Bright Lights Film Journal

Ho-hum Intrigue in Barcelona: Gaudi Afternoon on DVD

It’s little wonder this yawner didn’t get a theatrical release

Gaudi Afternoon, a 2001 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival entry, never got a theatrical distributor and has finally shown up on video and DVD. Apparently the world has not been holding its collective breath. Based on Barbara Wilson’s mystery novel, it begins and ends with Cassandra (Judy Davis), a high-strung American with chronic wanderlust. (“Judy Davis” and “high strung” are synonymous, but I digress.) We find her in Barcelona, where she is eking out a living as a translator. When Frankie (Marcia Gay Harden) hires Cassandra to locate her wayward husband, the noirish twists and turns begin. But Gaudi Afternoon injects gender play, a custody struggle, bisexuality, and lesbianism into the mix for its own spin on the successive revelations inherent in the genre. Sam Spade had many puzzles to solve, but never who was a girl and who was a boy.

Sad, then, that the film lacks the freshness of its conceit. In its final form it looks more like an Almodovar leftover than anything else. In fact, it is so Almodovaresque one wonders if director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan, She-Devil) decided this was to be a tribute to the bad boy of Spanish cinema. It’s all there – the rich colors, Barcelona back streets, the skewering of sexual and cinematic conventions, and the powerful, elemental women. She even hired Almodovar trouper Maria Barranco (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) as a larger-than-life neighbor-friend, a sort of Catalonian Rhoda Morgenstern.

Gaudi Afternoon gets lost in its own meandering corridors. It starts as a smart little mystery, then takes inordinate pride in the ol’ gender switcheroo. You will be shocked – shocked! – at some of the revelations herein. There is also the whiff of disappointment when our crew of sexual dissidents converge at the conclusion for a soft and fuzzy family moment. This is what we’ve been waiting for?

Let’s put aside the piss and vinegar for just a moment. Bernardo Bonezzi’s gentle score undulates affectionately to the alluring curves of Gaudi’s monuments. Treat the film like an insider’s tour of Barcelona, complete with stops at picturesque cathedrals and nightclubs, and you won’t be sorry. And it does have an intermittently amusing plot featuring a cast of four game actresses. At the top is the inimitable Judy Davis, playing, once again, a harried, boyish, unkempt modern neurotic. As Davis has proved time and again, she is an absolute master at the brittle line delivery. Whenever the script fails her, as it frequently does here, she summons her considerable gifts of timing, gesture, and expression to revive the proceedings.

Davis works hard, and she outshines her co-stars. Harden has the more difficult acting assignment, as a sort of genderfuck 21st-century reconceptualization of the femme fatale. Her effort is not altogether successful, though she knows how to fill tight red and black skirt and sweater ensembles. Lili Taylor shows up to do her patented angry young dyke routine, adding to the film’s accumulated redolence of deja vu. Juliette Lewis, rounding out the quartet of leading players, convincingly inhabits the thankless role of a homily-spewing California hippie chick who washes her sprouts down with vodka. Memo to Seidelman: Jennifer Saunders, Paul Mazursky, and Woody Allen, among others, have already strip-mined the comic potential out of the new age hypocrite.

One senses that Seidelman sought to honor enduring movie conventions (missing person, mystery woman, the chase, locale as character, the hero’s transformation) while frosting them with a greater freedom to portray sex, gender, and alternative families. But that freedom has been around for a long time, getting a head start way back in 1959 when Osgood discovers the secret of Daphne in Some Like It Hot. Forty-three years later, Gaudi Afternoon looks like a stale late entry in the game. It’s not naughty, but it wants to be. So much for indelible images. The film disappears like a helium balloon let loose in the wind.

The quality of Home Vision’s anamorphic (1.66:1) digital transfer of Victim (from the legendary Janus library) can’t be faulted; it captures equally well the bleak wintry whites and velvety blacks of the cinematography. Extras include an informative insert essay by David Thomson and the remarkable theatrical trailer in which even the “omniscient trailer voice” can’t quite say “the word”: “They are all victims … victims of … what?” Even better is a half-hour interview with Bogarde shot soon after Victim by the BBC. It’s both amusing and revealing of the time, as the interviewer tries but fails to impress on the bemused Bogarde how problematic his choice of Victim might have been: “You must feel very strongly on this subject to risk losing possibly a large part of your following by appearing in such a bitterly controversial part.” Of course, the interviewer may have known what most people didn’t at the time, that Bogarde was in fact gay himself. Ironically, unlike his character Melville Farr, Bogarde was never forthcoming about his private life (with his longtime companion Tony Forwood, once the husband of actress Glynis Johns). His role in Victim showed bravery enough for 1961, and must have been as much as he could do at the time.

One senses that Seidelman sought to honor enduring movie conventions (missing person, mystery woman, the chase, locale as character, the hero’s transformation) while frosting them with a greater freedom to portray sex, gender, and alternative families. But that freedom has been around for a long time, getting a head start way back in 1959 when Osgood discovers the secret of Daphne in Some Like It Hot. Forty-three years later, Gaudi Afternoon looks like a stale late entry in the game. It’s not naughty, but it wants to be. So much for indelible images. The film disappears like a helium balloon let loose in the wind.