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Women want sex. Men want sex. And yet they seldom end up wanting the same thing. Or at least they don’t in the universe of writer-director Catherine Breillat, whose frank, provocative films manage to upset both romantics and cynics—and both sophisticated French and puritanical American viewers.

Two years ago, Breillat’s ironically named Romance took a scandalously dispassionate view of a spurned woman’s erotic adventures. At least that character was a consenting adult. The new Fat Girl returns to the realm of 1986’s 36 Fillette, her first U.S. release, as well as her 1975 debut, A Very Young Girl, which was promptly banned: the sexual initiation of very young girls. In fact, the younger of the film’s two sisters is only 12, although most of the story concerns the seduction of her older sister, who’s 15 (and played by an 18-year-old actress).

Like many of Breillat’s films, Fat Girl takes place on holiday, when boredom and lust often mingle, particularly at the beach. Pudgy Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) tags along with her older sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), who’s precociously stunning. The girls are mostly ignored by their parents (played by Arsinée Khanjian, the wife of director Atom Egoyan, and director Romain Goupil), leaving them to wander to the cafe where Elena meets—and promptly starts smooching—Italian law student Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), an easygoing cad. Anaïs buries her embarrassment in a banana split, but she has no such prop when Fernando later sneaks into the bedroom the girls share and seduces Elena—who dreams of intimacy yet expects to retain her virginity—with promises that not even Elena believes. Pretending to be asleep, Anaïs is actually the witness to a form of rape.

Although Elena’s infatuation with Fernando sparks much of the action, Breillat—a younger sister herself—is just as concerned with Anaïs. It’s the chubby sister who has the closest thing to a tender scene: Inspired by her sister’s affair, she swims from one end of a pool to the other, kissing metal poles as if they were competing lovers. Despite such fantasies, Anaïs is less naive than her sister, who imagines herself engaged after Fernando coerces her into anal sex and then gives her a ring. Anaïs tells Elena she shouldn’t have accepted the token, and she’s right. Fernando’s mother (Laura Betti) comes to demand the ring’s return, and the girls’ own outraged mother—Dad has already fled—immediately puts them in the car for the drive back to Paris. On a highway overrun by large trucks, the trip is harrowing. But its menace is no preparation for the film’s shock ending, which may be a fantasy sequence. Breillat won’t say what her intention was, and Anaïs’ final words are tantalizingly ambiguous: “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to.”

Short and anything but sweet, the 93-minute Fat Girl jolts from tone to tone: The teenage-wasteland ennui of the early scenes yields to the confrontational mode of Elena’s seduction, a long take staged without cuts (and clothes), and finally to the ominous final sequence. The film is obviously intended to keep audiences off-balance, yet it is clearly designed: The final scene restates the film’s thesis in very different but not incompatible terms. Don’t believe it if you don’t want to.

“I’m not that kind of dentist,” smugly announces upright, prosperous Chicagoan Frank Sangster (Steve Martin) early in Novocaine, the third overreaching film-noir pastiche in as many weeks. Of course, Frank is about to learn what kind of dentist—and man—he really is. His assured self-image crumbles when he becomes the patsy in an elaborate con, even if he’s not so big a patsy as the protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the con isn’t as elaborate as those in Heist. A noir comedy, Novocaine means to be kicky and hip, although it’s actually about as sprightly as Danny Elfman’s choral/industrial credits theme.

Martin’s second turn as a dentist is a little shop of humiliations. Frank attempts to rebuff sexy painkiller addict Susan (a gamely miscast Helena Bonham Carter), who comes to him for a root canal but really wants Demerol. Despite his contempt for social outsiders—a group that includes his brother Harlan (Elias Koteas)—Frank can’t resist Susan. Their romp in the chair leads to a quick slide from respectability: While Frank struggles to hide the evidence of his fling with Susan—a pair of red panties with a Hitchcockian propensity for reappearing—from his uptight hygienist fiancée, Jean (Laura Dern), he’s visited by a DEA agent who accuses him of selling dental narcotics for recreational use and threatened by Susan’s roughneck brother Duane (Scott Caan). Then there’s the small matter of a corpse, which proves as hard to discard as those panties. No wonder Frank decides that he’d rather live in the fictional French village depicted in the old film he shows to calm his patients.

That film, which mixes the bucolic visions of Marcel Pagnol and Jacques Tati, is a pastiche, too. But that doesn’t prevent first-time director David Atkins—the son and brother of dentists and the scripter of Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica’s oddball Arizona Dream—from offering it as a possible refuge. Frank’s means of escape is gruesome enough for the Coen brothers, but his fate has no bite. Novocaine is just the tale of a man who takes a painful route from one fairy-tale existence to another.

Last month’s Richard Linklater film, Waking Life, devised a bold new way to be tedious: videotaping a Slacker-like cast of college-town blowhards and then rotoscoping the results into an animated bull session. This month’s Linklater film, Tape, takes a more traditional path to tedium: videotaping a play.

Tape isn’t Linklater’s first film derived from a theater piece; SubUrbia started on stage, too. This time, however, the director decided to emphasize the theatricality of his material by keeping the action entirely in one confined space. When the movie starts, Vince (Ethan Hawke) is alone in a motel room guzzling Rolling Rock. Then his old high school buddy John (Robert Sean Leonard) arrives, and the two gleefully relapse into adolescent banter. Yet it’s soon established that they have grown apart: Vince is a California volunteer fireman and drug dealer who’s just split with his girlfriend, whereas John is an aspiring director whose first movie is about to debut at the Lansing Film Festival. In fact, the motel is in Lansing, Mich., and Vince has ostensibly traveled there to cheer his old friend at his moment of minor-league triumph.

John doesn’t entirely approve of Vince’s dealing, and shortly the duo’s bonding turns to bickering. Vince reignites a long-simmering grudge against John, which has something to do with the relationship John began with Vince’s high school flame, Amy, after Vince and Amy separated. Vince taunts John into an admission, then reveals that he’s surreptitiously taped their conversation. Vince has one more surprise: Amy is now an assistant D.A. in Lansing—the Times Square of the Midwest, apparently—and Vince has contacted her. In a minute, Amy (Uma Thurman, Hawke’s wife) is at the door, and the conflict goes three-way.

A few bitter people yelling sexually charged accusations at each other is familiar stuff in American theater—think Albee, Mamet, or Shepard—and maybe it’s compelling when the audience is trapped in a small dark room with the screamers. Linklater actually undermines the scenario’s claustrophobia, however, with frequent cuts and many camera positions. The result is frustrating: Tape keeps promising to become something more than a digital-video three-hander for the slacker generation, but it never does. CP