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New European Directors Pack Films With Derring-Do

AT the movies, nothing is more exciting than the arrival of a new director who shows real talent and originality. Three such directors have emerged in Europe recently, and their debut films are now enjoying great success on American screens: "Toto le Heros," made by Jaco Van Dormael, and "Delicatessen," made by the team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro.

"Toto le Heros" is being released in the United States under its original Belgian title, rather than its English translation, presumably because "Toto the Hero" might sound like a movie for kids - about a superhero, maybe, or a dog named after Dorothy's pooch in "The Wizard of Oz."

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In fact, "Toto le Heros" is a movie for grown-ups, and Toto is a character who doesn't exist - or rather, who exists only in the imagination of Thomas, the main character of the story. During his boyhood, Thomas dreams up the secret agent Toto as a fantasy to soothe the painful thoughts that dominate his life. The reason for his pain is clear: He is convinced he was switched with another child at birth, and that his neighbor Alfred is living the much better existence that should have been his own.

"Toto le Heros" is the story of Thomas's stolen life and of how Thomas decides to steal it back. The story isn't told in a straight line, however. It begins with Thomas's death, and then retraces his history in a series of scrambled flashbacks that mingle past, present, and might-have-been into a surrealistic jigsaw puzzle of a movie.

It's confusing at times (describing the plot to friends is downright impossible) and occasionally it bogs down in its own clever devices. But it's loaded with ideas, and the performances are fully in tune with the movie's manic inventiveness. There's also a 1930s song called "Boum" that keeps barging into the picture, sounding more bouncy and charming every time.

Mr. Von Dormael, who once earned his living as a circus clown, eased into the filmmaking craft by directing several short movies in recent years - an activity so enjoyable, he told me a few months ago, that he plans to continue with occasional short films, along with full-length projects in time to come.

"Toto le Heros," winner of the Camera d'Or for best debut feature at last year's Cannes Film Festival, displays his talents as both an accomplished technician and an innovative visual artist. It will be exciting to watch his career develop.

The word "Delicatessen" comes from roots meaning "delicate food," but there is little delicacy to the proudly outrageous French comedy with that title. It takes place in a future world where meat is a vanished commodity. Yet one of the main characters is a butcher, and his neighbors rely on him for occasional cold cuts - which he provides, like a science-fiction Sweeney Todd, by secretly slaughtering his own customers.

Meanwhile, there's a war going on between these meat-lovers and a band of rebels who live in sewers below the city. What do they eat? Lentils, of course.

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Those are only a few of the bizarre ingredients in this exceedingly bizarre movie, whose characters include a snail collector, an inventor of Rube Goldberg-like suicide machines, and a musical-saw virtuoso.

Added together, so many antic ideas are more than one movie can handle, even if it does have a pair of energetic directors. "Delicatessen" seems overstuffed at times, unable to digest its own surfeit of jokes, tricks, and surprises.

It's certainly imaginative, though, and like the food emporium it's named after, it probably won't spawn many imitators.

What will filmmakers Jeunet and Caro serve for dessert in their next movie? Something equally daring, one hopes - but more thoroughly cooked and a bit easier to swallow.

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