*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Donovan

Written by Donovan and David Koepp

With Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Dora Bryan, Liz Smith, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, James Telfer, Mirella D’Angelo, Juan Vitali, and Francesca d’Aloja.

Although it qualifies technically as an American movie, Martin Donovan’s ambitious, disturbing thriller Apartment Zero is one of those international hodgepodges that are somewhat disorienting almost by definition. Set in Buenos Aires, made with actors and technicians from three continents, and filmed in English by an Argentinean director who has lived mainly in Italy and England since the 70s, it has the sort of multinational sprawl that only a strong script and a forceful style could hold together. Fortunately, Apartment Zero has both script and style in spades. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me it’s an exciting piece of controlled cinematic delirium.

I first encountered this movie at a midnight screening at the Berlin Film Festival last February, having been guided to it by a perceptive rave in Variety by Todd McCarthy. Ever since then I’ve been wondering when and how it would eventually turn up in Chicago. It lacks most of the usual commercial calling cards (big stars, lovable nerds, genre cliches, babies, body switches, Spielberg lighting), it was passed up by the New York and Chicago film festivals, and it didn’t seem the sort of picture that Vincent Canby would like. As it turns out, the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival is showing it twice this Saturday at the Music Box, and the Music Box hopes to bring it back for a longer run next year: not a bad place for it, because the movie needs a big screen for optimal impact. Whether it benefits from being shown under the category “gay film” is more debatable, although the same sort of problem would apply if it were shown as a “Latino film” at the Latino Film Festival. Boldly mixing genres as well as nationalities, Apartment Zero defies most of the categories one could think up for it–a commercial liability but an aesthetic asset–and the Lesbian and Gay Festival should be applauded for taking the initiative.

Visibly influenced by Roman Polanski (The Tenant) and Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Psycho), and marked by strong parallels with Claude Chabrol (Les cousins) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema), this movie is never really at the mercy of any of these touchstones; rather it uses or reflects each of them to carry the story a certain distance, but only so that Donovan can pick it up again and proceed further along his own route. And because tortured cinephilia is one of its key and integral themes, it justifies its borrowings in a broader context–as the reflection of a hero who can view life only in relation to movies he’s seen. Donovan can’t be accused of lazy copying and recycling, in the manner of De Palma and most of the other slasher specialists; there’s never any doubt that he has his own story to tell. (Starting out as an actor in several films, including Fellini’s Satyricon, Donovan worked as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on Ludwig and Conversation Piece before turning to theater as a writer and director; his first and only previous feature, State of Wonder, which I haven’t seen, was made about five years ago.)

I should warn readers at this point that Apartment Zero’s baroque, perverse plot contains at least one major delayed revelation, but there’s no way of comprehensively discussing what the film is about without bringing it up here. I won’t attempt, and see no reason, to recount all of the many plot twists, but those who plan to see the movie are herewith invited to leave this review now and return afterward.

The hero is Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth), the operator of a faltering movie revival house. He is not a very likable sort, though there’s something rather touching at times about his entrapment in his multiple neuroses. Reclusive, sexually repressed, resolutely apolitical, and paranoid by nature–a veritable closet case–he lives in an apartment house full of gregarious neighbors whom he studiously avoids. He surrounds himself at home with framed portraits of movie stars, and spends most of the little money he has on his ailing mother’s hospital bills. Although he’s Argentine by birth, he’s been educated in England; as a means of holding others at a distance, he insists on speaking English exclusively and even pretends to be an Englishman who has no knowledge of Spanish. Running into debt, he’s forced to take on a boarder; a mysterious, charismatic American hunk in blue jeans and T-shirt named Jack Carney (Hart Bochner) turns up and immediately wins him over.

Jack claims to be working for a computer company on an exchange program, but Adrian never sees him at work. Pathetically grateful to have Jack for a friend and companion–they spend much of their time together playing a game in which Jack names three actors and Adrian has to name the movie they’re all in–Adrian insists on doing Jack’s laundry, and generally dotes on him. He also displays a jealous possessiveness when Jack begins to befriend the various neighbors in the building, and makes snide remarks about AIDS and casual sex when Jack suggests one night that the two of them “find some girls.”

Meanwhile, we periodically hear reports and/or see evidence of a string of serial murders occurring in Buenos Aires–murders whose methods are said by a local human rights group to resemble those used by the Argentine death squads. And we see Jack beginning to treat various neighbors in the building with the same loving solicitude he shows toward Adrian; like Terence Stamp in Teorema, he becomes a figure of sexual salvation to everyone in the immediate vicinity: a dutiful son to two elderly English ladies, a lover to the lonely and attractive housewife who lives next door, the homoerotic chum of a fellow who says Jack reminds him of his roommate in prep school, and the protector and supporter of a male transvestite who lives in the building.

Eventually we (and Adrian) discover that Jack is not only the serial murderer, but a former mercenary employed by the death squads, and it is the complex unraveling of this character that makes this film something more than just a perverse genre piece. As a multifaceted and thoroughly chilling representation of the face and role that America presents to the rest of the world–an uncanny yet persuasive combination of James Dean, Oliver North, Billy Graham, and Charles Manson (to cite only four possible mythic equivalents)–Jack is as fascinating as any recent screen character that comes to mind, and Hart Bochner’s masterful performance in the part allows every paradoxical nuance in this figure to resonate with maximal intensity. Mercurial, driven by obscure torments (at one point Adrian finds him crying softly in their living room), and generally as laid back as Adrian is agitated, he comes across as a plausible Hollywood icon and all-American jock who also happens to be a remorseless killer.

It should be added that Colin Firth’s performance as Adrian is no less accomplished or effective in intricately conjuring up a character with the same amount of ambiguity and complexity. (It’s virtually the antithesis, by the way, of his performance in the title role of Valmont as a smugly self- assured 18th-century rake.) Whether we regard Adrian or Jack as the “hero” of the story–and whether we regard either character as a simple villain–is one of the pivotal, queasy questions that the film poses for most of its running time, and Donovan makes sure that there are no easy answers. As a passive spectator for most of the film, Adrian is our own uneasy surrogate and principal figure of identification, despite the fact that he mainly comes across as unbearable. As the charismatic “actor” and “star” in the drama, Jack is the principal focus of our and Adrian’s attention, and his perpetual engagement with the world makes him into something of a role model–although he also turns out to be a terrifying lunatic. By the end of the film, Donovan has suggested that these two grotesque yet compelling characters represent not only two alternatives, but also, curiously enough, two sides of the same coin–which is to say, warring (or perhaps complementary) sides of the same personality.

If all of Apartment Zero were realized with the same power and resonance as these two characters, it would be an outright masterpiece. Even apart from Firth and Bochner, the movie still has a lot going for it: a flair for black comedy that crops up at unexpected yet apposite moments; a bombastic, grandiloquent, and highly original score by Elia Cmiral that occasionally suggests some of the emotional directness of Gato Barbieri’s music in Last Tango in Paris; a documentary feeling for Buenos Aires that deftly catches its various moods at different times of day; a witty and apt sense of filmic reference in Adrian’s moviegoing tastes and habits; periodic blackouts between scenes that effectively add to the overall hallucinatory atmosphere.

What the movie lacks, at least in relation to its exalted ambitions, is a consistent style that can do full justice to all of its plot and characters. The film is packed with so many characters and incidents that even at a running time of 124 minutes, there’s a certain sense of haste in the way many of them are dealt with. The various Polanski-like scenes involving the neighbors–which are mainly set in the apartment house’s lobby, on the stairs, or in the hallways–tend to be more strained than the others in their reaching after effects with wide-angle lenses and unconventional camera setups. (More generally, Donovan’s frequent recourse to sudden high or low angles, and a number of other self-conscious devices, such as slurred motion in a couple of places, has a cumulative effect of rhetorical overkill.) The hard center of the film, held by Bochner and Firth’s relationship, is logically and effectively developed, but one occasionally feels a sense of drift when each of these characters is followed for some length on his own–in Adrian’s overwrought scenes with his mother, for instance.

As a consequence of these limitations, the film can be faulted in spots for overreaching, and some viewers may even be inclined to regard it as camp. But as a chilling portrait of the American abroad, it deserves to be regarded with the utmost seriousness, for it tells us something about what we signify to the world outside that we won’t easily find from more familiar sources. At a time when this country is painfully adjusting to a new, less hegemonic role in world affairs, the fact that it maintains a dominant position in the world of movies is rife with contradictions and ambiguities, and Donovan has hit upon an ingenious way of representing this situation. He finds it in the complex interplay between his two leading characters–a decadent and alienated voyeur and a deadly romantic hero, both of them myopic, second-class players locked helplessly in the dreams and memories of another era.