Sunday, March 2, 2014

Apartment Zero (1988)

Director: Martin Donovan                                  Writer: Martin Donovan & David Koepp
Film Score: Elia Cmiral                                     Cinematography: Miguel Rodriguez
Starring: Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, James Telfer and Liz Smith

This is simply a stunning thriller in the Hitchcock mode. This was only Colin Firth’s fourth feature film and he is tremendous as the Norman Bates-like character of Adrian LeDuc. The film is part Fade to Black, part Missing, and part Psycho and does a tremendous job of being influenced without making it obvious. Argentinian writer-director Martin Donovan, who was a prolific television writer from the late fifties to the early eighties, would go on to direct Death Becomes Her and the wonderfully ambiguous Mad at the Moon with Hart Bochner. But Apartment Zero is easily his greatest achievement. It is a beautifully done pastiche of psychological thrillers set in the semi-exotic location of Buenos Aries and has a darkly comedic undertone that can be savored again and again with multiple viewings.

Colin Firth runs a failing movie theater in Buenos Aries that shows classic films. In quick succession the audience learns of the politics in the country that he is loath to become involved with, that the neighbors in his apartment building are dying of curiosity to know what goes on in his apartment, that there are a series of murders going on in the city, and that he is probably gay. A framed picture of Montgomery Clift greets him as he enters his apartment. James Telfer, who looks a bit like Robert Downey Jr. plays Vanessa, a transvestite who lives in the building and makes Firth decidedly uncomfortable. And just to make things even more interesting he also has a mother who is in a mental hospital. While he’s not destitute because of a bit of family money, he decides to take in a border at his apartment to help meet living expenses. After a series of utterly unacceptable responses to his ad, Hart Bochner shows up with his James Dean looks and friendly personality. Firth is instantly attracted to him and before long he’s behaving as if they’re a couple, complete with jealous curiosity that causes him to find out more about his mysterious roommate than he should know.

The camerawork as well as the screenplay by Donovan have a decided European influence and create a wonderfully bizarre world for the characters to operate in. There is some nice supporting work by actresses Dora Bryan and Liz Smith as the old ladies downstairs, as well as Mirella D’Angelo as the neglected housewife next door and Francesca d’Aloja as Firth’s part-time cashier and full-time political activist investigating the murders in the city that are apparently assassinations by the political death squads who are hiring foreigners to misdirect attention away from the real people behind the killings. One of the great things about Donovan’s films is the way in which things are allowed to evolve at their own pace. It doesn’t feel the need that American films have of rushing to explain everything, and the gradual unfolding of the plot is part of the film’s tremendous joy.

The thing that sets it apart from most other films of its type is the bavura performances by Colin Firth and Hart Bochner. The two are so good together as Bocher can barely conceal his initial distaste for Firth and at the same time Firth is slobbering all over himself from his unacknowledged sexual desire for Bochner. This is the undercurrent that drives the film forward to its surprising and inevitable conclusion. Though Bochner eventually becomes trapped and can’t leave, because of the near perfect cover that Firth’s apartment building provides for him it doesn’t really matter. Firth is the perfect paranoiac and gradually knows he’s being lied to but doesn’t want to jeopardize the relationship, while Bochner spends his time befriending everyone in the building in order to put himself above suspicion. The ending is simply sublime in the way everything weaves together in a way that almost seems predestined. Apartment Zero is a brilliant piece of filmmaking from story to execution, a satisfying black comedy that deserves much wider recognition.

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