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and Harry Elfont

After a prologue that dispatches—both critically and literally—a cookie-cutter boy band called Dujour, Josie and the Pussycats boldly face the camera and issue their tuneful, rhyme-happy manifesto: “I’m a punk-rock prom queen/Hotter than you’ve ever seen/No one’s little red Corvette/Ain’t seen nothin’ like me yet.” Somewhere, an envious Courtney Love is contemplating trading in her plastic surgery for a total remake as a rocking ‘toon come to life.

Smart, fast, and funny, Josie and the Pussycats is the sharpest pop-culture satire ever made for the Britney Spears generation. Which, of course, may not get it at all. Paced to recall the quick-cut verve of Richard Lester’s mid-’60s romps, the movie utterly trumps its source, an Archie comics spinoff that became a Saturday-morning cartoon series in the early ’70s. Thematically, the film reaches even further back: It’s essentially a riff on the A Hard Day’s Night episode in which George encounters a self-styled expert in youth-culture marketing.

Writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont acknowledge that a lot has changed since the days when Beatles bubble-gum cards were considered an innovative concept. The members of the ‘N Sync-able Dujour (featuring gross-out-comedy veterans Seth Green and Breckin Meyer) are walking billboards who travel in a corporate jet decorated with Target logos. They even flack for a particular color—red, which is adopted by their screaming fans. Dumb as they are, the boys are beginning to suspect that their handler, Wyatt (the ever-epicene Alan Cumming), is withholding some information from them. Alarmed by their questions, the decisive Wyatt retires to the cockpit, where he delivers the era’s funniest code phrase for assassination and sends the plane into Buddy Holly mode as he and the pilot parachute to safety.

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Next stop: Riverdale, where Wyatt must quickly find a group to replace Dujour. He happens upon the Pussycats, three striving pop-punkers so uncool they actually play their own instruments. (In one of the nonstop visual gags that outshine the film’s verbal comedy, Wyatt sizes up the future stars through a CD jewel box.) Unconcerned that their sound is too energetic for today’s narcoleptic pop paradigm, Wyatt takes Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid), and Valerie (Rosario Dawson) to a city that looks a bit like New York, only with the landmark skyscrapers replaced by massive corporate logos. There the naive Pussycats are introduced to MegaRecords boss Fiona (Parker Posey), who makes them over, renames them to stress Josie’s lead-singer status, and prepares to outfit their debut album with subliminal messages compelling their fans to buy, buy, buy. Everything in this world is branded—which is not so frivolous a joke now that economists are counting on strip-mall spending to bail out Wall Street’s high-tech blunderers.

The Pussycats’ realization that they’ve been duped comes almost as quickly as their overnight stardom. Brainwashed into thinking that she’s a stand-alone superstar, Josie alienates Valerie and Melody and misses the gig where her folkie friend and soulmate-in-waiting debuts a song proclaiming his love for her. Even the cheerfully brainless Melody realizes that something is wrong when she goes to appear on TRL and Carson Daly tries to kill her. (Daly is Reid’s real-life fiancé, so this sequence can’t avoid indulging in too many inside jokes.)

Defeating the conspiracy is inevitably less fun than constructing it, but Josie and the Pussycats keeps its comic poise by never slowing down. Compare the drippy, slo-mo declarations of love in tweener classic Titanic, for example, with Josie’s big romantic moment, which involves crowd-surfing. There’s no “My Heart Will Go On” here—it’s strictly “We Got the Beat,” although producer Tracey E. Edmonds has wisely compared the Pussycats sound not to the Go-Go’s’ but to “a female Blink-182.” (The music was created by an unlikely brain trust that includes Babyface, Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, and Fountains of Wayne member and “That Thing You Do” composer Adam Schlesinger, with Josie’s vocals provided by former Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley.)

The movie plays like a teen-pop spoof that’s actually intended for Britney fans’ parents (or, in my case, uncle). But then, Kaplan and Elfont are practically tweeners themselves—they’re both in their early ’30s, too young to remember Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, let alone A Hard Day’s Night. Having proved their teen appeal with the dreary Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle Can’t Hardly Wait, the filmmakers have fashioned a manifesto whose look is sheer pop but whose bite is punk. It’s hard to say what actual Britney and boy-band fans will think, or even if they’ll understand the grown-up (well, at least sophomoric) implications of Dujour’s big hit, “Backdoor Lover.” The genuine horror beneath Josie and the Pussycats’ bouncy critique is that many viewers may see the film’s depiction of a corporate-branded America not as satire but as reality.

Obsessed men and doomed women keep surfacing—or, rather, sinking—in prolific French director Patrice Leconte’s films, which are inclined to exalt any passion as long as it’s eccentric. Oddly, Leconte is one of the few directors who sobers up when offered the exotic details of a historical drama. His 1996 Ridicule, set at the court of Versailles just before the French Revolution, is more earnest and even more humane than such kinky predecessors as Monsieur Hire and The Hairdresser’s Husband. Now, after Girl on the Bridge’s fairy-tale detour, Leconte is again working in 19th-century costume. The result is The Widow of Saint-Pierre, a grand European death-penalty parable for people who can’t abide Björk and/or Lars von Trier—although it sometimes leavens its period-pic production values with such Dogma-approved techniques as natural light and handheld camera.

The “widow” in question is old French slang for the guillotine, the only legal means of execution for a civilian anywhere in France’s circa-1850 empire. This stricture is a problem on the Canadian Maritime island of Saint-Pierre, the dramatically photogenic clime where Neel Auguste (Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica) has just been sentenced to death for a drunken, pointless murder. The community has neither a guillotine nor an executioner and so must imprison Auguste until the proper arrangements have been made. The condemned man’s jailer is the local military garrison’s unnamed captain (Daniel Auteuil), a man with a shadowy past and a childless, scandalously amorous marriage to the woman the locals call only Madame La (Juliette Binoche).

The captain is as obsessed with his woman as any Leconte protagonist, but an even more powerful fixation soon comes into play: Madame La sets out to rehabilitate Auguste, with the unstated assumption that she can thereby save his life. The imperiously well-meaning madame enlists the condemned man to work in her greenhouse, and soon she’s taking him to Dog Island—the settlement’s poorest area—to do chores for one of the many widows of drowned fishermen. When first paraded through the streets, Auguste is pelted with rocks, but he gradually becomes a local hero. Meanwhile, a ship makes the difficult voyage from Martinique with a secondhand guillotine, battling harsh winds and Pascal Estève’s blustery, accordion-based score.

Much to the distress of the local civic authorities, Madame La gives Auguste more and more freedom. She teaches him to read and encourages him to marry, providing him with more ties to the community. When fliers seeking an executioner are posted, they’re quickly torn down. The governor has no intention of canceling the execution, however, so in supporting his wife’s activities the captain flirts with mutiny. Yet the risks that the captain has taken don’t faze Auguste, who insists on meekly going to his death, finally exasperating even his would-be savior. “Give me a rest with your kindness,” Madame La snaps at him.

Based on an actual incident, Claude Faraldo’s script has been widely dismissed as an anti-capital-punishment tract. Auguste’s transformation from drunken murderer to gentle martyr—embodied by Kusturica’s intense, unmannered performance—does raise timeless questions about the justice of equating a person with his crime. But there’s much more than that to the film, whose craft and thematic depth eclipse those of the director’s other movies exported to the United States. (The majority of them haven’t been.)

Perhaps because they’re used to seeing Binoche as an angel of mercy (or at least an apostle of chocolate-scented humanism), some observers have missed the ambiguity of Madame La’s role. Her crusade is dangerous and not altogether noble, imbued with the sort of eroticized heedlessness that often characterizes Leconte’s protagonists (albeit usually male ones—the director here inverts his customary formula to tell a story of obsessed women and doomed men). The full meaning of The Widow of Saint-Pierre’s title isn’t revealed until the concluding moments, but even before the final somber intercutting, it’s clear that the film’s politics are mostly sexual. CP