Love, identity and flamenco

THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET Pedro Almodovar (15) WAITING TO EXHALE Forest Whitaker (15) SABRINA Sydney Pollack (PG) THE MOST DESIRED MAN Sonke Wortman (18) THE INNOCENT SLEEP Scott Michell (15)
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Love is in the air this week, and it mostly stinks. Not, however, in Pedro Almodovar's The Flower of My Secret, which is at once wholly characteristic of its director and significantly atypical. Gone are the polymorphously perverse creatures of his early films, and the brash day- glo pop aesthetic. The mood has changed from manic farce to something more akin to comic melodrama; the production design is still classy but almost classical and the characters are quirky but (by Almodovar's standards) relatively ordinary. Some aficionados may find the result conventional; others will applaud the presence of recognisable characters they can finally care about.

As often with this film-maker, it's centred on a woman of a certain age (Marisa Paredes) who has a turbulent emotional life, but is still sexually active and attractive. Paredes writes frothy novellas under the nom de plume of Amanda Gris, but marital troubles with her tetchy and indifferent NATO officer husband are steering her towards glum "serious" fiction. She struggles to put herself back on an even keel with the help and hindrance of her flamenco-dancing housekeeper, deliciously bickering sister and mother and a possible new suitor, the heavyweight literary editor of the heavyweight newspaper El Pais.

Through a series of parent-child relationships and tightly controlled imagery (note, for instance, the recurrent eye motif), Almodovar chews over his themes of love, identity and the need for self-renewal and comes up with some unexpected conclusions; Paredes's mother compares her to a cow without a cowbell, a droll metaphor which also expresses the idea that it's because she's uprooted from her village childhood that she has also somehow lost her way. From a director whose wackiness had begun to seem irritatingly predictable, it's a thoughtful and provocative new departure.

One of Amanda Gris's potboilers might well have been called Waiting to Exhale, an odd title which belongs instead to a popular novel by Terry McMillan, and now a film which became a Christmas hit in America. It's a soft, soapy melodrama about four women with everything going for them except a viable relationship with a man. The story follows their dogged pursuit of love with a chain of smooth-talking spongers and losers, always hoping for that transcendent moment when they can swoon, sighing (hence the title), into the arms of Mr Right.

The novelty of Waiting to Exhale is that it has a mainly black cast. And, compared to other recent Afro-American movies, it concerns itself with women and is set not in one of the coastal ghettos but in a middle- class suburb in Phoenix, Arizona.

Otherwise it's not much cop. The actor Forest Whitaker, directing his first movie, draws serviceable performances from his large cast (although Angela Bassett acts everyone else off the screen). But he has no idea how to pace and structure the story, which lurches along from one dismal date to the next. It runs well over two hours and at low moments you feel it could easily go on for ever. And the small-minded focus is unremitting: why put a television executive, a beautician and a graduate who wants to launch her own company in a movie if all they ever do is talk about men?

Yet more Mills and Boonery in Sabrina, a remake of the Billy Wilder/ Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy. Julia Ormond plays the chauffeur's dowdy daughter who returns to New England transfigured by two years in Paris and, to general consternation, promptly enchants the two sons of the wealthy household where her father works. We know not why; Ormond is handsome enough, but also brooding and at times even dour - it's hard to see the sparkle which is said to make her irresistible. Harrison Ford, as the workaholic brother who gets a mid-life crash course in love, is gruff, too: there's little heat between them. A po-faced screenplay with few good jokes doesn't help; its lumbering would-be sophistication brings the film close to the Golden Turkey farm.

There are several large disappointments for style fetishists. A key component of this movie should be the makeover: the scene in which we see the ugly duckling transformed into glorious swanhood. Here, Ormond is clumping about in thick glasses and frumpy clothes one minute, then the next she has bobbed her hair and acquired some classy outfits. This new wardrobe, consisting mainly of simple but bland trouser suits, is a downer, too - it comes from Ann Roth, a highly respected costume designer, but lacks the haute couture glamour that Givenchy brought to the earlier film.

The Most Desired Man is a German comedy, though not quite as grim as that oxymoronic description suggests. The hunky, womanising Axel is thrown out by his girlfriend and ends up crashing on the sofa of Norbert, a dumpy gay man who lusts after his new and terminally heterosexual flatmate. As Axel stumbles from smoke- and angst-filled men's encounter group to drag party and leather bar, the film supposedly casts a gently satirical eye over the foibles of the modern male of all sexual colours. It's good- natured, but hardly subversive stuff.

Loosely based on the Roberto Calvi affair, The Innocent Sleep finds a homeless man witnessing a murder on Tower Bridge and hooking up with an American reporter to expose the conspiracy. The young director, Scott Michell, has assembled an impressive cast for his first film. Some (Michael Gambon, sporting a phoney Minder-style accent as a bent copper) give lazy performances, but others are a pleasant surprise: in the two lead roles, Annabella Sciorra and Rupert Graves break convincingly with their established screen personae. The film looks handsome on a slim budget, is consistently lively and makes imaginative use of its London locations, qualities which offset the cornball elements of its plotting.

n On release from tomorrow