FILM / The lonely hearts club band

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IMITATION can ring truer than life. The movies' definitive John Lennon is not John Lennon - feebly facetious in the role in A Hard Day's Night - but Ian Hart. Hart played Lennon in The Hours and Times, a shrewd sketch of the singer's relationship with Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, and reprises him in Backbeat (15), an account of the band's early days in Hamburg. It's a memorable double fantasy: not a mere physical reproduction (Hart's face is thinner and sharper, less aquiline), or a vocal one (the tangy accent is hardly inimitable), but an impersonation of spirit. Hart's shrugging body and steady eyes give us a Lennon who is watchful as well as bumptious, sensitive as well as crude. He suggests that Lennon had a romantic's rage, his conversational poison-darts dipped in disillusion.

Like The Hours and Times, Backbeat speculates about Lennon's sexuality. The object of his unresolved feelings this time is Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), 'the fifth Beatle', who at the time the film is set (1960) was playing bass guitar for the group - and playing truant from his vocation as a painter. Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell) wants the lacklustre, note-fluffing Stuart out of the band. But John sticks up for his pal: he has a homo-erotic regard for him, for his talent as an artist and artistry as a poser, never more apparent than when he's bitterly slagging off Stuart's painting, or the German girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), who steals Stuart's heart.

Here the film stumbles. The real Stuart Sutcliffe is said to have been charismatic and talented. As played by the American Dorff, he's so callow and insubstantial that, like Paul, you want him out of the picture. Dorff's accent is competent but his predictable delivery means that even when he's being cannier than John he seems utterly bland. He and Astrid, a pair of dreamy, self-absorbed lovebirds, take over the film, stilling its randy, aggressive energy. Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks's Laura Palmer, sticks to a single demure note. She gives Stuart a mop-top haircut, but her existentialist ideas sound like New Age waffle ('We've been lovers since we were born').

This is the soft heart of the film. The Beatles are its soul. Although, apart from John, they're little more than cameos, they seem spot-on. After a row between Stuart and John, Paul plays the jovial peacemaker with a chorus of 'Time to Go Home', and Gary Bakewell catches an authentic superciliousness. There's also a sense of the chemistry between Len non and McCartney, John's splenetic energy finding a foil in Paul's ruthless pragmatism. And though the music is the rock'n'roll standards the Beatles played before they wrote their own, and it's sung in American accents by American musicians, the actors display the innocent enjoyment of the early archive footage.

Backbeat marks the comeback of producers Nik Powell and Steve Woolley, who, with Palace Pictures, were behind some of the best British films of the Eighties. It's a clever package (American stars, Beatles cachet, romance and rock'n'roll), slickly directed by video-veteran Iain Softley. It's a sure-fire hit, and not an unworthy one. But Ian Hart's brilliance and the aphoristic wit of the writing suggest that the Beatles' story could have been tackled head-on, dispensing with the distraction of Stuart Sutcliffe's 15 minutes of fame.

Had I been an Academy member voting on this year's Best Foreign Film, I would have been torn between Paul Turner's Welsh-language Hedd Wyn, whose Passchendaele sequences are some of the most visually startling in recent British cinema, and the Vietnamese nominee, The Scent of Green Papaya (U). I would have plumped for Papaya, a debut feature from 30-year-old Tran Anh Hung that's almost flawless, though the sort of quiet, detailed work that loses out to more flamboyant Oscar fare (for the actual winner, see below). Depictions of women's housework in 1950s Vietnam somehow don't grab the voters. Yet this film, a near still-life, is more resonant than gaudier, more celebrated canvases.

Tender yet unillusioned, The Scent of Green Papaya is about being a servant and being a woman, and there's a suggestion - maybe conservative cynicism, but more likely gentle resignation - that there are pleasures in both forms of servitude. The heroine, Mui (Lu Man San), is a 10-year-old, a servant in a Hanoi household, presided over by a long- suffering mother and an often absentee husband. Her life is a round of cleaning, cooking and carrying trays for the father and his three sullen children, the youngest of whom delights in tormenting her. While the father idly strums his guitar or plays the flute, we watch the mother teaching Mui to prepare the papaya, stripping its skin and removing its white seed pulp. This is a world in which the men make the music, and the women make the lunch.

We watch this stifled, melancholy household through Tran's steadily tracking camera. It alights on a pair of black-and-white photographs and we see the husband and wife's unformed faces in younger days. Mui looks at this marital relic with a mixture of hope and resentment. For much of the time the film is almost silent, giving weight to the little we do hear: the father's music, the birds' fitful warbling, the lowing of a curfew alarm - sounds of a society that's repressed as well as comfortable. The camera goes in close on the son's finger as he dissects

insects, carefully chronicling this sport of wanton boys. It is all understated but quietly devastating.

The film's final section jumps forward 10 years. Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) now works for a young pianist, a friend of one of the sons from her former household. His dedication melds with her discretion, and he throws over his fiancee (something of a caricature New Woman) for her. Everything about these scenes is warmer than the earlier section: the lighting brighter, the decor blues and yellows instead of gloomy greens, and the music lyrical rather than abstract. We are not meant to celebrate Mui's new style of servitude, but to acknowledge the pitiful criteria of happiness in such a distorted world.

The Oscar went to Belle Epoque (15), a frothy, Spanish sex comedy - the Academy, so serious in its main choices, likes trivia from foreigners. Still, it prompted a droll acceptance speech from Fernando Trueba: 'I would like to believe in God in order to thank him, but I just believe in Billy Wilder. So thank you Mr Wilder.' You see his debt in a scene when the fresh-faced hero (Jorge Sanz), dressed as a maid at a fancy-dress party, is wooed by a woman in soldier fatigues, one of four sisters

he serially beds. Sanz has the same startled compliance as Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. The rest is feeble, with little attempt to relate the farce to the setting (eve-of-Republic 1930s Spain); though there's a good performance as the girls' rumbling, mischievous father from Fernando Fernan Gomez, a sort of Spanish Ralph Richardson.

There's a pulpy pleasure to Dominic Sena's Kalifornia (18) - in its in-your-face camera and Levi's-ad lighting - but I have an awful feeling Sena is in earnest. A writer (David Duchovny) who is looking into serial killers, and his girlfriend (Michelle Forbes), drive west with drifters Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. Research becomes reality when Pitt turns out to be a parole-breaking murderer. The script is derivative and portentous, giving Duchovny a sonorously banal, retrospective (and thus tension-destroying) voice-over. Pitt, as Early Grayce (somebody must have thought the name a master-stroke of bitter irony: he's had the standard abused childhood), loses himself in mannerism. He's no match for the touching Lewis, who shows simplicity without condescension. Out of gas, the film refuels on cheap tricks, desperate for any frisson of surprise or menace.