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The fifth annual European Union Film Festival runs Friday, February 8, through Thursday, February 28, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Admission is $8, $4 for Film Center members. For further information call 312-846-2800. All films will be shown in 35-millimeter prints, and those marked with an * are highly recommended.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 8

The Art of Dying

Six photogenic young friends are haunted by memories of a punky, death-obsessed painter who vanished at a drunken party four years earlier, and one by one they're brutally murdered. This 2000 supernatural thriller from Spain plays like Scream with all the cheeky humor replaced by metaphysical mumbo jumbo; director Alvarez Fernandez Armero generates a certain amount of creepiness through the viewpoint of one guilt-ridden kid, but as his friends are offed the film begins to trip over its own plot holes and far-fetched logic. In Spanish with subtitles. 95 min. (TS) (7:00)

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 9

* Esther Kahn

Summer Phoenix gives a passionate performance as an aloof, stubborn, quietly ambitious Jew in late-Victorian London who transforms herself from a poor immigrant into a glowing stage actress (2000). French director Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument), adapting a story by British poet Arthur Symons, avoids the florid romanticism of backstage drama, which accents every triumph and setback; his terse, understated narrative style permits an almost voyeuristic examination of the young Esther, filmed with close-up intimacy by Eric Gautier, as she methodically learns her craft and advances her career. The last half hour transpires during an opening-night performance of Hedda Gabler, in which Esther's jealousy and desperation may be genuine but may also be conjured up for her role. The plot device might seem convenient, but it pinpoints the mystery and essence of acting. With Ian Holm and Frances Barber. 145 min. (TS) (3:00)

The King Is Dancing

From childhood on, King Louis XIV of France fancied himself a nimble dancer, and this 2000 costume drama from Belgium chronicles the early decades of his close but uneasy friendship with court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Director Gerard Corbiau touches on palace politics (an Italian, Lully drew the ire of the queen mother and other courtiers), the birth of French opera, and Lully's collaborations and quarrels with Moliere. But the film's historical reach is thwarted by frequent time-outs for lavish spectacles, musical interludes, and various debaucheries hinting at a homoerotic attraction between Lully and the king, both of them portrayed as vain poseurs. With Tcheky Karyo as Moliere. In French with subtitles. 115 min. (TS) (4:15)

Holdup

A hapless unemployed man chickens out of a planned store holdup but, still wearing his mask, is taken for a robber by a tailor and decides to hold him and a customer hostage, pleading for more money than the tailor has on him. This 2000 Austrian feature doesn't really succeed as comedy, but the trio's general incompetence, their crazy shifts between antagonism and empathy, and their uncontrolled discomfort (one defecates in his pants) do generate an oppressive sense of hopeless absurdity. Florian Flicker directed; in German with subtitles. 85 min. (FC) (6:00)

Magonia

A father spins exotic tales for his young son during their weekly visits, three of which are dramatized in this 2001 Dutch feature. (In one a European husband and wife whose car breaks down in a remote region of Africa are aided by a father and his son, the latter becoming the object of the wife's flirtation; in another, set in a fishing port, a woman tells a young boy about her almost mythical lover, who will protect them in any storm.) Director Ineke Smits succeeds in plunging the viewer into three imagined worlds, yet her meditation on the romance of storytelling becomes a bittersweet reflection on the fragility of fantasy when a surprise ending reveals the maturing child's growing distance from his troubled parent. In Dutch with subtitles. 112 min. (FC) (8:00)

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10

The King Is Dancing

See listing for Saturday, February 9. (4:00)

The Art of Dying

See listing for Friday, February 8. (4:15)

Magonia

See listing for Saturday, February 9. (6:15)

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11

How Harry Became a Tree

A black comedy by Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic (Cabaret Balkan), in which a cabbage farmer who's lost his wife and son in the Irish civil war throws himself into a feud with a local pub owner. 100 min. (6:00)

The King Is Dancing

See listing for Saturday, February 9. (6:15)

Ties and Ropes

After a wealthy French rubber planter dies in Southeast Asia, his best friend travels to Paris in search of the man's estranged daughter. Herman Van Eyken directed this 2001 feature from Luxembourg; in French with subtitles. 85 min. (8:00)

Holdup

See listing for Saturday, February 9. (8:15)

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12

* Esther Kahn

See listing for Saturday, February 9. (6:30)

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13

Ties and Ropes

See listing for Monday, February 11. (6:15)

* Nuages: Letters to My Son

A recurring image of swirling clouds, both durable and volatile, provides the central metaphor in this 2001 epistolary documentary, an extraordinarily touching confession of motherly love by Belgian filmmaker Marion Hansel. Charlotte Rampling supplies the voice-over, reading fragments from letters that Hansel wrote to her son from his birth through his 18th year, accompanied by minimalist music. The letters are both poetical and quotidian, expressing pride, pleasure, guilt, and sadness over a relationship frequently interrupted by her career, and the haunting images, some shot around her home and others excerpted from earlier films, counterpose harsh nature and tranquil domesticity. 76 min. (TS) (8:00)

How Harry Became a Tree

See listing for Monday, February 11. (8:15)

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14

* Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me

A compelling profile of 50s R & B star Screamin' Jay Hawkins (1929-2000), who says he got his stage name when he realized that he couldn't sing but he could "holler." The performance footage included by Greek director Nicholas Triantafyllidis, some of it shot at Hawkins's final concert, evokes the singer's untamed energy, making plausible Eric Burdon's claim that he was "definitely possessed." In interviews Hawkins tells of his mother leaving him to be raised by Blackfoot Indians, his multiple love affairs, and his torture by the Japanese during World War II (he couldn't tell them anything because as a "black in America . . . they don't even tell me what time the chickens wake up"). Triantafyllidis effectively captures his subject's raunchy humor and off-center vision: noticing a cat in an airport, Hawkins says, "That kitty had something to declare" as we see the cat in close-up. With Bo Diddley and Jim Jarmusch. 102 min. (FC) (6:15)

Mal

Alberto Seixas Santos directed this 1999 Portuguese feature set in Lisbon, a series of interlocking stories probing the nature of evil. In Portuguese with subtitles. 85 min. (8:15)

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