CINEMA / The lightness of not seeing

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AL PACINO has always acted with his eyes. With their heavy, two-tier lids, they're out of scale with the rest of his body, offsetting his small frame and sidling walk. In the Godfather trilogy they travelled from the steady surmise of youth to the hollow stare of respectability. In his recent films, as his louche charm has bordered on harassment, they've been his last contact with sensitivity. Either way, the eyes have it.

In Scent of a Woman, the eyes have had it. Pacino plays Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Slade, invalided out of the army after an attempt to juggle with hand grenades blew up in his face and blinded him. Slade lost more than his sight, we come to realise: his hope was blasted away too. You don't for a moment doubt that Pacino is blind. The whites of his eyes are almost covered by his distended pupils, which are dark, stagnant pools. His performance is a non-blinking miracle.

We first meet him shacked up in his sister's shed, reaching for his closest friend, Jack Daniels. Into this stale old hole comes fresh-faced Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell), a scholarship student at the local upper-crust boarding school, who thinks he's in for an easy earner looking after Frank over Thanksgiving. Frank has other ideas: he's planning an outing in Manhattan - swanky hotels, some sex, then suicide.

The film turns picaresque. Frank, whose language bristles with barrack-room bawdy, is determined on a final 'tour of pleasure'. Charlie, who has his own crisis to attend to at school, is helplessly dragged along, a stammering Sancho Panza. With his WASP good looks and manners, O'Donnell is perfect casting, if at times too good to be true (in the school scenes he stands out as the only student with his hair cut). He's a blushing straight-man to Pacino's brazen scene-stealer. Their faces make a great double act: the wrinkled walnut and the preppy peach.

These scenes of light comedy are the most enjoyable in the film, as Frank drains his last few drops of joie de vivre. He dances a tango with a sultry lounge-lizardess (Gabrielle Anwar), and his face seems to ripple with resurgent sensuality. He takes a spin in a Ferrari, with Charlie calling the directions, and gives a new meaning to turning a blind corner. Always, though, you're aware that he's riding on the crest of his own despair. The humour turns dark in a wonderful scene in which he turns up uninvited at his brother's Thanksgiving dinner and starts reeling off erotic Vietnam stories. His family's initial embarrassment turns into outright hostility, and finally a kind of rueful rejection. You feel that Frank barks so loudly to drown the misery murmuring inside him.

Where the film goes wrong (and long - two and a half hours) is in trying to link Frank and Charlie's lives in an uplifting ending. Their spree, so drawn out that even Pacino's performance begins to pall, is bordered by crisis. Frank has to face up to life or flee it; Charlie has to decide whether to snitch on friends at school. He faces expulsion if he stays silent. But the film has become so flaccid it won't respond to injections of tension. Each of the heroes turns out to have a higher sense of the other's worth than his own. They're divided by class and background, but united in honour. It's too neat an end to a sprawlingly suggestive tale.

The scriptwriter, Bo Goldman, won an Oscar for Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard, one of the best comic screenplays of the Eighties. There's the same skewed wit here, and director Martin Brest reflects Frank's inner journey by brightening the film as it goes along - from rich, dark Rembrandt interiors and Manhattan nights to dappled New England fall. What's needed are some of Demme's freaky side- shows to hustle the film from the straight and narrow, the feeling that around each corner lurks Something Wild. As it is, we're blinded by the lightness.

A week after Malcolm X and a week before Hoffa, Orlando cocks a timely snook at the biopic. Like Virginia Woolf's novel, Sally Potter's film satirises biography, with a hero who survives time: the director lets the centuries pass between two Elizabethan ages with magisterial calm. As does Orlando (Tilda Swinton): the only thing that changes about him is his sex. He's a Tudor beau, beloved of Queen Bess; a belle betrayed by a Byronic hero in Victorian times; and, finally, a boyish girl motorbiking down modern highways. The part seems written for Swinton's austere, slightly haughty beauty. Her pale, pert face matches Woolf's description: 'A more candid, sullen face it would be impossible to find.' After changing sex, she seems not androgynous, but a woman who knows what it's like to be a man. When she watches her lover, Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), ride off into the rain, her hand on hips and resigned face show the frustration of that knowledge.

The film fires away at traditional notions of gender: the male Orlando tells a discarded lover 'a man must follow his heart', only for the words to rebound on him as a woman centuries later. As a man, Orlando has a feminine tenderness; as a woman, she has a man's briskness. Gender's a joke: we're all people. This can seem a flimsy target, and there's not enough of Orlando's struggle with literature as a means to finding himself. Literature is his amusement, when it should be his affliction. He should grapple with reality as well as gender.

The film's mostly a succession of exquisite tableaux, from Elizabeth I's court (with Quentin Crisp playing, as ever, the Queen, and made up like an over-iced cake), through Augustan salons (Ned Sherrin's Addison fawning at Peter Eyre's Pope), to the First World War trenches. About halfway through Turner takes over from Bruegel behind the camera. Potter's pursuit of the image juste can weigh down the film, losing the book's stylistic playfulness. On the whole, though, the film is faithful to the book's elegant frippery. It may be too frothy for some, but Lupians will love it.

Roman Polanski's first full feature, Knife in the Water, has been re-released 31 years on. It provides a prototype Polanskian triangle - a bully, a bullied, and a beauty. It's a portrait of male rivalry: a burly sportswriter (Leon Niemczyk) invites a delicate young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) on to his yacht, to score points off him in front of his wife (Jolanta Umecka). The mind-game turns out closer than he's bargained for. The film is freighted with themes of later Polanski, his malevolent humour and menacing claustrophobia. There's even a needling knife- game, as found in Chinatown. It all adds up to a useful take on the little man's nascent nastiness.