ophelia (Mouglalis), wild flowers and all.

Whether this sheds any light on Bond's play is moot; there are clearly parallels between Hamlet and Bond's oedipal drama, although introducing Hamlet to the world of boardrooms is a ploy already explored to pithier effect by both Aki Kaurismaki and Michael Almereyda. As for confronting film and rehearsed theatre, Jacques Rivette has been practising this technique for years, and Desplechin's own explorations are nowhere near as rigorous or revealing.

Desplechin does benefit from a strong cast, especially the sly veteran Szabo and Girardot, compelling as a man charmingly on the skids; at times, however, the overall tone of the acting is awkwardly histrionic. The soundtrack, largely composed of Paul Weller songs, seems random and distracting, though it should be noted the film's sound mix is not complete - hence the working print screened in Cannes under the title Rough Draft. The visuals, a rather murky mix of 35mm with video inserts, add little to the appeal of an arduously self-indulgent film.

Prod co: Why Not Productions
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch
Pascal Caucheteux
Desplechin, Nicolas Saada, Emmanuel Bourdieu
Stephane Fontaine
Laurence Briaud
Prod des:
Dan Bevan
Paul Weller
Main cast:
Sami Bouajila, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Hippolyte Girardot, Wladmir Yordanoff, Laszlo Szabo, Bakary Sangare, Anna Mouglalis, Anne Consigny