Claire Denis has never given her audience an easy time. Whether exploring her own past and France's post-colonial legacy in Chocolat (1988), Beau Travail (1999) and White Material (2009) or the darker aspects of contemporary society in Nénette et Boni (1996), Vendredi Soir (2002) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008), she has adopted a spare, elliptical style that leaves little room for backstory or exposition. Consequently, viewers are forced to think for themselves as they pick their way through meticulously composed images that often raise more questions than they provide easy answers. Once again collaborating with screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis makes fewer compromises than ever in Bastards, a slow-simmering revenge thriller that presents its straightforward noir narrative in the most capriciously fragmented manner. However, as was the case with the erotic horror, Trouble Every Day (2001), and the illegal transplant saga, The Intruder (2004), Denis struggles to avoid moments of melodrama whose shock tactics border on the sensationalist and threaten to undermine the entire enterprise.

As the rain cascades outside, shoe manufacturer Laurent Grévill composes himself before jumping to his death, while, across Paris, his teenage daughter, Lola Créton, stumbles in a daze through the nocturnal streets bleeding between the legs and wearing nothing but a pair of high heels. On being interviewed by the police, Julie Bataille accuses financier Michel Subor of being responsible for her husband's death and her daughter's assault. But inspector Nicole Dogué is clearly unimpressed by her hysterical outburst and urges her to calm down and go and put her house in order.

Unable to cope, Bataille contacts estranged brother Vincent Lindon, who takes extended leave from his duty as a tanker skipper and, one month after his brother-in-law's demise, he moves into the building in which Subor has installed mistress Chiara Mastroianni and their young son Yann Antoine Bizette. Leaving the apartment unfurnished, Lindon sleeps on a mattress and spends his time surfing the internet for information about Subor and his personal and professional dealings. However, from the first time they meet in the lift, there is a tension between Lindon and Mastroianni that intensifies after he fixes Bizette's bicycle and she launders his white shirt after it gets spattered with oil.

Determined to get to the bottom of Créton's injuries, Lindon goes to the clinic in which she is being treated and is informed by doctor Alex Descas that she has been overdoing the drink and drugs and will require surgery to repair her damaged genitals. Dismayed by the news, Lindon tries to rebuild bridges with teenage daughter Jeanne Disson when she comes to stay, but he admits to being a poor husband and father and doesn't blame his ex-wife for keeping their two girls away from him.

While Lindon is willing to accept his shortcomings, Bataille insists on blaming everyone but herself for her plight and lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti warns her that unless she declares herself bankrupt within 45 days, she could lose both the factory and her home. Lindon reveals that he had given his share of an inheritance to help his sister launch the business and she raves that Subor lured Grévill into bad business decisions. But Dupond-Moretti refuses to lodge an official complaint against him, as there is no evidence to support her contention.

As they drive away, Lindon berates Bataille for not being straight with him about the state of the company and the fact that Créton has been allowed to spiral out of control. But he seems to share her dislike of Subor and watches from his window as the tycoon comes to collect Bizette and holds his hand in the back of the car as they drive away for the weekend. Yet it is never made clear whether it is revenge or passion that motivates him to seduce Mastroianni when she returns his shirt. They make love with urgency, but have little to say to one another afterwards and she hurries away fully aware of the risk she is taking to assuage her evident loneliness.

Ignoring the advice of banker Hélène Fillières, Lindon quits his job and cashes in his life insurance to help Bataille. He also sells his beloved Alfa Romeo to fellow skipper Christophe Miossec and takes the train back to the factory, where he is annoyed to see the piles of unsold stock, which he considers to be cheap and tacky. As he writes her a cheque, he ticks off Bataille for ruining a good venture and she gives him their father's revolver and tells him he is going to need it when they rendezvous at the remote country sex shack where Créton was abused. Lindon views owners Grégoire Colin and his pregnant partner Florence Loiret Caille with a jaundiced eye before throwing a punch at the former, but he is still unable to piece together precisely what happened to his niece.

Back in Paris, Mastroianni spots Lindon's watch in the window of a secondhand shop and buys it back for him after another bout of love-making. He tells her she is too good to be a rich man's concubine, but she assures him that Subor has been a caring companion who did much to boost her self-esteem when she was cast adrift by her parents. Nettled, she scoffs at Lindon's track record as a family man, but he merely strugs. Similarly, he makes light of being attacked in the street. But he refuses to shake Subor's hand when they meet in the lobby of the apartment block and Mastroianni sends him an angry text ordering him to leave when he accepts Subor's invitation to coffee.

Despite suspecting Mastroianni of infidelity, Subor collects her for a night out and she returns in the small hours to find Lindon sitting on the staircase outside her door. Ignoring the possibility that babysitter Elise Lhomeau might hear them, Mastroianni responds to Lindon's advances, as he loosens her hair and unzips her dress. Indeed, they are canoodling when the land line rings inside the apartment and she dashes in to field a call from Subor, who is checking up on her before boarding a plane for a business trip. Hurriedly paying off Lhomeau, Mastroianni pleads with Lindon to leave, but he stays as she gives Bizette his breakfast and only departs when he gets a call on his mobile.

Lindon goes to a café to meet with Sharunas Bartas, who is angry that he abandoned his ship and tells Lindon that his chances of getting another captain's post have deteriorated markedly. However, he has no time to feel sorry for himself, as Descas calls to let him know that Créton has run away. Bataille is furious and brands Descas a disgrace. But he calmly retorts that she has hardly been a model mother and he commends Lindon for trying to do the right thing by such difficult people, as he gives him a lift home.

Convinced that Créton would seek sanctuary with Colin and Loiret Caille, Lindon takes a taxi to the sticks and asks the driver to wait. He finds Loiret Caille tossing items on to a bonfire, but, as he starts searching the out-buildings, she smuggles Créton into the cab and they speed away, leaving Lindon to walk home down the central reservation of the main road. He asks Miossec if he can borrow the Alfa and meets with Colin in an internet café. He shows Lindon CCTV images of Subor and Mastroianni arriving on his premises and informs him that even more damning footage is available for a price.

Meanwhile, Mastroianni has gone to collect Bizette from school to discover that Subor has decided to take permanent custody of him, as a punishment for her fling with Lindon. He explains in a letter that he does not want the mother of his son consorting with such a debased family and, naturally, she is distraught. While Subor teaches Bizette how to sail his yacht, Lindon confronts Bataille with the photos he obtained from Colin and she tries to deflect the blame as he accuses her of using Créton to coax Subor into underwriting their failing business. However, when he returns home, Mastroianni denounces Lindon for using her to exact his revenge on Subor, but he insists he has done nothing wrong and that Subor is the bastard, not him.

Créton has very different ideas about who is responsible for her misery, however, and she turns off the headlights as she speeds along a country road, with Colin and Loiret Caille high on drugs and lust alongside her in the front seat. A brusque cut reveals the latter staggering away from the wreckage of the vehicle and, even though she is bleeding, the implication is that she and her child will survive. Bizette will also be fine, as he returns to the apartment with Subor to collect some of his belongings, including his bike. The boy rushes upstairs hoping to see his mother, who is seeking solace with Lindon. Subor gloatingly tells her that their son is about to start school in Geneva and, this final act of treachery, compels Lindon to attack him. As they tussle on the landing, Mastroianni grabs Lindon's gun and fires a shot. But, knowing that Subor has the wealth and status give her child the best start in life, it is her lover who perishes.

As the crumpled chassis of the car in which Créton died is carried along on a transporter truck, Descas invites Bataille to view some harrowing footage of her husband and daughter lying naked on a mattress with Lioret Caille, as a reclining Subor looks on. Grévill fondles Créton and a corncob appears in the front corner of the frame, as the image blurs and the desperate father forces his daughter down and climbs on top of her.

Borrowing this sickening climactic sequence from William Faulkner's 1931 novel Sanctuary and the core storyline from Akira Kurosawa's 1960 drama, The Bad Sleep Well, Claire Denis succeeds in showing how little human nature has changed over the decades, while also commenting on the moral malaise in contemporary France. Key to the action is a throwaway line by the concierge of the apartment building, who responds to Mastroianni's surprise that he is helping his ailing mother by stating that people should do anything for their family. Yet, while this reworking of Jean Renoir's famous maxim that everyone has their reasons just about holds things together, Denis and Fargeau relate their tale with such self-conscious opacity that the denouement winds up resembling something from a soap opera with pretensions rather than the Greek tragedy to which the writers were obviously aspiring.

The over-manipulative electronica score by Tindersticks scarcely helps matters. But the dependable Lindon makes a splendidly noirish anti-hero and Denis and regular cinematographer Agnès Godard (working together in digital for the first time) make evocative use of close-ups to capture his tangled emotions. However, the female characters are not delineated in similar detail and we end up knowing as much about Loiret Caille as we do about Bataille, Créton and Mastroianni. Nevertheless, all three give fine performances, with Bataille's accusatory tirades contrasting with Créton's resentful taciturnity and Mastroianni's conflicted hesitancy. Subor also struggles to prevent his villain from being a touch one note, but the scenes in which he is alone with Bizette make for stark viewing alongside those of Lindon and the teenage Disson.

Notwithstanding its intricacy and intensity, this is a film to admire rather than acclaim. The structural slickness fails to make the plot twists any less contrived, while the music seems to work against the visuals by providing emotional cues that take the pressure off viewers as they strive to follow the action and its implications. Always in control of the grim rhythmic lyricism of her visuals, Denis ensures that the bestial acts are in no way gratuitous. But there is something forced about springing the big secret in the final frames, as many will have already deduced the hideous truth. Thus, while this may be dark, daring and demanding, it is also slightly disappointing.

The week's second French picture is the kind that rarely makes it across the Channel, even though dozens of them are churned out for domestic consumption each year. Rooted firmly in the tradition of the Hollywood romantic comedy, Alexandre Castagnetti's Love Is in the Air differs from other rom-copycats in so far as it reworks an original screenplay by American actor Vincent Angell. In all other regards, however, it sticks as slavishly to convention and caricature as such recent romps as Frédéric Beigbeder's Love Lasts Three Years (2011), David Moreau's It Boy and Danièle Thompson's It Happened in St Tropez (both 2013), which it resembles in the fact that the lovers first meet in transit, with a transatlantic jet replacing the EuroStar express on which Lou de Laâge first encounters Max Boublil.

Trendy sculptress Ludivine Sagnier is on her way from New York to Paris to marry her lawywer fiancé, Arnaud Ducret. As the plane is full, however, she is upgraded and finds herself sitting next to ex-boyfriend Nicolas Bedos, another lawyer whom Sagnier has not seen since they split up acrimoniously three years earlier. He is heading home for a job interview and seems pleased to see his old flame. But any hopes he might have had of flirting with her as they reminnisce about old times are soon doused when Sagnier reminds him of the reasons for their parting and the first of many flashbacks takes us back to the night on which Bedos and Sagnier first met, somwhat improbably, in a gentlemen's lavatory.

Seemingly already aware of Bedos's reputation as a womaniser (he nickname is `Mr Two Weeks'), Sagnier refuses to succumb to his advances. However, perhaps because she fancies taking him down a peg or two, she agrees to give him an hour to impress her and, lo and behold, her reluctance melts away with an alacrity that ruthlessly exploits the truism that even the nicest girl is unable to resist a rogue. Mother Clémentine Célarié is dismayed that Sagnier is consorting with such an unregenerate chauvinist, but she refuses to take any advice and even astonishes Bedos's best mate Jonathan Cohen when she agrees to move in with him.

Sagnier still wishes Bedos drank less and kept his eyes to himself a bit more, while he resents the fact that she cramps his style. But they seem to be making a go of things until she is awarded a bursary to study in Japan and not only does Bedos sabotage her plans (because he is too insecure to accept that she might have talent and could drift away from him), but he also gets caught with a naked woman in their bathroom. The fact that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the latter doesn't concern Sagnier, as she is so furious that Bedos would seek to ruin her career that she walks out on him without a backward glance.

Naturally, by the time the plane lands, Bedos has managed to breach Sagnier's defences once again. Thus, when she bumps into him at the offices of Ducret's firm (which is, of course, where Bedos is being interviewed), she cancels the wedding plans and heads off into the sunset with a man she knows is going to be trouble, but whom she is convinced she cannot live without.

The recent revelations about President François Hollande's liaison with actress Julie Gayet seem to suggest that the French are willing to forgive a charmer any peccadillo and this self-satisfied battle of the sexes relies heavily on that trait. British audiences may not know that Bedos (who is the son of comedian Guy Bedos and co-scripted along with five others) has something of a bad boy reputation, thanks to his acerbic writing for the stage, television and the popular press, and he clearly tailored his first starring role to suit his public image. However, he merely comes across as boorish, sexist and utterly irresponsible and it is difficult to accept that he would be in such demand as a lawyer, let alone that Sagnier would give him a second chance. However, she only fares marginally better, as she clearly has little talent as an artist, while her ditzy jealousy quickly becomes as resistible as his caddish swagger. Moreover, her rant at Célarié, in which she declares that she would rather be mistreated than alone, is unforgivable.

In fact, Célarié has some of the best lines, along with Michel Vuillermoz, as a waspish flight attendant who might have enlivened Pedro Almodóvar's in-flight-farrago, I'm So Excited! (2013). Arnaud Ducret also shows well in the other man role that was perfected by Ralph Bellamy in a number of classic 1930s screwballs. Moreover, Yannick Ressigeac's widescreen imagery is pleasingly glossy and some of editor Scott Stevenson's montages and scene transitions are amusingly innovative (although most viewers would be willing to forego the kitschily explicit illustrations from the Kama Sutra). But the Gallic laddishness of the humour doesn't travel well, especially when it jars so frequently with the classily relaxed tone for which Castagnetti is evidently striving in including so many jazz and Motown standards on the soundtrack.

The only upshot, to paraphrase Samuel Butler, is that only two people will be made miserable by Bedos and Sagnier's rapprochement instead of the four who would have suffered if they had remained apart. But, while Castagnetti demonstrates a certain acuity in lifting moves from the Hollywood romcom playbook, he is given an object lesson in how to fit the pieces together by Nora Ephron in Sleepless in Seattle, which is reissued to mark both its 21st anniversary and Valentine's Day. Ephron had already proved herself to be a master of the form with her script for Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally... (1989). But she displays here such an awareness of the rules of the game that she even has Rosie O'Donnell tell best friend Meg Ryan `You don't want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.'

This admission that Ephron and co-scenarists Jeff Arch and David S. Ward are less interested in their story or characters than in the self-reflexivity of their conceit should make this a resistible mélange of cliché and stereotype. But, such is the affection that Ephron invests in the conventions of the screen love story - as epitomised by Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember (1957) - that we are happy to accept Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as substitutes for Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and to forgive the coy contrivances that eventually bring them together for the happy ending we knew was coming from the moment the action opens in a graveyard.

Chicago architect Tom Hanks is so devastated by the loss of wife Carey Lowell to cancer that he keeps seeing her in his dreams. Young son Ross Malinger misses his mother, but he is keen for his father to find him a replacement. Thus, when they relocate to Seattle and Hanks slips into a depression over Christmas, Malinger calls radio shrink Caroline Aaron and asks for her advice. Touched by his son's concern, Hanks takes the phone and opens up to Aaron about his pain and the difficulty of moving on.

His words move listening women across America, many of whom write to offer him their support and invite him out on a date. Among the correspondents is Meg Ryan, a reporter on the Baltimore Sun who is compelled to respond after watching An Affair to Remember on the television and becoming convinced that she and Hanks have a connection. As she is engaged to Bill Pullman (whom she likes rather than loves), she decides against mailing the letter, in which she suggests they meet on the top of the Empire State Building in New York on 14 February. But editor buddy Rosie O'Donnell posts it for her. Moreover, she arranges for Ryan to fly to Seattle to do an investigative piece on talk radio shows.

Encouraged by siblings Victor Garber and Rita Wilson, Hanks begins seeing co-worker Barbara Garrick. But, no matter how hard she tries to be nice to Malinger, he has set his heart on Ryan because she mentioned his favourite Baltimore Orioles baseball star, Brooks Robinson, in her missive. He tries to cajole Hanks into going to New York. But, even though he refuses, Malinger takes the advice of classmate Gaby Hoffmann and writes to Ryan to confirm the rendezvous 

Unbeknownst to Malinger, however, Ryan is already in Seattle and has bumped into Hanks at the airport, as he was dropping off Garrick for a flight. They had even met again at the beach, where Ryan had mistaken Wilson for Hanks's partner. So, she returns east and resigns herself to spending Valentine's Day with Pullman at the Rainbow Room. But Malinger is determined to bring the pair together and enlists Hoffmann's help to buy a plane ticket so that he can be on the observation deck when Ryan arrives. Naturally, on realising what has happened, Hanks hightails it to the Big Apple and is heading down in the elevator at closing time just as Ryan dashes in the opposite direction after letting Pullman down gently.

As one might expect, a conveniently forgotten backpack ensures that Ryan and Hanks are reunited and Ephron closes on that timeless movie assumption that a love that exists as the credits roll is bound to last forever. She should have known better, of course, having based Mike Nichols's Heartburn (1986) on the novel she had written about the break-up of her own marriage to Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein. But, like virtually every female character in Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron evidently continued to believe in romantic destiny and love at first, second or third sight. Indeed, she even revisited the theme in You've Got Mail (1998), which recoupled Hanks and Ryan in an internet update of Ernst Lubitsch's infinitely superior charmer, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which had starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

Yet, Ephron repeatedly makes it clear that she is talking about the filmic fantasy of true love rather than the impossible dream itself. Thus, she overstates the magic of McCarey's tearjerker (which Warren Beatty would remake as Love Affair in 1994) and the romantic ideals it encapsulates. She also makes sure that every single convolution is so blatant that viewers have no option but to notice their cornball calculation. Nevertheless, the bulk of the audience will forgive the dramatic and emotional manipulation. They will even overlook the reworking of the `fix-it' storyline that sustained many a Shirley Temple or Deanna Durbin vehicle back in the 1930s - because they believe in being `in love in a movie' as much as Ryan does.

This was the last time that Ryan would get away with the wide-eyed and adorable act on which her fame (somewhat unfairly) had come to rest. Filmgoers have subsequently not forgiven her for outgrowing the persona and it's a shame that her efforts to reinvent herself have met with such little success. She tempers the winsomeness here with a hint of the prickliness that she would exhibit in You've Got Mail. But viewers are always left with the impression that she is lucky to get Hanks and that he has prioritised Malinger's feelings over his own in falling for her. Whatever the duo's dynamics, Hanks and Ryan team more winningly than they had done in John Patrick Shanley's Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) and they are well supported by a fine cast that includes David Hyde Pierce, Dana Ivey and Rob Reiner in cameos.

On the technical side, Sven Nykvist's cinematography is as lush as Marc Shaiman's score, while Jeffrey Townsend's production design contains a cosiness that takes the curse off the smugness of a milieu in which everyone is photogenic and so professionally accomplished and comfortably off that they can hop on a plane across the country at a moment's notice and nobody is inconvenienced, cash-strapped or unduly concerned. The same cannot be said, however, for the characters in the debuting Mark Simon Hewis's adaptation of Matt Thorne's semi-autobiographical novel, 8 Minutes Idle.

As Monday dawns, Tom Hughes expects to spend another lazy day at the Bristol call centre where he works. However, he is thrown out of the house by mother Pippa Haywood because she is convinced he has conspired with gambler father Paul Kaye to steal her winning lottery ticket. Carrying a few belongings and his ginger cat John in a box, Hughes gets the bus to the office and hides his pet in a ceiling alcove above a cubicle in the gents. But his morning takes another downturn when supervisor Montserrat Lombard admonishes him for his poor productivity and eccentric answers on a staff questionnaire (which has been filled in for him by co-worker Ophelia Lovibond). Disregarding his protests, she makes him team leader and orders him to identify the weakest link in his crew and sack them.

Returning to his desk, Hughes watches an animated clip on Antonia Thomas's scathing blog, which mocks the officious Lombard for having an affair with boss Robert Wilfort. As he tries to decide whether he has the guts to fire the enigmatic, but potentially aggressive Jack Ashton or the meek, but genially helpless Divian Ladwa, Hughes gets a message that Kaye has been taken to hospital following a hit-and-run accident and he insists that Haywood is trying to kill him before he can claim her £300,000 payout. Conveniently forgetting to ask Kaye if he can stay at his place while he recovers, Hughes heads back to the office and calls a variety of friends, who all have a good reason why they cannot extend their hospitality. Consequently, having fed John with a goldfish from a tank in the office and got himself locked in the toilets by a security guard, Hughes climbs into the ceiling space and settles down to sleep.

Tuesday turns out to be much less eventful, even though Lovibond breaks the record for keeping someone online for a pointless call. Thomas also lends Hughes some cash, on the proviso that he comes to watch her DJ the following night. What's more, he manages to find a store cupboard in which he can sleep without being detected. However, a combination of boredom and recklessness prompts him to strip and masturbate over Lombard's chair, and, much to his horror, first thing Wednesday, Thomas emails him footage captured with the webcam on her computer and she threatens to send it to Lombard if he ever displeases her.

Realising he can't sack Thomas, Hughes plumps for Ladwa after Lombard catches him cancelling a troublesome call. However, she refuses to let him go, as he excels at handling insurance customers. Instead, she takes exception to Lovibond's 48-minute timewaster and tells Hughes to dismiss her by the end of the day. As he harbours a crush on Lovibond (that he opts against pursuing because she says she has a boyfriend), Hughes is desperate not to be the bearer of bad news. So, he readily concurs when she suggests they hook up Ladwa with office karaoke queen Leigh Quinn on a blind date at Thomas's gig.

Having slipped out at lunchtime to buy some trendy civvies, Thomas overhears a heated conversation between Lombard and Wilfort as he gets changed. He is surprised, therefore, when they turn up together at the floating nightclub where Thomas is playing. They watch with grim fascination as Ladwa tries to impress Quinn with some dance steps he found on YouTube. But Lovibond keeps having to field calls from her loutish flatmates Luke Newberry and Roddy Peters and Hughes offers to walk her home when she leaves in a tizzy. They arrive at her digs to find a party in full swing and one of the guests presumes that Hughes is a dealer and gives him money for drugs. Lovibond takes Hughes to her room, which is cosily decorated in contrast to the student madhouse beyond the door. She explains that she hates living there, but can't afford to go anywhere else, as she is excused bills in return for being the house skivvy.

Hughes feels drawn towards her as they sit on the bed. But they are interrupted by an interloper before they can kiss and Hughes leaves and sneaks back into the office through the fire door. He wakes on Thursday with the weight of the world on his shoulders and decides to visit Kaye, who mocks him for being such a homeless loser. Back at his desk, Hughes apologises to Lovibond by post-it and she assures him that things between them are fine. However, Lombard remains on his case about firing her and he is delighted when a drop of cat pee seeps through a ceiling tile and lands in her tea mug. He realises that he has to be careful, though, as Ashton has noticed the depletion of the fish stocks and his miserable day is completed when he has a late-night exchange with an online psychopath and dreams that his mother has broken into the building to stab him.

Friday starts pretty badly, too, with Ashton threatening to hurt him unless he repays his debt to Thomas. Hughes then learns that Ladwa and Quinn failed to make a connection at the club and feels unexpectedly downcast for them. However, he finds himself in an unwanted romantic entanglement of his own when he sets off the alarm while searching for John and has to sleep with Lombard to buy her silence when she finds him in the stockroom.

Unsurprisingly, Hughes is still regretting his actions on Monday morning when Lombard frog-marches the team into her office for a briefing. Feeling cocky, she shows Ladwa the cartoon that Thomas has produced of him on her blog and embarrasses Hughes by playing a clip of him mooning over Lovibond. When he tries to apologise to her, Lombard sacks her for being four hours late (because her housemates had taken her prisoner) and humiliates Hughes by revealing that he had been promoted over the others without their knowledge.

He tries to explain himself to Lovibond, as they play crazy golf on a jungle-themed indoor course and she admits that she had made up a boyfriend to keep him at a distance because she didn't want him to see how she lived. As they leave, Lovibond's heel breaks and they go back to the office to collect her spare shoes. Hughes tells her that he has been living in the cupboard and he lifts up the ceiling panels to introduce her to John. There is no sign of the cat, however, and, as Lovibond clambers up to find him, Hughes is confronted by Lombard, who has come back for a little after hours recreation. Desperate to prevent Lovibond from finding out what he has been up to, Hughes sends Lombard on a wild goose chase by insisting that Wilfort is on the premises. But, when Lovibond falls through the ceiling clutching John (who has choked to death on a goldfish), she sees Lombard calling Hughes by a pet name and dashes off in disgust after kneeing him in the groin. 

Feeling as though his world has collapsed around him, Hughes spends the night listening to furniture being removed. He is not surprised, therefore, when Wilfort addresses the staff on Tuesday morning and announces that the company has gone bust. He urges them to remember they are Bristolians and hopes to see them that night at the karaoke evening that Quinn has organised. Hughes looks on miserably as Thomas and Ashton cuddle and Lovibond gets increasingly drunk, as Leigh sings `I Only Want to Be With You' to Ladwa in the hope of re-igniting their romance. Lovibond follows with a rendition of `Tainted Love' that is directed angrily at Hughes. When Lombard notices how devoted he is to Lovibond, she throws a bottle at him, only for it to sail past him and knock Lovibond unconscious.

Hughes carries her to the hospital and is astonished to discover that the loutish Peters is the doctor on duty in casualty. He goes to Lovibond's house and learns that she is about to be evicted because she is three months behind with the rent. So, he piles her belongings into a cab and lays them out in the empty office space to resemble her room. He returns to the hospital to check up on her and sees Haywood wheeling Kaye home. They delight in telling him that they have patched things up and are going to blow the lottery winnings in Las Vegas. Shaking his head because he will never understand them, Hughes collects Lovibond and takes her back to the office. She is enchanted by the way he has arranged her stuff and they link fingers. But the camera is too discreet to show whether they close in for the inevitable embrace.

Finally reaching cinemas some two years after it was completed, this is a diverting workplace comedy that is rippled with a quiet satisfaction at its offbeat humour. But this is one of those films that would unravel rapidly if you pulled at its loosely woven plot strands. As mentioned above, there would be no story at all if Hughes had the sense to ask Kaye for his keys. But logic plays little part in proceedings and, as a consequence, the thinly drawn characters are all-too-easily pushed and pulled around to suit the dictates of Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe's convoluted screenplay, as it lurches between darkly sly office exchanges and unconvincing set-pieces staged in showy locations around Bristol.

Making the most of a quirky role, Hughes proves a suitably genial anti-hero. But scarcely any attempt is made to explore his personality as he is buffeted by circumstance with a passivity to match that of Lovibond's ingenue, whose Holly Hobby cuteness owes much to Zooey Deschanel's character in the US sitcom, New Girl. Similarly, Lombard's smarmy supervisor recalls Mackenzie Crook's second-in-command in The Office and this often feels like an attempt to examine white-collar drudgery through the eyes of the menials rather than the management. However, too many of the minor workmates are ciphers and the writers waste the exception by allowing the quick-witted Thomas to become increasingly marginalised.

They don't really convince us that Hughes has learnt much from his experience, either, as he manages to postpone a decision about what to do with his life for the duration of the three-month lease he has taken on the office space. Nor do they satisfactorily explain where the money for this comes from, as if he could afford this lease, why did he need to squat in such discomfort? Obviously, this is a quibble. But Hewis allows too many of them to slip into an episodic scenario that too often lacks intra-scene pace and dramatic momentum, as it mirrors Hughes in taking the path of least resistance in responding to each mini-crisis. Nevertheless, for a first-timer on a tight budget, Hewis does a decent job in capturing the call centre vibe. But a few more comic interactions with irate customers might not have gone amiss, along with a touch more corporate satire and a more palpable sense of `us vs them' in a time of recession.

Finally, this week, there is plenty more left-field British humour in Jeremy Jeffs and Mark Ravenhill's documentary, Bette Bourne: It Goes With the Shoes. Cutting between archival clips, interviews with friends and colleagues, and extracts from Bourne and Ravenhill's stage show, A Life In Three Acts, this is not only a lively account of a remarkable theatrical life, but it also serves as an alternative history of the London gay scene either side of the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. At times, the co-directors presume too much specialist knowledge on behalf of the audience, while they also have a habit of overlooking significant moments in Bourne's career. But, as it strives to be more anecdotal than encyclopedic, this is never anything less than engaging.

Peter Bourne grew up in the East End and first took to the stage at the age of four in 1943 with Madame Behenna and Her Dancing Children. He shows Ravenhill around his old neighbourhood and relives his performance of the Andrews Sisters hit, `Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree', before heading home to look through family photos with his singer brother, Mike Berry. They recall that their father Terry returned a changed man from his wartime service on an Atlantic minesweeper and his inability to hold down a decent job prompted outbursts of fury and violence that he was careful to hide from his wife before they eventually divorced.

In addition to seeking escape in amateur dramatics, Bourne also discovered sex and, from the age of 14, used to fool around with other boys in his Scripture class. One afternoon, having taken the No33 tram to the Embankment, he saw Quentin Crisp emerging from the National Portrait Gallery and followed him to Soho, whose racy reputation is amusingly flagged by an extract from a newsreel item entitled `Soho Goes Gay'. Bourne was initially put off by Crisp's flamboyance and found the tweed-wearing gentleman he met in an Old Compton Street milk bar to be much more to his liking. He visited the improbably named Captain Cox on Sundays for a lengthy period, although he was initially so shocked at the act of fellatio the stranger performed in his bedsit that Bourne wrote him a letter threatening to inform the police and his mother, before his lustful curiosity got the better of him and he went back for a second assignation.

It's easy to see from the delightful colour footage of Piccadilly Circus and theatreland why the teenage Bourne would have become stage struck. His father disapproved of his ambition, however, and never forgave him for quitting his print apprenticeship to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Indeed, even when Bourne was cast in a prestigious production of War and Peace at the Old Vic, Terry refused his offer of a ticket. He was also presumably unimpressed when his son started landing roles in such TV shows as The Saint and The Avengers, and when he co-starred with Ian McKellen in a 1969 touring double bill of Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Richard II

Doubtless, Terry would also have been horrified when Bourne took up with Australian artist Rex Lay and became actively involved in the nascent Gay Liberation Front. Old friends Lavinia Co-op, Michael James, Stuart Feather and Andrew Lumsden share memories of a terrifying time when gay men faced blackmail and prison for expressing their sexuality and many committed suicide because of the social stigma. However, the GLF had decided to make a stand and Bourne found himself on the steering committee after he shouted down a sceptic who claimed meetings had more to do with cruising than equality.

By this stage, Bourne had been an actor for a decade and he jokes about the beard and fashions he sported during this Che Guevara phase, as he spent as much time on demonstrations as he did in the spotlight. But his politicisation was not the only major transformation at this time, as lover Gordon Howie encouraged him to purchase a red net dress that he had spotted in a boutique and Bourne realised how comfortable he felt in women's clothing. As he puts it to Ravenhill, he was `butch on the streets and a bitch in the sheets' and was scared about changing his persona, especially as the politicos within the GLF felt that drag queens trivialised the campaign. However, the newly minted Bette Bourne insisted that dragging up was a political act and he embraced his new identity, even though it temporarily limited his career prospects.

As Jeffs and Ravenhill switch between footage of the first gay pride march and its modern recreation, visual artist Mair Davies recalls how causes overlapped in this period and how gays and lesbians lent their support to protests about Vietnam and Northern Ireland. Bourne remembers hearing speeches in Trafalgar Square and reflects upon the way in which  demonstrations were policed. He then heads off to the Central Methodist Hall to explain how GLF activists infiltrated the 1971 Festival of Light rally being attended by Malcolm Muggeridge, Cliff Richard and Mary Whitehouse. As he looks down from the balcony, Bourne recalls how he and Michael James removed their suits to reveal frocks underneath, while some showered the audience with pornography and others stood up in their seats to  proclaim that they had seen the gay light.

Naturally, they were ejected shortly after a chorus line of nuns invaded the stage to dance a can-can. But the sense of empowerment was enormous and the movement derived much positive publicity from the stunt. Nevertheless, Bourne was frequently arrested for such activities and was once asked by a Marylebone magistrate to remove his hat in court. However, he refused on the grounds that it went so well with his shoes.

As he was spending so much time with his fellow activists, Bourne decided to join a gay commune in Notting Hill and Stephen Crowther reminisces about the 20ft wardrobe for gowns and the ridiculously well-stocked make-up room. Bourne also remembers the fun they had decorating the main space and how they outlawed monogamy, as it was such a heteronormalist concept. But, while they now agree that this period of sexual experimentation was useful to their personal and collective development, the survivors also concede that events like a Roman orgy were something of a letdown.

Davies regularly filmed such happenings and we see a clip from I'll Change the World, as Bourne delights in relating how nudity was once used to repel a police raid. But there were darker moments, too, such as the night that Bourne had a bad acid trip and was tormented by visions of his brutalised childhood. As a consequence, he wrote to Terry and invited him to the house, where (in full drag) he announced he was no longer afraid of him and took pleasure in his father's evident discomfort. However, his days at the commune were drawing to a close, as he disapproved of the growing heroin use and he was keen to relaunch his acting career.

Jeffs and Ravenill make no mention of the fact that Bourne found his way back into show business through a New York-based gay cabaret troupe called The Hot Peaches and that he performed with them in London before deciding to form his own company, Bloolips. They scored a hit with a show entitled The Ugly Duckling and extracts from the comic songs (which appear to have been written by playwright John Taylor, who goes uncredited) play as Bourne, Co-op, Feather and Paul Shaw enthuse about their reception at the Milky Way in Amsterdam and how this led to them touring Europe for several months with the Festival of Fools.

Life on the road was never easy, but Bourne recounts with evident pleasure how he shocked a rookie customs officer at Dover by sporting red frilly knickers beneath his trousers. In 1980, Bloolips scored a sleeper hit off Broadway with Lust in Space, which earned the ensemble an Obie Award. However, Bourne and his ensemble buddies are as frustratingly vague as performance artist Penny Arcade when it comes to titles and dates, as they luxuriate in the memory of rave reviews in The Village Voice and The New York Times. But their triumph coincided with the onset of the AIDS epidemic and Bourne wistfully recalls his final phone call with Rex Lay in confiding that his own relationship with Paul Shaw took him off the scene at just the right time. Yet, he is reticent about discussing the nature of their bond and Ravenhill's readiness to respect his privacy means that the viewer is denied the chance to see the real Bourne with his defences down.  

Even so, Bourne is willing to admit that his happiest moment came while dancing in drag with Shaw at a disco in Darmstadt, as it was here that he realised he was in love. However, the Bloolips era was drawing to a close and the troupe split following the failure of The Island of Lost Shoes in 1995. Bourne prefers at this juncture to recall his last meeting with his 91 year-old mother and how he kept a number of items from her wardrobe. But, in leaping to a Central School degree day at the Royal Festival Hall (at which Bourne receives an honorary fellowship), Jeffs and Ravenhill omit to mention any of Bourne's acting successes in the subsequent two decades. They don't even refer by name to A Life in Three Acts, even though they make highly intelligent use of a recorded Soho Theatre performance to vary the storytelling style. 

Such shortcuts may be down to modesty on Bourne's behalf. But they reinforce the suspicion that only a fraction of the tale is being told. We never get to know, for example, how successful Bourne thinks his assault on the citadel of normality has been. He similarly skirts an in-depth discussion of the sexual politics of the British theatre and the struggle for acceptance that saw his mainstream career stall for many years. But his pride in his achievement as a drag queen and as a fringe pioneer is readily evident, as is the affection in which he is held by both his friends and the co-directors, who capture the man and his milieu with imagination, wit and honesty, if not always with investigative thoroughness.