Yes, Davis Eyes = cheese. But it was the name the Inpress editors gave my review column when I stepped in as substitute a while back. If and when I come up with something that’s offers delightful wordplay on either of my names, I may well swap it out. Or maybe I won’t. Stop judging me!
So what’s Davis Eyes all about? Well, depending on my motivation, imagination and stamina, I’ll endeavour to cast a critical eye over what I view as an underappreciated film. Starting with ‘A’, I’ll make my way through the alphabet on what I hope is a regular basis, giving a few little-seen personal favourites their time in the spotlight.
And it all begins with this ‘un:
The word ‘Zero’ lends the name of a movie or a book that certain something, I tend to find. I’ve given pretentious serial-killer thrillers like Suspect Zero and grisly zombie-rampage potboilers like Patient Zero more attention than they may have deserved because of their cool titles and invariably I’ve been kinda disappointed.
I was not, however, disappointed with Apartment Zero, a lurid 1988 psycho-thriller/melodrama that I’ve described in the past as “like Almodovar remaking Persona with dudes”. (And it’s that kind of incisive film criticism that has seen my phone calls to Margaret and David so far unanswered.)
The hothouse atmosphere of this one is hinted at early on, when the violin-heavy score gradually gets more and more frenzied as the opening credits run over establishing shots of the Argentinean city of Buenos Aires, suggesting that what may have justifiably been regarded as a Hitchcock-style thriller just might take a few unexpected detours into some strange, unfamiliar turf.
Also, the setting of Buenos Aires may seem like strange, unfamiliar turf to viewers – okay, to unworldly old me – more at home with stories set in Australia, the US or the UK. Having it take place in a place director Martin Donovan – not the cool character actor from the Hal Hartley movies – describes as “an elegant lady drained by too much suffering” adds a not-unpleasant sense of dislocation and disorientation. What’s down that alley? What’s around that corner? Who knows?
Immediately introducing Colin Firth, crisp English accent firmly in place, after the credits seems to set things right. (That said, it’s a little odd seeing Firth, who has become more handsome as he’s gotten older, in this fresh-faced incarnation. There’s something a little unformed about him here, which works a treat for the role.)
Feels like the Firth time
Firth’s character Adrian LeDuc, the owner of a failing cinema that specialises in revival screenings of Hollywood classics, initially seems like the typical stuffy, awkward Brit. But as he leaves the safety of his cinema and makes his way to his home, his squeamishness when it comes to social interaction indicates that this ain’t the Firth of Bridget Jones’ Diary. No, Adrian is a major-league misanthropic misfit more comfortable with two-dimensional images than three-dimensional people.
Also, he’s got mummy issues that would make Norman Bates mutter “Man, that guy’s fucked-up”.
Of course, our first encounter with the residents of Adrian’s apartment building gives the impression he’s living amongst a grab-bag of Fellini-esque freaks and eccentrics. But it may be the case that we’re seeing them through Adrian’s eyes at this stage, so of course the two old English ladies or the weeping transvestite on the stairs appear a bit grotesque or off-putting.
Between screening movies only a handful of people pay to see and keeping his mother (who is either in the throes of early-onset dementia or suffering some form of mental illness) hospitalised, Adrian is haemorrhaging money. So, in an unfortunate turn of events for a cold fish like our boy, he’s forced to take in a lodger in his cavernous apartment (which is numbered 10 but missing the ‘1’…eh? Eh? Geddit?).
A parade of inappropriate types waltz through but it’s not until Jack Carney (Hart Bochner, perhaps best known as Die Hard’s slimy Ellis) rocks up and hits Adrian with a long, lingering stare (“Got a little Blue Steel goin’ there,” cracks Steven Soderbergh, who provides a fun, lively commentary with screenwriter David Koepp on the DVD) that the perfect roomie is found.
None too subtly, Donovan positions Jack next to a framed pic of James Dean, making it clear that movie uber-buff Adrian feels like he’s lucked into a living arrangement with a real-life movie star. While Bochner has acting chops and some degree of screen presence, however, he doesn’t quite have the X factor that consistently convinces the audience that every other character in Apartment Zero would be eating out of his hand before too long.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Bochner does a great job – there are scenes when he absolutely nails it – but there are times when it’s apparent he’s acting. In a story like this, though, where identity can be a pretty fluid construct, maybe that’s exactly what Bochner was aiming for. In that case, then, well done him.
One thing the introduction of Jack does for Apartment Zero is amp up what Soderbergh describes as the film’s “pervasive atmosphere of predatory sexuality”. Indeed, Bochner strides through his early scenes with such cocksure bravado you can almost smell the Sex Panther emanating from his pores. But his efforts to ingratiate himself with the needy Adrian (oh, and the occasions when he’s found weeping in his bed) suggest a need to be loved/desired/needed. And maybe a guilty conscience.
Lock up your daughters. And your sons. And your cat.
Jack also ingratiates himself with the building’s other tenants, much to the reclusive Adrian’s chagrin. He has an afternoon sherry with the English ladies. He listens to the neglected wife as she reveals her daddy complex. He acts as a kind of surrogate for the macho ladykiller’s teenage man-crush. And after saving the transvestite from a movie-theatre cruise gone awry, he reassures him/her that he/she is beautiful. (Jack’s being very generous here.) Hell, he even persuades a cat into coming down from a high ledge!
Whether Jack fucks anyone is never made clear. But he seduces the hell out of everyone, including Adrian. Adrian’s no fool but he’s clearly yearning for someone, perhaps not a sexual partner (whether he’s straight or gay, Adrian seems repulsed by sex in general) but a soulmate or a kindred spirit. And Jack picks up on this, making it both touching and disturbing when he tells Adrian “I’m saying you’re special…I’m special too”.
Ah, but Jack’s special qualities might not jibe with Adrian’s. After all, there’s been a wave of brutal killings throughout Buenos Aires…and who do you think might be responsible? (I honestly don’t think this is a spoiler, by the way. Apartment Zero seems more concerned with exploring the murky psychology of its characters than playing out a murder mystery.)
But their shared and complementary complexes could bind the two men, with the ostensibly dominant Jack seemingly willing to be submissive to Adrian by declaring he’ll be “whatever you want me to be” (in answer to the question “Who are you?”). The balance of power appears to shift on a whim, though: After Adrian discovers just how dangerous Jack can be, Jack reassures him – in a chilling throwaway line – that everything will go back to normal when Jack “puts the mask back on”.
Let’s leave it there, shall we? It’s better if you unearth the dark secrets of Apartment Zero and its characters for yourself. See it before some bright spark gets the notion of remaking it with Robert Pattinson as Adrian and Zac Efron as Jack.