FILM / Following the scenic route: Map of the Human Heart (15) Vincent Ward (NZ); Frauds (15) Stephan Elliott (Aus); Wide Sargasso Sea (18) John Duigan (Aus); Jamon Jamon (18) Bigas Luna (Sp); Vacas (no cert) Julio Medem (Sp)

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Maps, as everyone knows, can be deceptive; bland squiggles with no sense of the genius of a place. And so it is with Map of the Human Heart, which has a story outline straight out of a soapy novelette. The two central characters are Avik (Jason Scott Lee), an Inuit who becomes westernised - he's nicknamed Holy Boy for his eccentric command of English - and finds himself forever trapped between two cultures, and Albertine (Anne Parillaud), a half-breed Indian who abdicates her origins and her passion for Avik to pass for white. The film describes the criss-crossing paths of these lovers down the decades as fate, the Second World War and their own pigheadness combine to hold them apart.

This doesn't convey its superb visual beauty. The film is cross-hatched with visual leitmotifs. There is bedazzlement (Albertine is first glimpsed as a silhouette against the sun; she likes to catch Avik's attention by flashing a mirror in his eyes). There is ice: the white wastelands of the Arctic are echoed in the sterile hospital ward where Avik is sent when he contracts TB (and woos Albertine in a sheet 'igloo'), and the billowing barrage balloon on which they eventually consummate their union. And there is fire - the bombing of Dresden, evoked in a spare and stylised scene that's no less horrific for making little attempt at effects-laden realism.

There is flying - the Holy Boy's repeated bids to soar, literally, above his race and background by becoming a bomber pilot. And his plunge to failure, notably the long, slow, tragic falling of the final scene. Brilliantly shot, such moments lend the film the impression of a dense, epic resonance.

The director, the New Zealander Vincent Ward, is much less convincing when he moves from the allusive to the explicit, as with the map-making which snakes through the story as a metaphor for the characters' attempts to make meaning of their lives. One room contains a female mannequin covered in cartographical doodlings - her purpose is obscure except to prompt the film's naffest line, 'Women are a map. You've got to understand their longitude and how much latitude you can take.' Ward's not too hot on dialogue - the dramatic scenes are very uncertainly handled - and you remember that his first film, Vigil, was virtually speech-less. There's much to savour in this dreamy, meandering piece (still sprawling, though it has shed 20 minutes since it surfaced as a work-in-progress in Cannes last year). But, you feel, in taking the scenic route around his material, Ward has wound up losing his bearings.

Frauds returns to a seam of dark Australian comedy already mined (with greater skill) by films like Proof, Sweetie, Spottswood and Death in Brunswick. This first feature by Stephan Elliott has Phil Collins bringing a sinister sheen to his usual blokish persona as a bluff, moon-faced insurance investigator assessing a young couple's claim. He scents a scam - correctly - and proceeds to make their life barely worth living.

Collins is an anarchic, not to say psychotic character: his house is a candy-coloured playpen stocked with lethal toys. And his victim (Hugo Weaving, the blind photographer in Proof) is rather like him: a big boy who'd rather play with his model soldiers than deal with mortgages, kids and the domestic round. There's a strong undercurrent of regressive male bonding to their increasingly sadistic games.

Alas, the film is chronically over-designed and over-directed, each angle containing something cute and clever, each frame shrieking 'look at me'. If you're trying for full- blown surreal fantasy you'd better be as good as Tim Burton, who can tackle twee in films like Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands and wrestle it effortlessly into his vision. Frauds more resembles Toys, where the frills suffocate the story.

The week's third offering from the Antipodes is directed by John Duigan, who created two delightful comic chronicles of adolescence in The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. But in his new film, Wide Sargasso Sea, he seems to have completely and alarmingly lost his touch. It's based on Jean Rhys's 'prequel' novel to Jane Eyre, which imagined Rochester's wife as the fiery Creole daughter of a Jamaican plantation-owner driven mad by disinheritance, her tainted family genes and the mental cruelty of her stiff upper-lipped English husband. Duigan has filmed it as a faintly absurd erotic melodrama whose protagonists must have been cast for their looks and eagerness to sweat through copious bed scenes rather than for acting ability.

Jamon Jamon (the title means 'ham, ham'), a sex farce set in and around a brothel and an underwear factory in southern Spain, suffers from a bad case of post-Franco syndrome - the assumption that, after years of repression, lots of references to Y-fronts and cunnilingus will automatically be shocking and hilarious. Comparisons to Almodovar are inevitable; it's true that there are some neat comic setpieces (a nude corrida, a duel to the death with legs of ham), but the film moves along too sluggishly to pass muster as a madcap comedy.

From ham to beef. Vacas ('Cows'), also from Spain, this time the verdant Basque country, is much stranger and more startlingly original. It's a dream-journey through three generations of two warring families (their internecine cruelties culminating in the madness of the civil war) seen through the impervious, detached eyes of the cows around them. It's a poetic, boldly directed (Julio Medem) first film that serves notice of a promising talent.

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