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FILM / Throwing sand in your eyes

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (15). . . .Leos Carax (Fr)

Christopher Columbus (PG). . . . . John Glen (US)

Housesitter (PG). . . . . . . . . .Frank Oz (US)

Immaculate Conception (15). . . . .Jamil Dehlavi (UK)

LEOS CARAX's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf starts out deceptively, with a long, low-key, quasi-documentary sequence shot in a tramps' shelter in Nanterre. He captures the walking wounded in a series of snatched, impressionistic details - here a cadaverous ribcage, there a hand snaking out to steal a Biro. Then, however, we gently segue into high poetic fantasy; Carax is not much concerned with the broader picture. The backdrop is the 1989 Bicentennial celebrations, but these are shot, like much of the film, in a swirl of hand-held camerawork, so that a mundane military march-past appears as a chaotic, vaguely threatening affair.

The real story of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is boy meets girl - as it is,indeed, in all Carax's work - but on a major ( pounds 16 million) scale. Juliette Binoche plays an artist from a rich family who has become a vagrant to escape an unhappy love affair and the terrifying prospect of going blind. On the Pont-Neuf she finds two other tramps, Denis Lavant and Klaus-Michael Gruber, already in residence. She and Lavant launch into an obsessive affair. Carax's scenes see-saw between the intimate and the epic - the best one finds Binoche skimming along the Seine on stolen water-skis (Lavant having hijacked a police boat), the skies exploding with fireworks behind her. It's an image as spectacular as it is rampantly absurd in terms of narrative realism.

Critical reponse to Les Amants has cherished moments like these for their fabulous visual flair, but it has also chided the film for being fragmented, illogical, rambling. In fact, though, Carax has stitched his story-line together in seams of recurring motifs. Lavant is forever subtly harrassing his lover, making her scatter her paintings on the pavement or accidentally strew her money upon the Seine. When he learns that her condition is curable and that her family is desperately seeking her, he hurtles round Paris destroying all the posters that suddenly appear all over town. First he rips up a giant image of her face, then, in the Metro, sets a whole tunnelful of them aflame - these are violent, disturbing scenes.

It's a powerful visualisation of their changing relationship, this struggle for control over the other's image. For her part, Binoche captures Lavant's face in her art - their liaison begins when she 'steals' a sketch of him as he lies unconscious in the road. At the end, this becomes a rendering back to him of his self-respect: 'Do you like yourself?' she asks tenderly as she presents him with a last attempt to capture his likeness on paper, and the double meaning must be intentional.

Another major theme - of sleeping and dreaming - is signalled by Lavant's dependency on downers, a habit from which Binoche weans him. It's developed in a comic sequence in which they slip this drug to cafe flaneurs as a prelude to lifting their wallets - a droll montage sequence captures the foolish expressions of swelling unconsciousness. And in the final scene the lovers glide down the Seine on a barge bearing a freight of sand. 'Etes-vous marchands de sable?' - 'Are you sand-dealers?' - they ask the owners, but the French word also means 'sandman', and there is no doubt that they are entering a new world of dreams. Clearly Carax is in the right business; as a sandmerchant, he's a master.

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery sailed in laden with legends of unbridled laughter at an earlier press screening: fabled as a golden turkey beyond the dreams of avarice, a comedy (albeit unintentional) to put Carry on Columbus in the shade. It proved a rather pedestrian affair. True, a passing titter was raised by the sight of Tom Selleck in a beard and a silly wig as King Ferdinand of Spain, and by Marlon Brando, his figure discreetly wreathed in the Grand Inquisitor's ample cloak.

The film lurches along uneasily; it would most like to present Columbus as a grand national hero (the producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, after all, made the Superman movies and the sponsors are the Quinto Centinario of Spain - they supplied the three beautiful frigates which make up for a multitude of sins). But it also seems to keep reminding itself with a jolt that it could just be on to a sticky wicket in celebrating five centuries of colonial oppression. The film is competently directed by John Glen, who is best known for Bond-age (he presided over four of the later 007 movies), but a more imaginative vision is promised by Ridley Scott's forthcoming rival version, 1492.

A suave architect has a one-night-stand with a flaky waitress, who takes up residence in his brand-new, self-constructed house, opens accounts around town in their joint names and tells everyone she's his new wife: Fatal Attraction II? No, this is Housesitter, in which hell-hath-no-fury attempts to take on a comic spin. As the scorned woman, Goldie Hawn has a worrisome character to wrestle with - a mythomane and manipulator whom we're supposed to accept as cute and wacky. Steve Martin, as the architect, has a modicum of shtick, including a gloriously pained rendition of an Irish lullaby, but he's a dull character, whose kudos is seriously dented by the fact that the designer home meant to signal his dynamite artistic vision closely resembles a Tesco superstore.

In Immaculate Conception, a childless Anglo-American couple (James Wilby and Melissa Leo) living in Karachi visit a eunuchs' shrine; as a result, the woman conceives, although it turns out to be a long way short of a miracle. The director, Jamil Dehlavi, was born in Calcutta and lives in Britain; and his unfolding drama - which thickens when the wife's family, which is Jewish, turns out to have its own religious agenda - explores each culture's prejudices and fantasies about the other, and their mutual exploitation, with satisfying complexity and a refeshing lack of parti pris.

All films open tonight: details on facing page.

(Photograph omitted)