If Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern's take-notice debut "Aaltra" was cinema of the absurd, their sporadically exhilarating "Avida" heads toward the heights of experimental theater. Pic's very wildness could earn it a cult following via festivals and maybe attract younger audiences.

Deaf Mute - Gustave Kervern Scotch Tape Man - Benoit Delepine Zoo-keeper - Eric Martin Avida - Velvet

If Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern’s take-notice debut “Aaltra” was cinema of the absurd, their sporadically exhilarating “Avida” heads toward the heights of experimental theater. Somewhere between Monty Python, Jacques Tati and a slideshow of New Yorker cartoons, this critique of life’s cruel inconsistency confirms the French co-directors’ gift for reinterpreting surrealism in a humorously modern key. Though their often disgusting imagery may alienate the squeamish and send fans of conventional comedy running for the exit, pic’s very wildness could earn it a cult following via festivals and maybe attract younger audiences.

Granted, there are some serious longeurs and the sketches are not all equally funny, but enough top-drawer material is packed in the opening half to wring a laugh from almost anyone.

Animals appear in number, and their mistreatment ties in to various abominations to humans via a quote from Chief Seattle: “Whatever happens to animals will soon happen to man.” To illustrate the thesis, film opens with a dwarf picador sticking lances into the neck of a rhino lumbering across the lawn, then committing suicide.

Next, a wealthy man (deadpan cameo by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere) seals himself into his fully automated home, surrounded by high walls and pit bulls, only to fall victim to the most dangerous person around: himself.

His deaf mute dog handler (played by the hairy Kervern) ends up working in a private zoo-cum-restaurant, where a rich gourmet (hilariously limned by director Claude Lelouch) weighs the merits of ordering roebuck or ostrich.

A plot of sorts develops when Kervern is drawn into a dog-napping by two ketamine-addicted zoo-keepers (Delepine and Eric Martin). The scheme fails, and instead they are forced to help the pooch’s obese millionaire owner Avida (Velvet) carry out her death wish.

From here on out, the story turns a teeny bit flat and gradually tapers off, until the final shot (the only one in color) hits the spot again. The directors seem to have amused themselves casting and acting in the film. Kervern brings an animal dignity to his slave-like character, while mad hatter Delepine enjoys deforming his face with the futile application of scotch tape.

A good portion of the cast seems to have physical abnormalities. Velvet, the actress who plays Avida, is a half-dressed Venus of Willendorf so obese she can barely walk, like the physical image of her over-consuming class.

Even more than in “Aaltra,” camerawork plays a key role in creating a surreal parallel universe. Hugues Poulain’s amusing, carefully composed black-and-white cinematography takes animals, buildings, and people grotesquely out of context for shock effect. Shots are full of off-handed literary and artistic references, and are a good joke if you catch them.

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Production: An MNP Entreprise/Studio Canal/No Money Prods. production. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Elisa Larriere. Executive producers, Mathieu Kassovitz, Benoit Jaubert. Directed, written by Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern.

Crew: Camera (B&W), Hugues Poulain; editor, Stephane Elmadjian; production designer, Alain Juteau; sound (Dolby Digital), Guillaume le Braz. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 19, 2006. Running time: 86 MIN.

With: Deaf Mute - Gustave Kervern Scotch Tape Man - Benoit Delepine Zoo-keeper - Eric Martin Avida - VelvetWith: Jean-Claude Carriere, Claude Lelouch, Kati Outinen, Stephane Sanseverino, Bouli Lanners, Claudine Francois, Rokia Traore, Albert Dupontel, Philippe Vuillemin, Fernando Arrabal, Remy Kolpa Kopoul.

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