DANS PARIS (INSIDE PARIS) — ** — Romain Duris, Louis Garrel, Joana Preiss; in French, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (profanity, nudity, brief drugs, sex, vulgarity)

An actor steps out of character at the beginning of "Dans Paris" to deliver a rather cheeky, comical introduction to the characters and the story. It's an odd way to start the film, especially when you consider how heavily dramatic the rest of this French import is.

In fact, "Dans Paris" is almost overwhelmingly dark and downbeat, which nearly makes the whole thing unwatchable.

The title of screenwriter/director Christophe Honore's latest translates to "Inside Paris," and the film examines dysfunctional family and other relationships, mostly from the perspective of a photographer named Paul (Romain Duris).

Depressed and nearly suicidal over a breakup, Paul has moved in with his father (Guy Marchand) and his free-spirited younger brother, Jonathan (Louis Garrel). It turns out Paul's dancer girlfriend Anna (Joana Preiss) has tired of his cruelty and lack of affection, and has given him the boot. So now he spends his time moping about the shared apartment, while Jonathan tries to cheer him up — in between amorous conquests, of course.

It's really not the most light-hearted premise to begin with, but in the hands of Honore (2004's "Ma Mere"), the material becomes depressingly bleak.

Also, these are some pretty unpleasant and unlikable characters. Duris' Paul is shown to be cruel and manipulative. It's no wonder that Anna wants out of their relationship.

In fact, by the time Paul's mother (Marie France-Pisier) shows up and manages to coax a smile out of him, you'll be wondering why she even tried.

"Dans Paris (Inside Paris)" is not rated but would probably receive an R for strong sexual language (profanity, vulgar slang and other suggestive talk), female and full male nudity, brief drug references, simulated sex and other sexual contact, and some crude sexual humor. Running time: 93 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com