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Destiny prevails

Ladies & Gentlemen weaves a tangled tale


Jeremy Irons has proven himself to be cinema's most delectably perverse sex object. He is alternately vicious and icy, but always so impassive and fragile that he often out-femmes his female co-stars. Juliette Binoche in Damage, Genevieve Bujold in Dead Ringers, Glenn Close in Reversal of Fortune have all played top to Irons' bottom. The actor even made pedophilia seem like a cruel trick played by children on helpless grown-ups when he out-sadsacked the pathetic love-swoons of James Mason's definitive Humbert Humbert in the Lolita redux.

So it goes in And Now Ladies & Gentlemen, a romantic mystery from French director (A Man and a Woman) Claude Lelouch. Once again busting the mold of male sexuality, Irons stars in this odd international heist picture as a remarkably crafty thief who nevertheless possesses a frail, damaged side that can make the women characters seem more like caretakers than romantic equals.

In moments that come a little too close for comfort to Pink Panther spoofs, Valentin Valentin (Irons) dons the guises of an elderly lady sporting pashmina and pearls, a leathery geriatric and a guitar-strumming hippie to clean out a variety of jewelry stores in Paris and London. His criminal exploits, which seem lifted from a swinging '60s James Coburn picture, are as outrageously flashy as his high-profile hobby of boat racing and his far younger French girlfriend (Allesandra Martines).

Equally outlandish is the detail that finally trips Valentin up and signals an end to his criminal ways.

Valentin is disintegrating, suffering from bouts of amnesia that leave huge Swiss cheese holes in his memory, which sends Lelouch's film spiraling into roller-coaster narrative-loop-de-loops.

Lelouch initially spends an interminable time crosscutting between Valentin and a woman whose destiny we know from cinema conventions will eventually collide with his. Like Valentin, Jane Lester (singer Patricia Kaas in her film debut) is a woman of masquerade, too, a gorgeous nightclub chanteuse with an impervious cool who's harboring a broken heart and mind. Could any two people be more destined for each other? Lester suffers from blackouts, too, and at key moments in her repertoire of loungey tunes goes vacant-eyed as Lelouch's film shifts to black-and-white to indicate her distress.

Lester's own memory problems have demoted her from swank Parisian cabaret stages to playing hotel bars and pool sides at tourist hotels in Morocco where her listeners take cell phone calls and chatter during her plaintive, smokey numbers.

After much procrastination, Lelouch finally has the mutual amnesiacs meet in Morocco where Valentin has washed up on a round-the-world boating trip and Lester has just washed up. The pair embark on a spiritual mini-break, trekking into the countryside's powdery dunes to seek the curative powers of a local folk healer. In the meantime, the local police have begun to suspect Valentin is the cat burglar who boosted international jetsetter (Claudia Cardinale)'s jewels from the luxe Palais Jamai Hotel where they all stay.

If that plot recitation sounds complicated, it's nothing compared to the film itself, which encompasses countless love affairs, changes of scenery and digressions. With its doppelganger motifs -- twin doctors, twin amnesiacs and an alliteratively named hero -- the film often suggests the slick metaphysics of Krzysztok Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique. At its worst, Lelouch's film veers into the clotted, theatrical pretense of a perfume ad.

The film is chocked with philosophical ruminations on life and love and memory, but Lelouch seems to offer no greater insight than the simple motion picture cliche that two damaged souls are better than one.

And though And Now Ladies & Gentlemen is mystifying, there is something mesmerizing about a film that consists of so many close-ups that the viewer feels trapped within the confused, tortured skin of its protagonists. The film meanders like nobody's business, but it somehow manages to keep its hooks in you no matter how stupefyingly silly and implausible the action.

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