Cinema-also showing: Hell hath no fury like a sister scorned

Hilary and Jackie (15) 54 (15) Practical Magic (12) Class Trip (15) The Merchant of Four Seasons (no cert) The Polygraph (no cert)
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The Independent Culture
When Jacqueline du Pre's siblings, Hilary and Piers, wrote the memoir A Genius in the Family, lots of people went berserk. This was an account of the life and slow death of the beloved cellist in which she is always a star, but only intermittently a manageable person. Pundits were hurried out of their beds to be motley and intense on the radio. Some of them claimed that the book was a devious impersonation of the truth, others found it "illuminating" (which means it felt slightly immoral).

Anand Tucker's film Hilary and Jackie is based on the book, and is as surprising. Here is Jackie with her euphoric, erotic hair. Here she is, eating broad beans and talking in a silly accent. Here she is, demanding sex from her brother-in-law, or addled by the multiple sclerosis that finally killed her in 1987, bitching that her father had upstaged her by developing Parkinson's disease. Here she is, beautiful and loving and long, in bed with her husband. Tucker shows the relationship between Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson) from their competitiveness as musical children to the moment of Jackie's death. We are shown particular incidents through both sisters' eyes, ostensibly in an attempt to understand Jackie's brand of sassy gauchness, her feeling stripped of choice, and even of personality and worth, by her great snake of a skill.

Emily Watson should win an Oscar for her face alone - a tight ball of noise and expectation. It is really very tough to watch this Jackie sawing away on her exhausted Davidov, while her illness emerges plucky and swollen and terrifying. It's tough to watch Griffiths's Hilary pawing her husband in the night, dreading the moment when Jackie will snatch him. I kept thinking of Tartuffe and his longing for "pleasure without fear".

Watching Hilary and Jackie is a bit like listening to two lovers taking each other to pieces in the room next door - kissing and slapping. More than anything else you feel Hilary's rawness and rage, and so the film is clogged with guilt-sticky atrocities, with a kind of gangrene. Sometimes the film pretends to hypnotise calm to the dead Jackie (the film ends with the line "everything is going to be all right") but is really as primal as any of her recordings. It's as though the audience is being used as both therapist and adjudicator. This a horrible privilege, and a shocking, sometimes brilliant film.

54 is all about Studio 54, the hottest night club in late-1970s Manhattan. Every night, its manager Steve Reubell (played splendidly by Mike Myers) would stand podgy at the door, having a go at people who dared to turn up looking anything less than beautiful or exorbitant. Once inside you took drugs and danced like you didn't give a toss about anything with Truman Capote to Instant Funk. People were mad for the place.

The film is about a handsome boy (Ryan Phillippe) who escapes Queens to work as a barman in the club. Here he witnesses the fun, the Spandex, the pills, the anonymous sex, the blah. Director Mark Christopher could have made some veritable points about the rampant exclusionism practised at the door being representative of the burgeoning eighties society. Instead there's lots of naive chat about fleeing incessant convention and the right to shimmy in nothing but your nail-varnish. This is all a bit embarrassing, because no matter how much voice-over you provide, there is absolutely nothing deep about disco, and little more synthetic than the lonely woe of the disco disciple.

Hollywood loves movies about witches. The full-on meaty variety alarms the studios and they usually have to employ a European director to cope with them. But Practical Magic is very much white-witchy and all about women being friends and holistic and stalwart and spooky. There is an American behind the camera - the usually dependable Griffin Dunne. His film follows the usual routine. The stars rush about in frail dresses, dispensing Hornbeam and driving their admirers mad with lust. The admirers are always married to women with full bottoms in high- waisted jeans which is white-witch shorthand for still-foolish-enough-to-take-antibiotics and boring. There is always an admirer who is not married but is cheekily cynical, and in the end doesn't mind his girlfriend following Saturn on Wednesdays.

In this film, Nicole Kidman plays a sex-pot and Sandra Bullock her nicer sister. Both have been brought up by witches and the whole town (quite rightly) thinks they are barking. Together they do away with bad lovers and long for good ones. This foolish film is puffed up with the cabbagy notion that women are all-feeling, all-knowing, all-suffering and in the end will rally around in a womb-centred but otherwise uncategorisable way.

Class Trip is based on the novel by Emmanuelle Carrere, and won the Special Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes festival. Clement Van Den Bergh stars as Nicholas, a disturbed youngster with a frantic imagination. He wets his bed, dreaming of stick-ups and car crashes and stolen internal organs. One day he shares his thoughts with an older boy. The two soon are welded and dangerous, full of silent censure and seriousness.

What's both maddening and fantastic about Class Trip is that it could all be a collection of nightmares, or it could be reality. We are constantly kept a step behind Nicholas, making us as lonely as he is and leaving us with an Arctic-hearted stillness. As unsentimental, but huger, tougher, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's retouched version of his 1971 classic, The Merchant of Four Seasons. This story of a fruit-and-veg-seller with an aching heart and a drink problem kicks of a comprehensive season of Fassbinder films at the National Film Theatre.

In Robert Lepage's The Polygraph a student is implicated in an ex-girlfriend's murder and undergoes a lie detector test. The Polygraph takes us no further than Lepage's previous film, The Confessional and really just fortifies the stamina of that superb work. Lepage is familiarly taken with how we can govern, pour-out, and blacken the truth. He can gather shards like no one else.

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