FILM / In the realm of the senses: Swoon (18) Tom Kalin (US); Just Like a Woman (15)Christopher Monger (UK); Secret Friends (15)Dennis Potter (UK); My Father Is Coming Monika Treut (Ger); California Man (PG)Les Mayfield (US)

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The Independent Culture
Sex] The spice that sells movies (and gets people to read film reviews) is in plentiful supply this week, what with two killer- queers (the term is used advisedly), transvestism in Twickenham, murderous male sexual fantasies (from Dennis Potter, naturally), drag queens, lesbianism, nipple-piercing, and transsexuality in Lower Manhattan. Oh yes, and mating rituals among the higher primates. But, watching them, you're surprised to find how easily they contrive to make kinkiness seem dull.

By far the best is Swoon, an impressive debut feature from the young, independent American film-maker Tom Kalin. It's a dramatisation of the Leopold-Loeb murder case, which also served as the basis for Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Richard Fleischer's Compulsion (1959), in which a couple of languidly decadent Jewish homosexuals take to consummating their passion by murdering an arbitrarily-chosen small boy. The film looks elegant - it's shot in swish black- and-white - and is complex in its concerns: the fragmentary, kaleidoscopic narrative explores their passionate, obsessive affair, then broadens out to the investigation, trial and conviction, attempting to show how their sexual 'inversion' is blamed for the killing. The end credits roll over a crackly old song that warns 'Matrimony is the crime / For which they'll have you doing time' - a witty end to a film full of nice touches.

For me the film was broken-backed; it didn't quite manage to vault across the gap between the claustrophobic love scenes and the broader, more documentary concerns of its second half. Kalin suggests that the couple internalised the homophobia and anti-Semitism around them into a pathological self-loathing but he doesn't show that process: his heroes seem simply born to be bad (in a spooky Hands of Orlac epilogue, Leopold's eyes are successfully transplanted to a blind woman after his death). And there is much emphasis on historical detail, archive footage, quaint language, to show that the attitudes were of the period (1924), but also annoyingly glib anachronisms that seem meant to demonstrate that prejudice is timeless. But withal this is a provocative, enjoyable film.

Just Like a Woman is a well-meaning British comedy about a divorcee (Julie Walters) who falls for her dashing new lodger, a high-flying American investment banker (Adrian Pasdar) who, unknown to his wife and colleagues, is a transvestite (though the perfectly-plucked eyebrows are a dead give-away). Their utopian affair triumphs over the differences of age, class and nationality, as well as Pasdar's unusual hobby.

Walters, who broached similar territory as Cynthia Payne in Personal Services, brings the film a warm, mumsy comic brio: she has a special ability to make odd sex no more problematic than a nice, restorative cup of tea. The film courts your sympathy for a practice more common (one man in 20 does it, apparently) than you'd expect, but by the same token it's very bland, skirting (if that's the word) round the reasons why Pasdar likes putting on the glitz, and (see Rushes) round the subject's darker fringes.

Those are present in abundance, indeed superabundance, in Secret Friends, in which Dennis Potter wields a camera again (after Blackeyes) with malevolent intent. Alan Bates produces exquisite watercolours of wild flowers and nurtures violent fantasies about his wife (Gina Bellman, from Blackeyes). Was she once a call-girl? Is he the mysterious axe-murderer at large in London? Is Bates the victim of killer-flashbacks or is it all paroxysmal fancy? Do we care? A non-linear, non-realist narrative can be intriguing, as in Swoon, but this is a tough ride for a very small return: the cramped and narcissistic anguish of a middle-aged male as seen in Potter passim.

The biggest laugh in My Father is Coming (a comedy described by the Village Voice as a 'decidedly iconoclastic work of pansexuality') is unintentional. 'Think Deutschmarks]' a German living in New York is advised: 'Nasty] Superior]' The story, about a girl who tries to conceal her bizarre demi-mondaine lifestyle from her visiting father, a genial, beer-bellied Bavarian, might have established the director, Monika Treut, as a new Almodovar. Alas, this is a scrappy little film, ill-scripted, photographed and, in particular, directed, and the weird, but very likeable cast is the only reason to see it.

In California Man, a pair of dim teenage boys unearth and defrost a caveman buried in their garden, and can imagine nothing better to do than to take him to college where he blends in seamlessly with the other neanderthals. The film, school of Bob and Ted and Wayne and Garth (one modern kid speaks no language known to man), but inferior in all regards, illustrates the Theory of Reverse Evolution.