MEN CAN BE BITCHES, TOO

Starting out as a What sex am I? comedy, Apartment Zero deepens into a shallow allegory about Argentina’s infamous military regimes and roving death squads and finishes as an updated version of Al Pacino’s Cruising. Doubt we’ll see an English-language movie anytime soon that captures, complete with melancholic fascist violin, Buenos Aires in quite the schizoid way it’s been caught here: it’s incipient Borges filtered through Manuel Puig. (Not Borges as the literary giant of baffling mazes but Borges as the political critic who knew well his country’s infectiously corrupt sadomilitarism.) Adrian (Colin Firth) is a snot-nosed British repressed gay born in B.A and yet he’s so unassumingly overpowered by the labyrinth of the nation’s diseased psyche that he’s trapped: despite his morality, he doesn’t realize how much he’ll dabble in fascism until he gets a taste of it. What makes the movie more Puig is that it’s caught in the web of movie gods and goddesses. Adrian’s been kissed by the bitch spider, all right—he runs a retro movie house and his apartment is decorated with framed glossies of Monty, Bette, Liz, Orson, Cary, Ingrid, Vivien, Tyrone, Errol, Rita, Marlene—but he’s without Molina’s screeching effeminacy. He’s entertainingly prissy without repulsing us—Joseph Cotton as snobbish invert. We’ve known for years that when Firth gets the right roles—Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, George in A Single Man, George VI in The King’s Speech—he hits all the notes with the close equivalent of Method in that he inhabits the characters amply, physiologically as well as emotionally. For Adrian, the load of straight-jacket mannerisms and turmoil of sexual repression put Firth to the test and when his character finally confronts himself, in a trashy effrontery, the sissy bitch becomes a leather toughie convert on the prowl. Had director Martin Donovan kept Zero a psycho-sexual comedy, there’d be cheers about it being a guiltlessly likable sickie instead of a guilt-ridden one. Throughout we wonder if Firth and new roommate Hart Bochner will end up in bed. We can see clearly why Firth’s character and all the rest of the paranoid occupants of the apartment building in which he lives—including a transvestite (James Telfer) doing Sean Young as Ruth Roman—are turned on by living movie glossy Bochner, who overflows with a “Take me, I’m yours” bisexy seductiveness. (He saves a cat, screws a tenant to becalm her anxieties, rescues a quasi dame in distress; he’s catnip for crazies.) He charms effortlessly, especially Liz Smith, who gives a close-to-peerless comic performance as a daffy Port slurper missing an upper lip. (All the residents gather in the apartment lobby and staircasing as an amusing theatrical chorus.) Bochner shows off his smirky, aloof self-satisfaction, his sex-loaded teasing most advantageously; he endures close ups as spectacularly as any actor ever has. Some of his character’s layers, though, get sticky: is he less a blood thirsty political mercenary and more an addicted serial sex murderer? One leading to the other? I’d have done away with the climax Donovan asks us to accept—it’s Psycho unneeded—and instead would have had Firth and Bochner jointly possessing one another. That would be fitting punishment. Where Puig falsely redeems his Molina as a 40s heroine turned hero in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Apartment Zero allows the menace of sexual chauvinism to triumph, which periodically happens in Latin America. But Donovan’s primary intent is to reveal the pervasive mystique of Argentina as a Theatre of Sick Souls. In Buenos Aires, he should have been able to pack Cine York every night.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  Revised 3/2012 All Rights Reserved.