FILM / Sleeping with the enemy: The Last Seduction (18); We Don't Want to Talk about It (PG); Getting Even With Dad (PG); Zero Patience (18)

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The Independent Culture
FILM NOIR has always made a big thing of the femme fatale, a monster of egotism and sexual allure. The original Forties bogeywoman was conjured up by the anxieties of American soldiers returning from the war to find women in their jobs. A post-feminist Nineties version has just crossed the Atlantic in the power-suited shape of Linda Fiorentino, nightmare of an era when a woman might actually be your boss. She gives a wisecracking, ball-breaking, riveting performance in John Dahl's The Last Seduction (18).

We first see her at work in New York, cracking the whip, so to speak, over a quivering salesman: 'You eunuch]' She plays Bridget Gregory, who doublecrosses her husband (Bill Pullman) and takes off upstate with a sack of loot he made in a drugs deal. Finding herself in the hick town of Beston, she decides to go undercover, and takes a job in the insurance company where Mike, the attractive nerd she's picked up in a local bar, also works. Mike (Peter Berg) is her toy and tool, like all the other men she comes across. He's the fall guy in the plot she devises to get rid of her husband, who's put heavies on her trail.

This is Dahl's third excursion into noir. Kill Me Again (1990) and Red Rock West (1993) he wrote himself; they had juicy plots and undernourished characters. The script of The Last Seduction is by Steve Barancik: its bitch goddess is a creation powerful - and funny - enough to skate us past the points where disbelief threatens to suspend suspension.

Bridget enjoys and uses sex. She also uses her hick lover's need for human, not just sexual, intercourse - by denying it. No friendship, even. 'Anybody check you for a heartbeat recently?' asks her lawyer (J T Walsh) at one point.

Murder is just a continuation of business by other means for this post-Thatcherite femme fatale. And where does sex (let's not mention love or marriage) fit in for a working girl? As she curtly informs Mike, rebuffing him on the way into the office, 'A woman loses 50 per cent of her authority when people find out who she's sleeping with.'

We Don't Want to Talk about It (PG) is a new film by the Argentine director Maria Luisa Bemberg. In a small provincial town about 50 years ago, an ageing bachelor, played by Marcello Mastroianni, falls for Charlotte, a charming, cultured young dwarf, and marries her. Then the circus comes to town, elephant, dwarfs and all . . .

Charlotte's widowed mother, Leonor, has fought all her tiny daughter's life to stop neighbours talking about her difference from other people. The desire to suppress awkward truths is something the whole town shares (the priest and his mistress certainly do). When the mayor dies during the wedding, he's popped into a bath of ice lest a body spoil the fun.

There are some magical sequences: Charlotte circling on the white horse that D'Andrea, the mysterious bachelor, bought for her 15th birthday; the silent otherworld of the circus at dawn. But in general, the direction is on the straight side for such a bizarre tale.

The film seeks to induce a dream-like acceptance of the unlikely romance, but is not entirely successful. Mastroianni shows no sign of passion, drifting limply through his part, his spaniel gaze unchanging in its sweet melancholy. Alejandra Podesta as Charlotte is vivid and charming, with a touching dignity. One can believe in her as a love object, but her feelings about her suitor are never clear. And she shows no sign of the painful awareness of that difference between herself and other people which the film's ending implies.

Luisina Brando as the neurotic mother, however, is terrific. In one scene she watches Charlotte dance by herself before a mirror to the music of Carmen, then turns away, her face crumpling into tears. The only passionate, desperate love the film shows us is that of mother for child.

Macaulay Culkin is getting on a bit for a child star, but shows no sign of turning into a young actor in Getting Even With Dad (PG), Hollywood's latest Children Know Best movie. The cutesy moppet of Home Alone has become a sullen pre- teen, whose aunt dumps him on his ex-con dad as he's about to carry out a heist. Mac wants to live with Daddy again, but has to reform him and teach him how to parent first. He lectures on personal hygiene and plant care, crows about his high IQ and blackmails Dad (by videoing the heist) into taking him endlessly around San Francisco. Dad is Ted Danson, who looks like a really terrific actor beside Culkin. The film has done poorly in the US. But who of any age could root for such a self-righteous prig?

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer and scholar, is alive and stuffing animals in a Canadian museum. He plans an Aids exhibition. Patient Zero, who died of the disease, returns to tell his story. Zero Patience (18) is a musical, written and directed by the Canadian Aids activist John Greyson. Its eminently laudable aim is to debunk myths about the disease. The stuffed animals come alive and do a number, as does the HIV virus. There is a duet for singing arseholes. And so on. This is the sort of thing Fringe aficionados will soon be watching students put on in chilly church halls in Morningside. Its heart is in the right place. Its art, unfortunately, is not.

Cinema details: Review, page 66.

Quentin Curtis returns next week.

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