Friday, January 15, 2021

Martin Donovan | Apartment Zero

someone special

by Douglas Messerli

Martin Donovan and David Koepp (screenplay), Martin Donovan (director) Apartment Zero / 1988, general release 1989

There are times when a reviewer like myself, often coming to films long after they premiered and were appraised by the critics of the day, has to wonder what otherwise intelligent men and women who regularly write about the cinema were thinking when they wrote their commentaries. I guess what I am really asking is why some films are so universally dismissed that later come to be seen, occasionally by the same critics, as an important or at least substantial work. Anyone who regularly writes reviews and essays as I do realizes that the time in which one sees a work of any genre also effects the way it is perceived. Sometimes what we see in a movie is effected simply by personal matters: how we feel that day, what other works we have recently seen, what is happening in the world around us. There have been far too many times when a work I disliked in the past upon second viewing is later recognized as something quite lovely for me not to admit that one’s personal feelings have no effect on our evaluations, and often I’ve written a second review just to be honest. Certainly, that is why I emphasize in my ongoing critical writings as in this volume that what readers encounter in my pages are my personal feelings and interpretations and, as such, are as fluctuating as any one being is; you might almost describe the long collections of essays and reviews I regularly pen as an autobiography masquerading as cinematic, literary, visual, performative, and social commentary.

      But sometimes, one suspects, the way one sees something is not only dependent upon the personal but upon the way the entire culture at the moment contextualizes a single work of art. Often what we are seeing is just so different from anything we’ve before experienced that we are unable to fairly assimilate it. At other times, we might categorize it as representing a certain worn out genre when it is actually something that we later recognize it as an entirely new way of seeing things. It explains the phenomena that during the height of abstract expressionism most visual art critics had great difficulty in seeing the worth of artists creating painterly naturalist landscapes or portraits.

      I mention all this because I have just finished watching the chic and quite remarkably clever Argentine-British “political thriller” as it is most often described—a genre designation with which I will take issue—Apartment Zero directed by Martin Donovan, which is now quite beloved by many cineastes and moviegoers but was almost universally dismissed upon its release in 1989.

      The New York Times critic Vincent Canby described the film as “hilariously awful,” further commenting that “A good deal of money has been spent on this nonsense, which was shot in Buenos Aires in English. It pretends to be a psychological-political melodrama but plays like the work of a dilettante; that is, the work of someone who wants to make movies, has the means to make them, but doesn’t, as yet, know what he wants to make them about.”

      Kevin Thomas began his Los Angeles Times review by saying, “The one thing you can say for Apartment that they’ve got that numeral in the title right: This overwrought and underdeveloped psychological thriller with heavy-handed political implications adds up to exactly nothing.”

     Even the usually reliable and perceptive critic Dave Kehr writing in the Chicago Tribune characterized the movie as “A definite oddity, though not entirely compelling one [that] turns what might have been a modestly successful psychological thriller into a messily failed art film.”

     Of the reviewers I read, only Peter Travers of Rolling Stone seemed to appreciate the work, even if it was not for the same elements that I most admire it for: “Director and co-writer Martin Donovan, who was born in Argentina and later moved to Europe, displays a keen understanding of the hypocrisy festering beneath the elegant surfaces of his native land. His film, a dazzling mix of mirth and menace, is that rare find: a thriller that plumbs the violence of the mind.”

     Some day I will have to explore more deeply what was going on socially and culturally in the end of that decade that so confused these critics and obfuscated what is now so very evident—at least from my point of view—that Donovan’s work is an homage of sorts to icons of queer film history using the genres of noirs, murder mysteries, political thrillers, psychotic slasher films, and old-fashioned love stories to reveal its tango of a convoluted and often black comedic-based plot. And who better to achieve this than Martin Donovan (born Carlos Enrique Varela y Peralta Ramos), who for several years served as Luchino Visconti’s assistant and acted in Fellini’s Satyricon and in other roles.* 

      My superficial guess is that it might have something to do with the AIDS epidemic—which the film even references—which in conjunction with the fact that few critics even mention that this film’s major character, Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth) is a closeted gay man who owns a theater that features revivals such as Compulsion (Richard Fleischer’s film about the gay Leopold and Loeb murder) along with festivals devoted to gay icons James Dean and Montgomery Clift seems to suggest to me that gays in 1989 suddenly had become invisible or, at least, beings who, given the AIDS crisis, one no longer wanted to talk about—especially as in this film when they were still sexually on the prowl. 

     Rather, cinema reporters chose to describe Adrian as “unhinged,” “psychotic,” “a fussy, overattentive and intensely repressed film buff with an incestuous passion for his crazy hospitalized mother” (Thomas), “repressed and paranoid.” There are mentions of homoerotic overtones, but no outright admissions I came across that Adrian is simply a lonely homosexual seeking the man of his cinema fantasies, a role which the James Dean lookalike—at least in his eyes—to whom he rents out his mother’s old  room, Jack Carney (Hart Bochner) quickly fulfills.

       Yes, Adrian also fits many of the adjectives hurled at him above, but who wouldn’t given his precarious financial condition, his mother’s mental breakdown, and his having daily to survive in a city where everyday men and women are dying—a situation many Buenos Aires young people had to face in their recent history of the “Dirty War” in which between 1976 and 1983 anywhere from 9,000 to 30,000 people, many of them students, militants, trade unionists, writers, journalists, and artists were murdered or “disappeared” and the rise of AIDS—be psychologically on edge, similar to how many of us feel today in a world plagued by COVID and the mad machinations of the US President? 

    Throughout this film another 14 new mutilated bodies are discovered, deaths which the new government refuses to investigate. Is the murderer(s) leftover from the former rightest regime, or does this represent a new kind of political terrorism? Can you blame Adrian for not wanting much to do with his nosey, very eccentric neighbors (who daily gather upon the grand staircase to discuss the possible existence of mice in their apartments or the sad affair of the death of one of their lovers many decades ago) especially when you have been raised in England and pretend to speak only English, although, in fact, as a native Argentinian Adrian speaks fluent Spanish? His own history and behavior is as eccentric as theirs, but given his former family wealth, his upbringing, and a fear of being recognized as a gay man, he  can’t admit to that fact. It’s better simply being perceived as “queer” than actually being one.

       As an unnamed on-line aficionado of the now cult film put it, “Hart Bochner...makes a star entrance that seems to come straight out of Adrian/Colin's cinematic mind. The star has arrived and everything is about to change. Everything will be destined to cater his comfort and wellbeing. Laundry, breakfasts. The star is essential in the movie of Colin/Adrian's life. Hart Bochner—his character's name is Jack Carney, "carne" in Spanish means "meat"—realizes very soon the power he has over Adrian but he doesn't know how to use it.”

        Before long this sexy piece of meat is even playing Adrian’s favorite game of guessing movie titles by naming three unlikely actors starring in them (such as Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, and Vincent Price. Answer: Ben Hur). And indeed Jack seems not only willing to play his imaginary lover, but actively subscribes to it, describing Adrian, undergoing a fit of paranoia, as being “special.” Adding “I’m special too.” If what he seems to be suggesting, however, is that they both share a secret bond of sexuality, what we later discover is that he is more likely admitting that he and Adrian are both terribly psychologically troubled. I’ll come back to that in a moment. Yet in these early days of their friendship not only does Jack mostly play along with Adrian’s domestic fantasy, but encourages it, at one point even suggesting that Adrian join him in a sexual ménage à trois—something which clearly Adrian is not ready to explore given the fact that he probably hasn’t yet even had sex with a man.

     The problem, at least from Adrian’s point of view, is that Jack has quickly made friends with nearly all the neighbors the apartment 0 tenant detests. Not only does Jack bed the married woman next door, Laura (Mirella D’Angelo) who finds him to be a kind of comforting “father” confessor, and delights the two elderly British sisters Margret (Dora Bryan) and Mary Louis McKinney (Liz Smith) by simply listening to their meaningless tales of the past, but he makes friends with another male neighbor Carlos Sanchez-Verne (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) who may be bisexual as Jack appears to be (at one point when Carlos goes to the bathroom, Jack joins him, making a date to have a drink), and saves the building’s transvestite Vanessa (James Telfer) from the assault of an unwilling customer, awarding her savior with a special beloved necklace with a cross, describing herself as both “down and happy,” a person who lives in the dark where, she admits, she has been called many different things. “In the dark I’ve been called beautiful. I’ve been loved in the dark.”

       Yet obviously the real person in the dark, or at least in the shadows, is Jack himself, who ultimately Adrian suspects of lying to him and, in his long nights out, metaphorically speaking, is sexually cheating on him. When Jack disappears for several days in a row, Adrian falls into a drunken stupor stumbling so noisily about his apartment that the neighbors become alarmed. Has this unfriendly neighbor actually done something to Jack? If he has killed Jack, they wonder if he has chopped the body and taken in out in a suitcase to bury throughout the city, reminding any film buff obviously of Alfred Hitchcock’s villain in Rear Window. Indeed they might almost serve as the types” of neighbors who Jeff watches through the window while his broken leg heals. 

     Finally growing more and more worried by Jack’s absence, they force themselves into Adrian’s movie memento-laden apartment, demanding that he explain Jack’s disappearance. As Adrian attempts to escape their clutches, they grab him and unintentionally defenestrate him, causing Adrian to fall from the top floor to the lobby below—both they and the audience presuming he is now dead. Suddenly we realize that Adrian’s seemingly irrational fears of his neighbors has been vindicated.

      At that very moment Jack returns, goes to him, picks him up and carries him like a pietà back to apartment 0, washing his bloodied body and stitching his wounds which allow his roommate to survive. Self-evidently, this act draws them even closer together, as later Jack begins describing Adrian as his brother and designating the apartment as “our house.”

      Throughout the film Donovan has made several references to other films, including a scene from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and another from Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca, both works of lovers abandoned and endangered. In another more comic instance, Adrian clumsily attempts to shadow Jack on his way to the company for which he has claimed he works, a scene that will remind some of Audrey Hepburn’s attempt to trail Cary Grant in Charade as she too suspects the veracity of her lover.

      But of far more importance to Donovan’s work is the relationship of Adrian and his mother which cannot help but recall another of Hitchcock’s masterworks, Psycho. We’ve already seen his neighbors fearful that Adrian may have killed his would-be lover, whom he admits to his mad mother has betrayed him. And, as Adrian begins to uncover who Jack really is—a hired assassin working for a para-military guerilla group named CU2—we can only wonder whether out of a sense of duty he might kill Jack to assuage the guilt he obviously feels for his mother’s death. Might he, like the Anthony Perkins character Norman Bates, actually become the mother determined to kill her son’s desired lover? Certainly, the psychological sexual confusions of Norman are similar to what we observe in the behavior of Adrian LeDuc, who like Norman has imaginary conversations with his mother both in her presence and alone.

      With black comic delight, however, the director completely reverses everything after Jack first steals Adrian’s passport to escape Argentina when he is told his services are no longer needed by higher ups. When he discovers the passport has expired, he sexually solicits a dark haired man that looks somewhat like him and kills him either before or after sex. Yet in trying to match his own photo with his victim’s in the dead man’s passport, he fails again, and is forced to return “home” to Adrian.

      He almost immediately faces yet another barrier, however, when the ticket seller at Adrian’s movie house, Claudia (Francesca d’Aloia), after having recognized Jack in a screening with her anti-terrorist organization of a movie recounting the exploits of CU2, confronts her bosses’ tenant with what she knows. Adrian returns home from his mother’s funeral to find Jack still covered with Claudia’s blood, her corpse laid out on the floor.

      “Don’t worry, I’ll clean everything up,” Jack tells him, as if his act were just a matter of bad boy have mussed up the room. Surprisingly, Adrian determines to help him, as the two pack up Claudia in trash bags, stuffing her into a trunk (with Jack quipping, “Should we chop her up to help her better fit?”) and dragging the corpse to the car, caught in the act, much as the villain in Rear Window, by neighbors who Jack tells he’s off to California in the morning. The now truly “married”—in the meaning of “to join intimately or unite”—couple toss her corpse into a garbage landfill, with Adrian, however, still showing some decency by scrambling down to unsuccessfully cover up Claudia’s face which has become exposed in the toss. 

        This is a new Adrian, who even suggests to Jack, “Why don’t we just...why don’t we go to California? Why don’t we just go to California...together.”

         Jack’s response is once more brilliantly ambiguous: “O Adrian. You know I have never shared this with anyone. It was just a job when I came to help these people clear this country. That doesn’t count. I was just takin’ orders. Those bastards fucked me and no one wanted to take responsibility. When it was over those bastards said you’re dead, you don’t exist, no one can touch you. As if that mattered. Adrian, California together? [a pause] Don’t you dare change your mind.”

       Adrian squirms a bit, “This may be an everyday event for you, but for me....”

       Jack interrupts, “Oh I know, I know, first time for me too was kind of weird. Jesus, I was what...17? I was trained...but actually...I kind of loved it the first time. You’ll get used to it.”

    Certainly, what Adrian hears in these words is Jack’s recounting of his own first homosexual experiences at age 17, the standard coming of age gay saga. But we know what he really is talking about is his first instance of killing. There is something almost comedically delightful in Jack’s confession—near the end of a movie of several confessions—and Adrian’s totally guileless miscomprehension. One wishes almost that like a queer Bonnie and Clyde they might ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

          Yet Adrian, strangely, is not yet as completely unhinged as Jack is, and by the time they reach their home base 0, he realizes that their trip to California is truly a pipe dream; that in order to prevent Jack from leaving and, perhaps, even with some residual sense of moral outrage he knows he must kill the man he loves. He lunges for Jack’s guns, with Jack easily topping him and putting him into a stranglehold just long enough we are almost certain he has now killed his 16th victim. Yet Adrian comes gasping back to life, realizing that at the last moment Jack has actually been unable to go through with the act, the audience now suspecting that perhaps the totally mad Jack in fact does have “special” feelings for his only real friend.

     Adrian, however, not to be waylaid in his intentions lunges again for the gun, capturing it as Jack grabs the wrist of the hand in which he holds it, almost as if slowly positioning it so that when it finally go off the bullet will hit him straight in the temple, which seconds later it does. Adrian is now no longer a virgin—at least with regard to murder.

     Adrian, however, not to be waylaid in his intentions lunges again for the gun, capturing it as Jack grabs the wrist of the hand in which he holds it, almost as if slowly positioning it so that when it finally go off the bullet will hit him straight in the temple, which seconds later it does. Adrian is now no longer a virgin—at least with regard to murder.

     In the next scene, the always intrusive neighbors are knocking once more like Poe’s raven at Adrian’s door, asking if he has had any word of Jack from California. We observe Adrian spraying an air freshener around the room before answering.

     As the neighbors leave, Jack returns to his room where it is now revealed he is pleasantly engaged in a breakfast conversation with the rotting corpse of Jack.

     The final scene of this amazing film shows us several patrons leaving a late feature at Adrian’s  movie theater. Adrian finally appears, a cigarette in his mouth, dressed in an open shirt (instead of the suit and tie he has worn through most of the rest of the movie) tucked inside Jack’s leather coat. In a work that has also spoken several times of doppelgängers and doubles, we must assume that Adrian has now become Jack, just as Norman Bates in Psycho had, by that film’s end, become his own mother.

      As composer Elia Cmiral’s evocative tango-like refrains which have woven the parts of this film together swell, we can almost hear the director far in the background shout, Act 1, Scene 1 Psycho: Adrian returns home to make love to Jack’s skeletal remains.


*Four insights on Donovan and his family: As a young boy Donovan grew desperate to see the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, pleading with his mother, “Why can’t I see A Streetcar Named Desire?” His mother replied: “Because you’re 8. Go wash your hands and come to the table.” At ll he wrote a fan letter to filmmaker Luchino Visconti (addressing the envelope “Luchino Visconti, Italy, Europe”).

      Martin’s elder brother was a teacher at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción in Santa Fe Province, where in 1963 the boy was sent to study. His brother, Eduardo Peralta Ramos SJ, was the spiritual father of Jorge Bergoglio, who we now know as Pope Francis.

      A year after Martin began studies there he left both the school and home, leaving behind a letter to his mother: Don’t cry mama, I need to find myself....”

Los Angeles, January 15, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2020).


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