Michael is a scientist with a gift for mathematics who gives up his job to seek out a formula which could enable the non-sexual reproduction of the human species. Bruno, his half-brother, is mentally ill and on the verge of losing both his job and his family. Both are sons of a wayward and ebullient mother who abandoned them with their grandparents to go off and live in a hippy commune. Now, as their mother lies on her deathbed, both are struggling to make sense of their isolated lives and deal with issues relating to sex and love.

Atomised plays like John Irving in the hands of Todd Solondz. It's highly intelligent, by turns tragic and outrageously funny, and sometimes almost impossible to watch. An adaptation of the cult novel by Michel Houellebecq, it explores its existential themes with a confidence which sometimes verges on vulgarity but which never descends into mere pretension.

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Many viewers will find Atomised hard going, especially in its early stages, and it's a credit to the two leading actors that they manage to make us care about their characters a great deal despite their obvious shortcomings. Michael is quiet and distant from the world, finding it difficult to understand human emotions even whilst he excels in the pursuit of rational knowledge; he genius does not enable him to recognise or reciprocate the interest of women around him. Bruno, at the other extreme, is intensely emotional, reactionary, and seemingly always on the verge of committing violence.

The script performs a difficult balancing act as it devotes attention to each in turn, gradually making them more accessible and sympathetic to the viewer. Events unfold in a meandering fashion, very rarely in accordance with the traditional logic of such drama, so that it's never clear what the fate of any particular character will be - the focus is not so much on what might happen to them as on what they might have the opportunity to learn. Nevertheless, this is an actively engaging film, packed full of humorous diversions and colourful minor characters.

As Bruno pursues one sexual opportunity after another, there's a great deal of nudity and eroticism, but this too is character-focused and whimsical in its issue. The whole thing is beautifully shot, making excellent use of light to convey mood, and there are times when it seems to be just on the edge of fantasy - fitting, perhaps, in consideration of Michael's ambition and Bruno's fluctuating mental state.

Atomised will not be to everyone's tastes, ugly as it sometimes is and gently paced, but some viewers will undoubtedly fall in love with it. It's certainly an unusual tale, remarkable as a showcase of talent, and it really does have something to say.

Reviewed on: 13 Jul 2006
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Two lonely brothers struggle to come to terms with life. Out to own on DVD now.
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Leanne McGrath ***1/2

Director: Oskar Roehler

Writer: Oskar Roehler, based on the novel by Michel Houellebecq

Starring: Moritz Bleibtrau, Christian Ulmen, Martina Gedeck, Franke Potente, Nina Hoss

Year: 2006

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany

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