It may have arrived on British screens three years late - even so, Helene Angel's Skin of Man, Heart of Beast is the week's timeliest film, and the only one that really repays watching. In the week of Jean- Marie Le Pen's shock poll success, the film probably won't tell you who his voters are - even his hard-core following might not be as crazy, as downright feral as Angel's characters - but this impressive debut nevertheless gives a disturbing insight into the psychopathology of the French neo- Nazi worldview.
In a wooded mountainous region of southern France, roughly where Provence meets the Alps, two young girls - obstreperous teen Christelle and her little sister Aurelie - live an idyllic life with their grandmother. Then home comes Papa - Francky, a Marseilles cop booted out for his violent tendencies. As if by magic, his long- absent brother Coco also arrives, supposedly after 15 years in the Foreign Legion. If the blustering Francky is a loose cannon, Coco is even more unnerving - a tight-lipped goblin, crackling with toxic, compressed energy.
This flamboyantly dysfunctional family, tenderly indulged by Maman (Maaike Jansen), fits only too well into the film's bucolic setting. We see the assembled local menfolk at a send-off party for the old lady who was once their schoolteacher: a bunch of overgrown middle-aged boys, they're all coy bonhomie and gallantry, until gunshots ring out and an embittered elder starts spouting off about "Algeria for the French". We are, of course, in the heartland of Front National support, where violent misogyny and racism run rampant. The real power in town is the jovial elderly gangster and pimp, a veteran of the Indochina campaign who, on meeting Coco, bursts forth into Legionnaire marching songs.
Angel's film first appeared around the same time as Claire Denis's Beau Travail, a subtler, more oblique examination of the Foreign Legion myth and its role in the French post-colonial psyche. Angel's film is nowhere near as astute in its examination of masculinity: indeed, it sometimes feels gratingly one-note in its condemnation of male savagery, and arguably it is over-reliant on melodramatic excess. Yet its narrative unfailingly compels, its unsettling fairy-tale flavour suggesting a nightmare experienced by the two young girls: when little Aurelie lies watching insects in close- ups that seem to dwarf her, there's a distinct touch of Night of the Hunter.
Angel also has a flair for casting: Serge Riaboukine's Francky is a shambling lycanthrope, a shaggy behemoth who makes vintage Depardieu look sveltely sensitive; and Bernard Blancan as Coco is one of those disturbing one- off finds who occasionally erupt on the French screen, a gimlet-eyed homunculus whose very look generates disturbance. The extraordinary ending, where the two girls run wild, screaming to a euphoric track by Divine Comedy, leaves you gasping to see what Angel will do next.
In some ways, About a Boy, adapted from Nick Hornby's novel, attempts a more complex take on masculinity and its discontentments than Angel's film; yet the result is glib and insubstantial. The latest Hugh Grant vehicle from Working Title, it has been widely seen as a sort of unofficial Richard Curtis-free follow-up to Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary, but it entirely misses those films' undeniable, if self-satisfied, brio. Grant plays Will, one of the two boys of the title, a solitary, self-centred gadabout who decides to hit on single mothers as the best bet for dating - a theme queasily close to the 1986 American film The Stepfather, in which the titular charmer turned out to be a ruthless serial killer. There's something altogether more disturbing than droll about Will, a blithely self-deluding liar who inhabits his own hermetic world, rooted to the sofa of a chrome-grey apartment that's more fully realised than his character: it's the Wallpaper* prototype for the swinging psycho bachelor pad. …