Cinema: Pedro's sex scenes: better than sex

RUTH AND PEDRO. Rendell and Almodovar. Doesn't sound like a marriage made in heaven, does it? West Country Policemen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown? Inspector Wexford in a PVC fetish suit? Well, not yet. But Live Flesh (18), the Spanish director's latest slice of full-blooded melodrama, has been carved from the novel of the same name by the Labour peer and peak-time murder queen. And surprisingly, it's quite a dish.

Almodovar has turned Rendell's thriller into a revenge comedy, in which the hapless Victor (Liberto Rabal) is sent to prison after he accidentally shoots and paralyses a policeman, David (Javier Bardem). David marries Elena (Francesa Neri), the woman with whom Victor had his first - and only - sexual experience. The bulk of the plot tells how, on his release, Victor contrives to rectify this enforced celibacy and settle his score with the ex-cop. It might sound like a case for Wexford, but, this being an Almodovar movie, the process involves lots more sex, as well as shooting, slapping and argy-bargy. The tribulations of the protagonists also offer a commentary on Spain's struggle to come to terms with the Franco era. Which certainly isn't something you'll find in a Rendell mystery.

It's Almodvar's use of sex that makes his style so distinctive: take away his rakish Golden Era delight in fecundity and lust, and I'm not sure that anything very substantial would be left. But in this area he is inimitable. Few directors would dare ask an actor (in this case Javier Bardem) to do a double-take in the middle of simulating cunnilingus. And few directors succeed like him in making sex look like something that might actually be worth doing. When Victor and Elena finally get together, the camera moves in so close, their bodies are transformed into warm geometric forms swooping about the screen. It's a tender mixture of abstraction and physicality, achieved through the director's conviction that the greatest dramas take place in bed. Touching and memorable, Live Flesh is much more substantial than some of Almodvar's recent work. And his British inspiration can take some of the credit. Perhaps PD James should be the next notch on his bedpost.

In Mimi Leder's Deep Impact (12), CNN hackette Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) thinks she's got a story about a presidential mistress called Ellie. Instead, it turns out that she's overheard some Capitol Hill Chinese whispering about "ELE" - an Extinction Level Event - a cataclysmic comet-strike is imminent. It's a bit like Bill Clinton emerging flushed from the Oval Office to tell us about his Massive Operation to Neutralise the Imminent Cosmic Armageddon. But as this President is played by Morgan Freeman, you know he must be telling the truth.

Lerner gets her end-of-the-world scoop and is promoted to anchorwoman for the Apocalypse. And Leder gets to remake Titanic on an planetary scale, smashing a giant lump of ice into a cast of pitifully shallow characters.

For a director making a movie about impending doomsday, Leder doesn't have much sense of occasion. All we're shown of the inevitable uproar and anarchy is a few bad-tempered traffic jams and overturned dustbins. Her grasp on narrative continuity isn't up to much either. After President Freeman has announced a dusk-till-dawn curfew, we see Leoni having a nocturnal mope on the bustling streets of Washington. Maybe it would have made a better movie if the destruction of the world had turned out to be a White House ruse to distract attention from the Ellie affair.

Liar (18), a twisty-turny noir from identical twins Josh and Jonas Pate, tries to make incoherence a virtue and nearly succeeds. Tim Roth (lean, twitchy and strangely effeminate) stars as Wayland, a murder suspect being put through a polygraph test by two detectives (Michael Rooker and Chris Penn). Wayland suffers from temporal-lobe epilepsy, which may make him the first epileptic hero since Lou Castel in Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket (1965), which is being re-released shortly. And the Pates exploit the Gothic possibilities of this condition for all they're worth: both Wayland and the narrative suffer sinister fugues and dark, hallucinatory interludes. I suspect they decided from the outset that they weren't going to angle for awards from mental-health charities. And rightly so, perhaps: their film is most successful when it's trying to lose you in this fog of delirium. As it attempts to unravel its enigmas, it becomes both implausible and incomprehensible. If the Pates had emulated David Lynch and allowed you to abandon yourself to the impenetrability of the narrative, then they might have got away with it. Instead, they send you looking for clues that aren't there. I felt like I'd been left in the dark.

Wild Things (18) is that mercifully rare thing, a date-rape comedy thriller. What sort of dubious characters are behind a project like this? Step forward John McNaughton, director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and producer/star Kevin Bacon, an actor gifted with the most slatternly screen persona in modern cinema. It's an image which Wild Things can only amplify: the convoluted plot, in which everyone has a sleazy connection with everyone else, is like a literalisation of that popular Californian parlour game, Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon.

McNaughton's direction is an arch recycling of Playboy Channel softcore. We see a tumescent sorority type (Denise Richards, one of those crypto- Nazi bimbos from Starship Troopers) turning up on the doorstep of her buckish sailing instructor (Matt Dillon) and asking up she can give his jeep a soaping. Then we get to see Dillon, Richards and Scream starlet Neve Campbell having a champagne-spattered menage-a-trois. And then we're treated to Campbell and Richards going at it in the swimming pool. Got the idea? McNaughton's contribution to the time-honoured cinematic technique of associational montage is to cut from the bouncing bosoms of these college cheerleaders to Matt Dillon clutching a spuming hosepipe. It's cheerful, tawdry schlock, helped along by a throng of past-their-peak stars that includes Bill Murray, Theresa Russell and Robert Wagner. You might half-admire its cocky commitment to high-gloss smut. On the other hand, you could just stay at home with a swimwear catalogue.

Bill Murray fans - there must be some out there - get second helpings this week. In John Amiel's British espionage comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little (12), Murray stars as a naive American tourist who gets involved in a Cold War plot, thinking that it's part of an interactive theatre event. Expecting an evening of experimental role-play, he assumes that every danger he encounters is part of the fun: he criticises two muggers for not delivering their threats with enough conviction; he congratulates a corpse for the quality of its concentration; he kidnaps an elderly dominatrix whom he believes to be a Russian torture expert. Once you've overcome your feeling that this should really have been made 30 years ago as a Morecambe and Wise vehicle, you can start to enjoy its good-natured dippiness. With the emphasis on corny slapstick, Amiel's film is decidedly simple- minded and hopelessly uncool. But at least it doesn't have the thin pretensions to grown-upness expressed by more upmarket Britcoms like Sliding Doors and Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence.

Lars von Trier is best known over here for Breaking the Waves (1996). But in his native Denmark he's more celebrated for a bizarre TV serial called The Kingdom, which, when re-edited for theatrical release, broke Danish box-office records. The second batch of episodes are now showing at the ICA in London as The Kingdom II (no cert), and - if you've got a certain turn of mind - are definitely worth travelling to see. Set in a public hospital more oriented towards voodoo and vivisection than patient care, it's what ER would have been like if HP Lovecraft and William Burroughs had been the script editors. Sinister, hilarious and deeply perverse, Von Trier's film delivers 295 intoxicating minutes of weirdness, in which neurosurgeon Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard) spikes his coffee with zombifying poison, a repellent changeling (Udo Kier) grows to gargantuan size, and Dr Rigmor (Ghita Norby) parades her badger fixation. I was half-delighted, and half-suppressing the desire to yell "Nurse, the screens!" If only our national tastes weren't so miserably middlebrow, our film and TV industries might feel brave enough to produce monstrous masterpieces like this.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11.

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