'The Elegant Criminal: a bit too cunning for its own good



(Fox Lorber, 1992, $89.95, not rated, Dec. 29 release date)

Society has always been intrigued by the criminal mind, especially when the criminal is intelligent and sophisticated. Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (Daniel Auteuil) was such a criminal, a man who took warped pleasure from stealing and deceiving, even at an early age, when he pilfered from his mother. "Robbing one's parents is like getting an advance on one's inheritance," he would later rationalize.

But Lacenaire, a free-lance writer, poet and playwright who aligned himself with no one and no ideology, soon became bored with petty thievery and graduated to murder, hiring his male companions to actually perform the dirty work after he set up his victims. For Lacenaire, it was a way of relieving boredom.

"Everything I've ever done, even murder, was by way of entertainment," he said. "When there's no murder, there's no pleasure."

Director Francois Girod seems to go out of his way to make this biography difficult to follow, jumping willy-nilly from Lacenaire's childhood to his incarceration to his early manhood and to the days following his beheading, when publishers haggled over how to handle the meticulous memoir he left behind. This approach is particularly difficult to follow when all of the actors are unfamiliar and there are no title cards or graphics to help viewers get their bearings with scene changes.

Most of the confusion is cleared up during a climactic courtroom scene in which Lacenaire's infectious eloquence wins over the prosecutor, judge and jury, whom he persuades to sentence him to execution by guillotine (his way of committing suicide, he says) rather than a lifetime of hard labor.

Don't worry, I haven't given away the ending; the French film (with English subtitles) begins with Lacenaire's execution.


(New Line, 1992, $89.95, not rated, Dec. 29 release date)

AThis strangely intriguing thriller gives away a critical point of suspense way too early and alienates viewers with some experimental techniques that seldom work.

Shortly after the stepdaughter of ruthless businessman George Westfield (Christopher Reeve) drowns in a backyard pond, Westfield's wife Crista (Marg Helgenberger) begins hearing the little girl's voice. Following a car accident in which Crista is technically dead for six minutes, she begins having frequent visions of her daughter, who seems to be trying to tell her something about her death.

Up to this point everything is going fairly well, if predictably. But then Crista is introduced to an eccentric psychiatrist (Fionnula Flanagan) with a laughable Austrian accent who convinces Crista that her visions are real and that her daughter is telling her she was murdered (which anyone paying half-attention knew in the first few minutes).

Now we move to a completely unnecessary murder trial scene in which Crista is frequently shown in slow motion for no apparent reason.

But despite these failings, "Death Dreams" is an adequate substitute if all your first video choices have been checked out from the store.


(New Line, 1992, $89.95, not rated, Dec. 29 release date)

Eric Hansen (Corey Haim), a teen-ager new to a Canadian farming community, is trying to come to terms with the recent death of his mother, his new stepmother (Genevieve Bujold) and his blossoming hormones. At least he has the latter element in common with his new buddy, who manages to blow up his father's car and pull the rear axle off the Studebaker replacement, all while trying to achieve his first sexual conquest.

This 1950s coming-of-age comedy-drama rightly emphasizes the unusually understanding and charming characters that surround these two lads, including both sets of parents and the local mechanic (Robbie Coltrane), an overweight loner who is more than willing to dole out free advice on matters of sex and women.

The central plot involves Hansen's infatuation with a neighbor (Barbara Williams) who has two children and lives with a man who pays her little attention. But this element is little more than an excuse for three or four voyeuristic peeks at Williams swimming naked in a stream.

A soundtrack of oldies such as "Earth Angel," "Book of Love" and other '50s standards adds to the overall nostalgia.

The video new year begins Jan. 6 with several box office disappointments, including a sequel, "Honey, I Blew up the Kid," prequel, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" and the first of two films celebrating a 500th anniversary, "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery."

Look for one of the biggest releases of 1992 in February, "A League of Their Own," along with "Sneakers" and "Honeymoon in Vegas." Four other notable releases, "The Last of the Mohicans," "Under Siege," "Mr. Saturday Night" and "Mr. Baseball" are expected in March. Two films that drew significant praise, "Unforgiven" and "The Player" will probably be held from video release until April, following the Academy Awards.

Meanwhile, Orson Welles' restored "Othello" will be released Jan. 13 amid a full slate of more contemporary films, such as "A Stranger Among Us," starring Melanie Griffith, "Man Trouble," with Jack Nicholson, "Diggstown," starring James Woods and Louis Gossett Jr., the thrillers "Raising Cain" and "Single White Female" and the family action comedy, "3 Ninjas."

Already announced for February is the Stephen King television miniseries "It," and several more 1992 theatrical films, including "Mo' Money," "Death Becomes Her" and "Unlawful Entry."

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