Dir: Raoul Ruiz. France-Switzerland. 2003. 105mins

Long-term followers of the maverick Raoul Ruiz - or indeed, viewers who discovered him through his unlikely 2001 box-office hit Time Regained - are used to expecting the unexpected. But the Swiss-set That Day (Ce Jour-La) is unpredictable largely for being uncharacteristically predictable, even mechanical. This macabre black comedy, which premiered in competition at Cannes, should attract business in France largely for its distinguished cast and for the sort of dry, literary wordplay that works well with upscale Francophone audiences. Hardcore Ruiz fans, however, will be disappointed by the absence of his more wayward visual experimentation, and although the film should enjoy a moderately healthy festival life, it seems unlikely to repeat the international impact of Time Regained or, to a lesser degree, the recent Comedy Of Innocence.

This film could also have easily been titled Comedy Of Innocence: its lead couple are childlike innocents, finding a sort of romance while the corpses pile up around them. The heroine is Livia (Zylberstein), the daughter of magnate Harald (Piccoli), whose business empire is in crisis. Sweetly deranged and obsessed with angels, Livia is first seen haunting the misty countryside, twittering happily to herself and scribbling in her journal.

The ingenue, who lives with Harald's stuffy Swiss haute-bourgeois family and hangers-on in an austere country villa, has had the revelation that the next day, Dec 28, will be the most wonderful of her life. In fact, this is when Harald puts into action a murderous plot to rob his daughter of her inheritance: with the family absent and faithful retainer Treffle (Balmer) out of the way, Livia is left alone in the house.

Meanwhile, the mysterious Warff (Atkine) releases psychopath Pointpoirot (Giraudeau) from the local mental hospital. From the moment Livia sees Pointpoirot at her front door wearing an ill-fitting blue suit and shaving himself in the window, they form a tender attachment, interrupted only by spells when he chases her, or hapless interlopers, around the house with a knife. Local cops Raufer (Bideau) and his intellectual assistant Ritter (Vadim) are on the case - or not, since Ritter's crafty method is for them to sit around the local cafe all day doing precisely nothing.

Shot with elegant austerity by Acacio de Almedia, the film is a playfully gruesome pastiche of the sort of country-house murder story that Claude Chabrol trademarked long ago. As Livia and Pointpoirot bond, they are occasionally interrupted by household members, who variously end up dead by knife, hammer or of a heart attack. The grisly coup de grace is a sedate lunch with the bodies propped at the table, suddenly jumping to life in a simultaneous twitch of rigor mortis. Another elegantly executed sequence - owing as much to bedroom farce techniques as to those of the crime thriller - has Zylberstein screaming at the end of a corridor, while Giraudeau and his latest victim pursue each other in and out of doorways.

The film is unmistakably Ruiz's, and is at its best when peppered with his signature touches - a cafe scene where forks incongruously loom into the foreground, a surreal radio report on corporate takeovers, or high-society matriarch Leone (the impeccably brittle Scob) enumerating the bizarre ingredients of Salsox, a vinegar-like food supplement on which Harald's empire is built.

Ruiz also has fun with the soundtrack, notably with slamming car doors and aeroplane noise, apparently in a nod to the stately 1980s-1990s Swiss period (for example, his 1990 feature Nouvelle Vague) of Jean-Luc Godard, whose home town of Rolle is literally signposted in a street scene.

In particular, the film is a homage to Swiss writer Friedrich Duerrenmatt - namechecked in the final scene - whose metaphysical detective novels and absurdist dramas particularly inform the witty scenes between the detectives. However, Duerrenmatt's philosophical preoccupation with the nature of the Swiss state is unlikely subject matter for Ruiz, and the topic makes for a rather parochial distraction in what generally comes across as flippant grand guignol.

The acting is generally pitched along the lines of stage farce, with Giraudeau in particular enjoying himself with his sudden switches of character, from gentle boyish clown to glowering homicidal crazy. Bideau, Balmer and other veterans give sober, solid support and Piccoli is gently magisterial as ever.

The weak spot is Zylberstein, whose kittenish, abstracted over-playing occasionally rings true but ultimately proves an irritant and gives the film an awkwardly fey tone. Ruiz's films have often been impenetrable or infuriating, but this is the first time one of them has been precious.

Prod co/Fr dist/int'l sales: Gemini Films
Paolo Branco, Patricia Plattner
Acacio de Almeida
Valeria Sarmiento
Prod des:
Bruno Beauge
Jorge Arriagada
Main cast:
Bernard Giraudeau, Elsa Zylberstein, Jean-Luc Bideau, Jean-Francois Balmer, Christian Vadim, Laurent Malet, Rufus, Feodor Atkine, Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli