NEW YORK — One of film's most valuable assets is its ability to cast a light on different cultures around the world. Some of the latest international movies in American theaters serve this function well, illuminating social conditions and cultural ideas as they spin their comic or dramatic stories.
One of the most interesting is the oddly named Hideous Kinky, a movie more engaging than its title, which comes from novelist Esther Freud's memory of a childhood game that involved combining words for sound rather than sense. The phrase "hideous kinky" stood for "anything beautiful, absurd, or frightening" to the author, whose partly autobiographical book inspired the film.
Kate Winslet, an Oscar nominee for "Titanic," plays a young mother on an unusual quest. Swept away by romantic notions of the 1960s era, she leaves her native England in search of adventure, fun, and enlightenment in North Africa, a place she doesn't understand beyond vague associations with the exotic and otherworldly. There she raises her little girls, pesters the Marrakech post office for checks from their wandering father, and plans a visit to an Algerian guru for an encounter with Sufi wisdom.
"Hideous Kinky" sketches a bemused yet sympathetic portrait of the cultural clash between an idealistic heroine and the ancient intricate society in which she hopes to carve out a fresh and exciting life. It also makes revealing comments on the '60s as a whole, wryly observing the conflict between its visionary aspirations and the real-world pressures that were reasserting themselves by 1972, when the story takes place. Winslet does her most creative acting since "Heavenly Creatures," and director Gillies MacKinnon deserves credit for coaxing vivid performances from the children in the cast.
Madrid is the setting of the very different Open Your Eyes, a psychological thriller that reminds us how good some Spanish filmmakers are at manipulating this often unwieldy genre.
Then again, it's not entirely fair to pigeonhole "Open Your Eyes" within a single category, since its plot has a way of shifting course just when you think you've figured it out. It begins as a romantic triangle centering on a young man, a new girlfriend, and a jealous lover. After some wrought-up confrontations and a car crash, it turns into a tale of physical trauma and emotional anguish. Later scenes plunge into surreal mystery and science-fiction pyrotechnics.
This may sound like a hodgepodge, but director Alejandro Amenbar weaves it into a smoothly flowing tale that's as gripping as it is unpredictable, helped by tautly written dialogue and excellent acting.
Also noteworthy is the fact that its message ultimately focuses on the difficulty of telling reality from fantasy in today's postmodern world - the same issue addressed by other new films including "eXistenZ," a coming Canadian thriller by David Cronenberg, who has been exploring this territory for years.
Another important issue is the impact of AIDS on contemporary culture, which receives remarkably fresh treatment in Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, a French fable about a vivacious young woman who falls madly in love with a man she's just met, only to learn that he's facing an uncertain future due to his medical diagnosis. The movie faces this situation forthrightly, but tempers its potential gloominess by surrounding the story with sprightly songs, dances, and colors as glowing as the screen has given us in ages. Virginie Ledoyen is superb as the heroine, supported by an energetic cast including Mathieu Demy, son of the late Jacques Demy, who pioneered serious screen musicals in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and other classics. His spirit is alive and well in Olivier DuCastel's directorial debut.
By an amiable coincidence, Jacques Demy's widow is also represented by a current French export. Hundred and One Nights, a slight but sparkling entertainment about cinema's first century, was directed by Agns Varda, one of that century's major players. She uses a humorous story idea - friendship between a young film student and Simon Cinema, a movie-loving old codger - as the excuse for a feature-length celebration of motion-picture history, complete with film clips and star cameos. It's giddy, silly, and a treat for any cinephile.
Varda's movie blends fantasy with documentary, but a more straightforward nonfiction film arriving this season turns out to be less exciting than hoped. Endurance tells the real-life story of Haile Gebrselassie, an underprivileged Ethiopian runner who won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games in record time.
While this has the ring of marvelous film material, director Leslie Woodhead makes little of it, recounting Gebrselassie's past in woodenly acted flashbacks and chronicling his athletic triumphs through a string of inspirational clichs. The racetrack scenes are effective, but most of the movie would look more at home in the classroom than the movie theater, especially with so many superior international releases to compete with it.
*'Hideous Kinky,' rated R, contains sex and drug use. 'Open Your Eyes,' rated R, contains sex and violence. 'Jeanne and the Perfect Guy,' not rated, contains sex and nudity. 'Hundred and One Nights' and 'Endurance,' not rated, contain nudity.