It's unusual at this time of year to find a film that hasn't been made purely to give people something to look at as they munch their popcorn. But The Death of Mister Lazarescu, an award-winning Romanian drama, is special. It forces us to address difficult questions, not least of which is: How do you get your date to see a long film about a grumpy old man who is repeatedly refused hospital treatment? You can't even pretend that it will have a happy ending, because this is precluded by the title. The strange thing is that, as with the recent United 93, you get so caught up in the suspense of the film that you start praying for an upbeat outcome, despite knowing that it is impossible.
Grizzled, 63-year-old Dante Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) shuffles around his dingy Bucharest flat one evening, mumbling to his cats and complaining of head and stomach pains. Eventually, an ambulance arrives, but his troubles are far from over. The documentary-style camera keeps a vigil at the old man's side, along with the plucky young paramedic Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), as they are turned away from one hospital after another by overworked doctors.
One takes out his frustration on Lazarescu, dismissing him as a drunk. Another tells Mioara: "If you want, I can take him straight to the crematorium." When finally someone offered a crumb of compassion, I felt like jumping out of my seat and punching the air, which is the sort of behaviour that can earn you a lifetime ban from foreign-language cinemas.
But then, this is a film that gets under your skin. Most of us would cross the road at a demolition derby to avoid a sad sack like Lazarescu, yet very quickly we find ourselves wanting to leap to his defence, just as we would if it were our own grandfather being shunted from one casualty department to the next. Though the film is tough viewing, it is far from being the wallow in misery that its subject matter might suggest. It displays a stubborn faith in humanity, embodied largely by Mioara, who refuses to offload her patient until he is guaranteed basic attention. This summer, audiences will be cheering the heroic feats of Superman, Captain Jack Sparrow and Alex Rider, the schoolboy spy from Stormbreaker. As far as I'm concerned, they're all wusses compared to Mioara.
Les Amants réguliers is another anti-blockbuster, though it is as formulaic in its own way as any Hollywood spectacular. It's French, black and white, three hours long, and features handsome young people skulking around the Left Bank, having sex, smoking opium and trying to reconcile "the pleasure of wearing bright colours with the necessity of wearing dark colours". How comforting that French cinema has yet to exhaust its reserves of pretentiousness.
You start off chuckling at the film, but end up rather seduced by its elegiac air. It doesn't so much tell a story as evoke a mood, as the 20-year-old poet François (Louis Garrel) and his chums get stuck in to the May '68 riots before growing disillusioned with the spirit of revolution. There are the faint embers of a love story between François and Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), but like everything here from the rioting to the drug-taking, it's all very muted and matter-of-fact.
Dramatic events simply drift by: Lilie suggests an open relationship, François is hauled before a court for dodging military service, and one of his friends goes mad from too much LSD. The gang of former rebels begins to disperse, leaving François to pout magnificently, which, judging by his dodgy poetry, is where his real talent lies.
What distinguishes Les Amants réguliers from similarly languorous works is William Lubtchansky's gorgeous cinematography, Jean-Claude Vannier's melancholic piano score and the odd flash of madness. In one scene, a character turns to the camera and utters the name "Bernardo Bertolucci" apropos of nothing. Of course, that director made his own May '68 film, The Dreamers (2003), which also starred Garrel. What Bertolucci's name is doing here, however, is anyone's guess. In such situations I find it's best to nod thoughtfully and stroke your goatee - or, if you don't have a goatee, stroke someone else's.
Pick of the week
Taxi Driver (18)
dir: Martin Scorsese
Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and a 13-year-old Jodie Foster star in this lurid 1976 masterpiece.
Viva Zapatero! (15)
dir: Sabina Guzzanti
Short, sharp documentary exploring censorship in Italy.
Heading South (15)
dir: Laurent Cantet
Handbags at dawn in Haiti as two sex tourists, Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young, fight over a gigolo.