Judge Adam Arseneau should have been a chiropractor.
"I should have been a chiropractor."
Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize back in 1989, Apartment Zero is a relatively unknown psychological drama set in the steamy darkness of Buenos Aires with a really, really, freakily young Colin Firth. Paranoid, steamy, and anxious, it is a fine example of a thriller creating all kinds of angst and tension without actually doing a single thing thrilling.
Facts of the Case
Adrian (Colin Firth, The English Patient, Bridget Jones's Diary) is a single man who lives alone in Buenos Aires and cares for his mentally ill mother. He runs an obscure film revival house which gets painfully few attendees. He frets, he fusses, he obsesses about movies, and he does his best to keep the hell away from the other tenants in his building. They all find him to be anti-social, but genial; a bit strange, perhaps. He lives in Apartment 10, but the number "1" has fallen off the door.
He puts an ad in the newspaper for a tenant to share the flat, but is mortified by the talkative and friendly applicants who show up at his door. He is ready to give up the search, until the arrival of Jack (Hart Bochner, Anywhere But Here, Break Up), a handsome American with a movie-star appearance. Adrian is at first reluctant, but soon grows increasingly attached to his new roommate.
But Jack is not like Adrian—he enjoys contact with others, both verbal and physical. As Jack begins forming relationships with the other tenants, Adrian looks on with increasing suspicion and horror at his roommate's actions. Having always kept people at healthy arm's length, he is extremely wary and suspicious of them, feeling they have hostile intent towards him.
As Adrian's paranoia increases, he begins to grow more and more erratic, soon starting to suspecting Jack of being duplicitous towards him. Convinced that Jack is hiding something from him, he begins digging, but what he finds is thoroughly unexpected—and dangerous.
Gritty and noir-influenced in its paranoia, Apartment Zero is a strange, sweaty, and suspicious film. At the center of the tale resides a peculiar protagonist who is something of a sociopath. Adrian is tense, neurotic, withdrawn, socially stunted, and fairly remorseless. His new roommate Jack is quite the opposite, quickly forming attachments (wink, wink) with all those around him, male and female, much to the discomfort of his neurotic roommate. Petrified of forming relationships or attachments with anyone else, Adrian begins falling into a spiral of self-doubt, suspicion, and jealousy, convincing himself that Jack is not only being duplicitous with him, but is hiding something larger, something more sinister about his nature. It is hard to tell what Adrian is more afraid of—that Jack may have dark secrets and not be the person he claims to be, or that Jack will suddenly abandon Adrian and leave him alone again.
In a nutshell, that's Apartment Zero. It is a film composed entirely of shadows and suggestion, of suspicion and paranoia, with little in the way of thrills or drama. All the tension is built between Adrian and Jack, who receive healthy doses of character development as we see that they share a bond. It is a unique film that owes much to the classics of noir cinema, full of suggestive shadows and deep texture, and makes much reference to the golden age of Hollywood. Adrian, who runs a revival movie house, worships at the altar of Hollywood stars like Brando and Dean, and Jack personifies all that he loves about the cinema—or, more accurately perhaps, all that he loathes about himself. Apartment Zero is a calculated and constructed film for cinema geeks to revel in, full of movie trivia, art-house references, and homage.
Thematically, Apartment Zero bears many similarities to other cerebral thrillers, like Roman Polanski's strange and paranoid The Tenant, with both films wrapped up in their own delusions, mania, and chronic apartment-dwelling. Other parts bear some resemblance to films like The Talented Mr. Ripley—the exotic locale and sexually ambiguous protagonist who may or may not be killing a whole variety of people. The compulsion, mental illness, and ongoing issues about true identity all ring true. Toss in a little of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (more on that later) and you're good to go. Like its companions, Apartment Zero is smart and subtle, a film more interested in mood and atmosphere than anything particularly exciting or dramatic.
As moderately obscure cult movies go, Apartment Zero is not widely-known but, ironically, the one element that people do remember about the film is not really of any importance. The film arguably contains some slight homoerotic elements; nothing shocking or pornographic, mind you, but maybe enough to make the more repressed of us squirm uncomfortably in their seats, maybe. The slight sexual tension between Adrian and Jack is relevant to the analysis of the film as a whole and adds to the tragic element of Adrian's undoing—yet another way he cannot connect to anyone—but from a controversy standpoint, it barely blips the radar. To be blunt, I've been to high-school football games that were gayer.
This DVD presents the original theatrical version of Apartment Zero. About seven minutes of footage were omitted from the previous release of the film, further obscuring the already obscured homosexual undertones between Jack and Adrian. Adrian is enamored by Jack from the first moment they meet. Although nothing sexual occurs between them (or any other males), like everything else in Apartment Zero, much is suggested and left hanging for the audience to interpret. It is fairly easy to read between the lines here, but also entirely possible for someone to watch the movie and not catch a single implication.
Microscopic sexual overtones aside, Adrian indeed becomes more and more enraptured with his roommate to the point of his own decline into madness and destruction. Here is where another film released in the same year, David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, becomes relevant for comparison. Both films have similar elements of sexual tension between its protagonists and dabble in the uncanny element of doppelgangers, taken literally in Dead Ringers but applied more loosely here. In Apartment Zero, Jack looks like Adrian, sort of, and Jack even looks like their neighbor. In fact, all the men in Adrian's life bear a semi-resemblance to him—tall, lean, black hair, and strong features, similarities that Jack exploits. Even the cross-dressers look the same. Jack is frightening and sexy all at the same time; a slick talker full of mystery and suggestion who stares out at the world like a predatory animal. Almost immediately, Jack is revealed to be duplicitous, though his motives are not immediately clear.
Apartment Zero hasn't aged too well. It feels fairly dated by today's standards, with some unintentionally hilarious sequences towards the end, but it crafts a noticeable element of uncomfortable dread and skin-crawling discomfort quite well. It stays timeless, like a good Cronenberg film, minus the visceral imagery of course. I like this kind of film, the kind that provokes more baseline anxieties than simple murdering or jumping out and yelling "boo" moments. Films like this dance upon anxieties internal, issues of sexuality and lust, repressed violence, and jealousy. Interesting enough, the film is co-scribed by a very young David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Spider-Man, et al). Very at-odds with his later work, to say the least.
For this new DVD presentation, the transfer has been digitally re-mastered from the theatrical edit and is much improved from its original DVD presentation. The cinematography is dark and moody, with mad close-in shots (mad like Alice in Wonderland) that frame its subjects with glints of mischief of discomfort in their eyes. Despite having the appearance of a made-for-TV film, the direction is first-rate, with elegant noir-styled shadows and framing. Cameras hover precariously above and below their subjects, slowly creeping in and out in dramatic fashion. Shadows dance suggestively over faces like a crime film from the 1940s. Everything about Apartment Zero, from its overly stylized lighting and camera work to its constant self-reference to classic cinema, suggests that this is a film created by some serious fans of the art. Color tones are muted, but detail is sharp overall, with solid black levels despite the overall grain.
The Dolby 2.0 mix included is fairly pedantic and weak—thin on the bass and muted somewhat. Thankfully, the DVD includes a very well-realized 5.1 translation, opening up the sounds of the city, increasing the bass, and giving the entire presentation a shot of adrenaline. The new surround mode is fantastic, though admittedly mixed fairly conservatively, with little action in the rear channels. I love the ambient wind and rain of the city outside and the honking of angry traffic, always oppressive and ever-present. The score is marvelous, composed of crazed violins and groaning cellos that sound like an Alfred Hitchcock tribute album recorded by drunken sun-drenched Spaniards on the beach. My only beef with the audio is the score's habit of suddenly going from zero to eleven, blasting out my speakers.
As special features go, Apartment Zero dishes out material directly to the hard-core aficionados, with two full-length commentary tracks: one from director Martin Donovan and one from writer/producer David Koepp and…err, Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven). Why he gets to be included, I have no idea. The only thing remotely associated with Soderbergh and Apartment Zero that I can find is that Soderbergh also had a film submitted in 1989 at Sundance, which obviously makes him the perfect candidate for…a commentary…track. Anyway, both are fine tracks, full of detail and analysis, expert commentary, and ruminations sure to delight fans yearning for some insight into this complex film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Apartment Zero is a challenging film, and worse, one that appears deceptively simple on the surface. Like other cerebral-minded films, Apartment Zero is revered in small circles to the point of fanaticism, but virtually unknown in larger ones. This kind of introspective film may not appear as such, especially to people browsing idly through the video store, seeing the packaging, and thinking "Ooh, a thriller!"
I assure you, my friend, the only person thrilled that evening will be the owner of the video shop, counting their money.
Take care with such a film, for it contains much to appreciate and dig into, but requires some massive effort on the part of the viewer. A complex web of emotions and dependencies to unravel may not be what you had in mind in the thriller section of your video store, looking for some movie where a girl gets stalked by a knife-wielding creep.
Apartment Zero is the kind of movie that cinema nerds endlessly fawn over and analyze. Deeply cerebral and multi-layered, it exploits root anxieties of loneliness, isolation, and sexual tension. Simply put, there is enough material here to write a book about. As thrillers go, it is admittedly a tad on the dry side, but the subtext is endlessly compelling and fascinating for those with the desire to go rooting. For anyone looking for a challenging and mesmerizing film that will take repeated viewings to fully appreciate, meet your new favorite movie.
A top-notch thriller with brains. How come I've never heard of this movie before?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Union Station Media
• Commentary track with director Martin Donovan
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