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A sweeping chapter of American social history, The People vs. Larry Flynt is the sort of film Oliver Stone might like to make. Wisely, however, Stone decided to co-produce the project, recruiting Milos Forman to direct. The result is an American fable with a helpful dose of European distance, sympathetic but not complicit. Larry Flynt may have stage-managed a bigger freak show than Jim Morrison ever imagined, but this account of his accomplishments is wry rather than ribald.

There are some human appetites that just can’t be fully suppressed, and the movie opens in Kentucky in 1952, where a pre-pubescent Larry Flynt is peddling moonshine. Having established his entrepreneurial style, the film jumps forward 20 years to Columbus, Ohio, in the early ’70s, where Larry (Woody Harrelson) and his brother Jimmy (Harrelson’s brother Brett) are running a string of strip clubs. In short order, Larry discovers the two loves of his life: underage, bisexual stripper Althea Leasure (Courtney Love) and porn-mag publishing. Establishing that none of his pals read the leading skin mag’s high-toned text, he announces that “Playboy is mocking you.” Flynt’s publication, Hustler, will never overestimate its readership’s sophistication.

Flynt’s career could hardly have aggravated more acute sensitivities of contemporary American life, from pornography to born-again Christianity to attempted assassination to scathing satire of a public figure. After some nude photos of Jackie Onassis puts Flynt’s foundering skin mag in the black, he’s dragged into court by a Cincinnati decency group fronted by S&L scandal figure Charles Keating (Babe’s farmer pal James Cromwell) and Simon Leis (Clinton adviser James Carville, one of many nonactors in the cast). Busted again in Georgia, Flynt attracts the attention of evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of then-President Jimmy “lust in my heart” Carter. The porn king converts and is baptized, much to Althea’s disgust, just in time to be shot down by a sniper outside a small-town Georgia court. “There is no God,” concludes the partially paralyzed Flynt, as he slides into five years of isolation and addiction to painkillers.

After an operation eases Flynt’s pain, he becomes clear-headed again. Now a junkie, Althea doesn’t want to join him. Flynt’s increasingly buffoonish and confrontational tactics in court get him sentenced to a psychiatric prison, where Althea visits to tell him she has AIDS. Then a vulgar Hustler lampoon of moral majoritarian Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul) elicits a $40-million lawsuit, which ultimately leads Flynt to the Supreme Court. The landmark libel case is the film’s climax, as the nostalgic Flynt—rich, triumphant, and alone—watches videos of his late wife.

Though Flynt has suffered loss, this is not exactly the stuff of tragedy. Nor is the film strict docudrama: It excises such colorful characters as proto-Yippie Paul Krassner, who was appointed Hustler’s editor during Flynt’s Christian period, a move that did not boost circulation. It also combines all of Flynt’s attorneys into one, the inexperienced, long-suffering, but brilliant Alan Isaacman (Primal Fear’s Edward Norton, who’s engaging but seems far too young when he’s hired in the mid-’70s and hasn’t aged a moment 10 years later at the Supreme Court).

In a response to his first pornography conviction, Flynt stages an “Americans for a Free Press” rally in Cincinnati. As he stands in front of a screen flickering with a montage of images—explicit sex intercut with the Holocaust and the Klan—it’s hard not to be reminded of another movie that juxtaposed Harrelson with lurid, cut-up imagery. But where Natural Born Killers attempted to step into the maelstrom, The People vs. Larry Flynt stands outside. Forman enlists elements that are chaotic and unpredictable—notably Love, who manages to make bit-player Crispin Glover look normal by comparison—but his film never courts derangement or anarchy. It’s a prudent examination of a man who unleashed highly emotional issues of eros—and class.

The result is oddly bracing, a mainstream Hollywood movie about a marginal character. Where Stone’s movies so often insist that America is a bad trip, Forman suggests that the country’s wildest impulses are not necessarily destructive or uncontrollable. And, as proof, he offers this smart, funny, and entirely sane film.

According to the Village Voice, Claude Chabrol joked last year while making La Ceremonie that it was “the last Marxist film.” Well, not quite. Director/co-writer Benoit Jacquot’s richly minimalist A Single Girl is just as concerned with the place of the pink-collar worker in contemporary French society. While La Ceremonie’s maid cracks under the strain of serving a bourgeois provincial family, A Single Girl’s protagonist just barely survives her first hour on the job as a room-service waitress in an upscale Paris hotel.

Curiously, Virginie Ledoyen appears in both films, and in essentially the same role: a young woman who has just discovered she’s pregnant. In Chabrol’s film, Ledoyen has an upper-class supporting role; in A Single Girl, she’s the working-class central character, Valerie. More than central, really—Ledoyen embodies the film. It opens simply with the thumps of Valerie’s boyfriend Remi (Benoit Magimel) playing pinball in a Paris cafe, but Caroline Champetier’s camera can barely move from the protagonist’s face once she arrives. Shot with handheld Steadicam and largely in close-up, A Single Girl is as obsessed with Ledoyen’s extraordinary loveliness as it is with Valerie’s ordinary life.

Although Jacquot could easily have displayed his star more explicitly—when Valerie changes into her hotel uniform, the camera stays on her head and shoulders—the intense focus on Ledoyen has caused some griping that the film is mere male fantasy. The actress is as striking as any of the better-known beauties of the French cinema, and already rates her own page on the “Belles de Jour” web site dedicated to such stars as Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche, and Emmanuelle Beart. (The address is www.netlink.co.uk/users/michael/

ledoyen.html.) Indeed, A Single Girl’s nearly superfluous epilogue seems designed principally to demonstrate how good Ledoyen looks with a different haircut.

If the film is obsessive about its title character, however, Ledoyen merits the attention. As she slips into an unoccupied room to escape her intrusive co-workers or strides away from her irksome boyfriend, mother, or room-service clients, her face reveals an exceptional range of semihidden emotions. Besides, Valerie’s erotic appeal is an explicit subject of the film: Remi criticizes her for walking too sexily and for being too impressed with her own prettiness; later, in an interview with a disagreeable (and possibly jealous) middle-aged female hotel executive, she’s told that, “You’re pretty. That’s a compliment, but also a warning.”

Valerie may not need that particular warning, but her new job is full of hazards. Framed by two strained conversations with Remi in the cafe, the film records one hour (in simulated real time) at the hotel, where she’s buffeted by the unwanted intimacies of both co-workers and guests. Valerie is sexually harassed by one of the waiters and snubbed by a waitress who sees her as sexual competition. One hotel guest wants to confide in her about his estrangement from his son, while a couple contrives to be “surprised” while having sex. Private lives keep intruding, sometimes to the young woman’s benefit: In the middle of the hostile interview, Valerie is rescued when the hotel executive gets an awkwardly personal call.

The new waitress’s first hour of ferrying juice, coffee, and croissants to hotel rooms is also the hour in which she will decide her future: whether or not to have the baby, whether or not to stay with Remi. In a sense, her answers to these questions don’t matter; though not as extreme in his pursuit of the everyday as some experimental filmmakers, Jacquot here is uninterested in conventional drama. In fact, A Single Girl seems most alive when it simply observes Valerie by herself. This single girl doesn’t need anyone else; just she and a camera make an entire world.