Judge George Hatch thinks this film should have been called "Naked Came the Bulgarian," and he'll tell you why. But don't try to second-guess him; it's not for the reason you think.
"I'd give my life for you."—Daniel
Daniel (Fernando Guillén Cuervo, El Caballero Don Quijote) is a successful, middle-aged consultant in Madrid, as are most of the other gay men in his stereotypical clique. They call each other "girl" and throw extravagant, themed parties like "Hello, Hollywood" and "Welcome to Old Rome." But these greetings aren't intended for themselves; they're just a way of inviting illegal immigrants, most of whom are Bulgarian, to scarf up the free food and, in turn, provide the entertainment. Some are simply delicious eye candy, but most are looking for money and a semi-permanent roof over their heads. Kyril (Dritan Biba, El Soñador) is one of the latter, and, after firmly planting himself in Daniel, he secures a place in Daniel's heart and home.
Daniel, of course, thinks he's found true love, but the manipulative Kyril isn't your ordinary hustler. He wants to make a big jump from being a refugee who sleeps in stolen cars to working for the Bulgarian mafia that has infiltrated Madrid's criminal underground. He needs a "patsy." Who better than Daniel, the ineffectual milquetoast?
Daniel suspects something's up when the penniless Kyril flashes 5,000 dollars in his face and tells him to dole it out when asked. Next, Daniel secrets a large suitcase for him that may contain drugs, guns, or…something deadlier. He hasn't failed to notice the blisters and scabs on the back of Kyril's hands and now knows for sure that Kyril is involved in "some dangerous adventure." So, what does Daniel do? He fantasizes about being a "gangster's moll…the whore accomplice to an irresistible villain."
In no time, Daniel is endorsing Kyril's immigration papers, cosigning exorbitant Euro-loans, and dealing with the sinister official of a Bulgarian petrochemical plant. When Kyril's girlfriend, Kalina, arrives from Germany, Daniel blithely invites her to stay and concludes, "Ours was a special family in which they shared everything of mine, and only I shared him." Jealousy and resentment quickly ensue.
The film's pace picks up a bit in the second half when a few more twists are thrown in: a trip to Bulgaria for Kyril's wedding to Kalina and Daniel's near seduction by one of Kyril's younger relatives, who, no doubt, is also looking for a sugar daddy. And, in a scene lifted from Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, we finally learn what was in that suitcase. No spoiler here because the film's tagline is a giveaway: "Beware of love in radioactive packages."
Bulgarian Lovers plays out like one of those novels in which the first chapter is written by a popular crime writer, who then passes it along to others, each of whom has to extend the initial idea and add a new element in his or her chapter. Naked Came the Manatee is such an example, written by 13 contributors. But these novels usually compromise individual styles and lead to less than satisfying conclusions. Bulgarian Lovers is also a collective effort and could have been called "Naked Came the Bulgarian." The screenplay was adapted from Eduardo Mendicutti's novel by director Eloy de la Iglesia (El Diputado) and the star, Fernando Guillén Cuervo, in collaboration with Antonio Hens. A lot of ideas are thrown into the pot, but none of them brings the film to a simmer, let alone a boil.
Daniel's frequent narration to the camera conjures up Peter Finch's character (also named Daniel) in John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). But instead of the soul-searching self-recognition so poignantly expressed in Schlesinger's film, these lame reflections simply tell us, "Look at what an idiotic fool I am." Daniel is such a fool that one feels no pity for him at all, only embarrassment.
Bulgarian Lovers is billed as a comedy (with no laughs) and a thriller (with no suspense) and is targeted toward a gay audience. There is the requisite full-frontal nudity, but it hardly justifies sitting through the film's 92-minute running time. The performances are decent to lackluster, and director de la Iglesia barely pulls the film into a coherent whole. The cinematography by Néstor Calvo (Nos miran) is good, if unimaginative, and Antonio Meliveo's (Fugitivas) score is fine when it doesn't fall back on the clichéd accordion music that seems to be a staple in foreign films.
The most fascinating and enjoyable aspect of Bulgarian Lovers is the clever editing by José Salcedo (Descongélate!). He puts his own unique spin on old-fashioned Hollywood dissolves and screen-wipes. One scene may "melt" or "collapse" into another; elsewhere, he singles out an item and zooms in. Daniel is in bed wearing a black eye mask for sleeping. Suddenly, the mask fills the screen, and it fades into a black-and-white scene in a club; this image then slowly turns into full color. And, working with a special-effects team, he makes Daniel's apocalyptic hallucination the film's single stunning set-piece. Salcedo has won several awards for his expertise and creativity, and based on his work here, I'd like to see a few more of his films.
TLA Releasing's transfer is excellent, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is crisp and clear. A friend who speaks Spanish and had seen the film before, confirmed that the English subtitles were fairly accurate and nothing was lost in translation. The extras include director's notes and production notes, neither of which offers any clues to why this film was made in the first place. A photo gallery and trailers for Bear Cub, Cowboys and Angels, and My Wife Maurice round out the package.
Bulgarian Lovers gave me a sense of déjà vu. When will gay men learn to stop falling heels-over-head with street trash? And when will directors stop making films about them? Everything is so utterly predictable that this premise is rapidly becoming a sub-genre. And like the proverbial "bad penny," they keep turning up.
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