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'Ladies' a pretty boat sailing into nowhere

And Now Ladies and Gentlemen tells the story of a jewel thief and a lounge singer who suffer from frequent blackouts, meaning they spend much of their time looking passive, unsure of what's going on or how they should react.

The film engenders much the same reaction.

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While undeniably suave and romantic, even poetic, this latest from French director Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman) stubbornly resists any emotional attachment on the part of its audience. Time sways to and fro, without warning or much in the way of a plan. The leads wait until the film is more than half over before coming together, and never really generate much in the way of passion for one another (they share an affliction, not an attraction). And the marvelous scenery becomes an end in itself, never a good sign.

A distractingly disengaged Jeremy Irons is Valentin Valentin, an English jewel thief who's part master of disguise (the actor seems to be channeling Peter Sellers here), part urban terrorist (he threatens to launch a missile at a jewelry store window if the goods aren't handed over). Perhaps tiring of his high-risk existence - although he seems pleasantly amused by his accomplishments - he decides to chuck it all and try something drastic. He buys a sailboat and enters an around-the-world race.

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Simultaneously (one supposes, although timelines in this movie are not things to be pinned down), a fiery blond lounge singer named Jane Lester (newcomer Patricia Kaas) is miserable, unable to bear her new role as a jilted lover. Only when she sings does Jane come to life (Kaas' full-time job is French chanteuse, and watching her perform is one of the movie's unassailable pleasures). The rest of the time, she mopes or stews or simply stares.

The staring is for a reason: Of late, she's been suffering from blackouts, driving aimlessly in circles, wandering the streets without any idea where she is, stopping her performances in mid-song and leaving the stage. Valentin, too, finds himself falling into mnemonic black holes, waking up as if from a sleep with large gaps in his personal timeline. When one of those blackouts comes during the race, he ends up crashing his boat off the coast of Morocco, where he stops to make repairs - both to his boat and to himself.

Morocco is where Jane has ended up, as well. When both show up at the same doctor (he has the only CAT scanner for hundreds of miles), they link up and begin looking for ...

Answers? Love? Forgiveness? Hard to say, especially since Lelouch doesn't seem all that concerned himself. And if he's not, it's hard to figure why we should be.

True, there's a lushness to the film that's periodically enchanting, and it's fun for a while, trying to decide what fits where in the narrative. But Jane and Valentin are so different from each other - she's determinedly miserable, he's roguishly charming - that it's hard to buy the connection they're supposed to be enjoying. Which makes And Now Ladies and Gentlemen the cinematic equivalent of a beautifully wrapped gift box with nothing inside.

And Now Ladies and Gentlemen

Starring Jeremy Irons, Patricia Kaas

Written and directed by Claude Lelouch

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Released by Paramount Classics (In French, with English subtitles)

Rated PG-13 (Momentary language)

Time 132 minutes

Sun Score: ** 1/2


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