THE CREATOR (Albert Dupontel) **1/2

At first, THE CREATOR looks like another mediocre middlebrow French farce in the vein of THE DINNER GAME. In fact, its plethora of close-ups and mugging make it resemble a particularly crude version of the genre. However, once it really gets underway, it distinguishes itself by a relentlessly bleak sense of humor. Centering around Darius (played by director Dupontel, a skillful physical comedian), an alcoholic playwright who believes that he does his best work in a blackout, THE CREATOR eventually turns into a biting assault on the myth of romantic self-destruction exemplified by films like LEAVING LAS VEGAS. It's not going to please those who think visual style is the only thing that makes a film worth watching, yet I found its bile pretty appealing despite Dupontel's undistinguished direction.

NIGHT WIND (Philippe Garrel) ***

Judging from THE BIRTH OF LOVE and NIGHT WIND, Philippe Garrel has become the cinema's foremost poet of middle-aged burnout. The stormcloud of suicidal despair that hangs over 70s French films like Jean Eustache's THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE and Robert Bresson's THE DEVIL, PROBABLY permeates this film, whose older characters never seem to have recovered from the failure of the May '68 revolt. A love triangle between sculptor Serge (Daniele Duval), his younger assistant Paul (Xavier Beauvois) and Paul's lover Hélene (Catherine Deneuve), this is not an easy film to warm up to. Its use of Serge and Paul as generational totems is a bit schematic, and the glum mood is so overbearing and humorless that it sometimes verges on self-parody. However, Garrel's minimalism works its magic over the course of time: by paring down his narrative down to the essentials and leaving out Paul and Hélene's backstory, every tentative move these characters make has tremendous force, culminating in a shattering ending.

I'M NOT AFRAID OF LIFE (Noemie Lvovsky) ***

An episodic chronicle of 70s adolescence, I'M NOT AFRAID OF LIFE covers territory so familiar that it could pass for a lost installment of the French film series ALL THE BOYS AND GIRLS OF THEIR TIME. Lvovsky isn't at all interested in storytelling. Instead, she plunges us into the turbulent world of four teenage girls without many chances to catch our bearings. The girls' families are phantom presences, while the narrative and chronology leap around in huge bounds. Both Lvovsky's mise-en-scÈne, full of handheld camerawork, close-ups and jagged edits, and elliptical screenplay both owe a lot to the Maurice Pialat-derived tradition of French naturalism, but she also makes room for fantasy sequences. The perpetual disorientation her style evokes doesn't always benefit the film, although it may be true to teenage experience. Taken scene by scene, I'M NOT AFRAID OF LIFE is pretty compelling, but it doesn't add up to a satisfying whole.

KEEP IT QUIET (Benoit Jacquot) **

After a string of solid films, Benoit Jacquot has made a mis-step with his latest one. Seemingly designed as a satire of bourgeois propriety, it begins with the release of Grégoire (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy and well-known but corrupt businessman, from prison. Back in the outside world (and the company of his brother, a talk show host, and his wife), Grégoire is perpetually dazed and finds "normal life" a very difficult adjustment. Luchini can be a fine comic actor, but he's hampered by a script that alternately views Grégoire's behavior as obnoxiously self-pitying and a necessary poke to the people around him . Jacquot's customary detachment doesn't suit his material; this kind of satire, brimming with hints of a political subtext, requires more anger than Jacquot can bring to it. With THE SCHOOL OF FLESH, Jacquot took a successful step away from his series of young women's coming-of-age tales, but KEEP IT QUIET suggests that he might benefit from returning to them.

CHIN UP! (Solveig Anspach) ***

On paper, CHIN UP! sounds like a Lifetime Channel movie-of-the-week, but it thankfully takes a matter-of-fact, unmelodramatic approach to the subject of breast cancer.  Although Anspach's direction is relatively functional (with the exception of the creepy finale), she's made a powerful character study of a 30-year-old pregnant cancer patient (Karin Viard). Remarkably, she avoids the twin pitfalls of cheap uplift and miserabilism. Without dwelling on physical degradation - Leslie Camhi's warning that the film is "not for the squeamish" led me to expect buckets of puke and close-ups of needles entering skin, neither of which appear - it honestly depicts its heroine's reactions to her diagnosis and subsequent treatment, especially its impact on her marriage. Courageously, Anspach avoids giving easy closure to difficult problems; her ending is worthy of SAFE.

PERHAPS (Cédric Klapisch) **

Ironically, Klapisch couldn't attend Lincoln Center's screening of this ode to procreation because his wife is expecting a baby. Quite a departure from the low-key naturalism  of  WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY, PERHAPS is a big-budget (by French standards, anyway) sci-fi film set at a party on Dec. 31, 1999. Mixing time travel and Oedipal complications a la BACK TO THE FUTURE, it describes a young man's journey 67 years into the future through a time warp found above a toilet, where he meets his (now elderly) children, who beg him to get his girlfriend pregnant so they can be born in the first place. At its most ambitious, PERHAPS suggests a large-scale exploration of the changes occurring in France over the 90s (which Klapisch addressed quite well in WHEN THE CAT'S WAY), presenting a provocative image of a sand-swept future Paris indistinguishable from North Africa. (In fact, the scenes set in the future were shot in the Tunisian desert.) However, the film is reluctant to delve very deeply into these implications; although I wouldn't accuse it of racism - as one man at the Q&A session after the film hinted - its treatment of this low-tech Africanized France, which is not a dystopia, is pretty evasive. As with many sci-fi films, the greatest pleasures of PERHAPS are peripheral - especially the production design, in which circuit boards are turned into mobiles and cars into horse-drawn carriages - while the main story never amounts to anything other than noisy fluff. WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY and UN AIR DE FAMILLE suggested that Klapisch was a director of great promise, but judging from PERHAPS, that promise still awaits fulfillment.

SKIN OF MAN, HEART OF BEAST (Hélene Angel) ***1/2

Angel's debut feature falls somewhere in between the regional slice-of-life drama and horror movie, a pretty intriguing place to dwell. Set in rural Provence, it chronicles the arrival of Coco, a man who disappeared mysteriously 15 years ago, back into the fold of his extended family. Although Coco claims to have spent the missing time in the French Foreign Legion, no one - especially not his 2 young nieces - quite believes him, and their suspicions turn out to be justified. (Personally, I'd like to think he walked into this film from either BEAU TRAVAIL or SOMBRE.) Impressively, Angel combines a concern with girls' subjectivity - she leaves the spectator as much in the dark about Coco's past as they are and even dramatizes a niece's nightmare about him - and a fascination with masculinity in all its boorishness. She also makes the most of her settings, rather than reducing them to picturesque backdrops. I'll never forget the scene in which she answers a man's cry of "Where are you? Come out!" with a long shot of a vast, empty mountain range. In a sublime finale, the girls' emotions  and the landscape around them become one, as Angel continues the time-honored French tradition of ending on a grace note of physical motion.