Dir: Guillaume Nicloux. Fr-Ger-It. 2006. 100mins.

A French Da Vinci Code inwhich Catholic mystical hokum is replaced by Mongololianshamanistic hokum, Jean-Christophe Grange's Le Concille DePierre was a literary bestseller when it came out in France in 2000. Withits high-profile Bellucci-Deneuve pairing and lushproduction values, this $28m adaptation of the book is clearly hoping to repeatthe act at the box office. It may well do so: weak characters, excessiveexposition and a large dose of supernatural absurdity did no harm to Sony'ssummer blockbuster, and there's no reason why they should damage Nicloux's overwrought spiritual thriller either.

But The Stone Council is going to have a much more limited territorial reach.Guaranteed to run for a least a few weeks in France, Germany and Italy, itsthree co-production countries (not least because each have contributed actingtalent), the film is on shakier ground elsewhere. Outside of Luc Besson franchises and Jean-Pierre Jeunetcommercial arthouse fare, big-budget French cinema (ie French in language, director, producer and, for the mostpart, setting) does not work as comparatively well away from home, as seen withprevious Grange adaptation Empire Of TheWolves (although The Crimson Riversdid somewhat better). There is little in this fantasy thriller that is likelyto persuade distributors further afield to make anexception to the rule after its premiere at Rome.

Single mother Laura Siprien (Bellucci), who managessomehow to fund an ever-changing designer wardrobe out of her interpreting job,has a seven-year-old adopted child, Liu-San (Thau) ofmysterious Asian origin. She and Liu-San are troubled by the same dreams, whichinvolve wild beasts and dark forests.

One day a strange markappears on Liu-San's chest; his doctor says it's normal - but then he may knowmore than he pretends. So may Laura's foster mother SybilleWeber (Deneuve), a woman who heads up a charitablefoundation, but who tenebrous music and lighting mark out as one to watch.

Though young Thau is too much of a Benetton kid to make much dramaticimpact, the gamine, crop-haired Bellucci's ownperformance is always committed and occasionally compelling. However, even shecan do little with a script that employs the "one woman alone against a hostileworld" cliche with such plodding obviousness, andwhich forces its characters (it feels like a particular indignity in Deneuve's case) to spout ethno-mystic drivel at everyopportunity.

There is a tension in theexercise that keeps the audience watching, especially after Liu-San iskidnapped and Laura sets off for Mongolia (where even humble minicab driversconveniently speak French) in desperate pursuit.

But things graduallydegenerate into a welter of sub-Bond espionage, mixed in with shape-changingbears and snakes and yurt-dwelling healers. When one of the latter startswaving a stoat (or possibly a pine marten) over Bellucci'snaked pudendum, audiences with low pretension threshholdswill no longer be able to hold in their mirth.

Limpid widescreenphotography, efficient thriller editing and Bellucci'sdogged belief in her own character are all reasons to keep on watching as thething gets more and more far-fetched. But they do little to make this cornyshaman yarn a satisfying cinematic experience.

Production companies/backers
Integral Film
Rai Cinema
TF1 Films Production

International sales

French distribution
UGC Distribution

Executive producer
Olivier Thaon

Yves Marmion

Guillaume Nicloux
Stephane Cabel
from the book by Jean-Christophe Grange

Peter Suschitzky

Guy Lecome

Production design
Olivier Radot

Eric Demarsan

Main cast
Monica Bellucci
Catherine Deneuve
Moritz Bleibtreu
Sami Bouajila
Elsa Zylberstein
Nicolas Thau
Lorenzo Balducci