Apartment Zero (1988)

Brian Holcomb

Roman Polanski’s shadow looms large, here. His signature themes of alienation, paranoia, and identity are built into the plot and the tone is his specialty: part thriller, part jet black comedy.

Apartment Zero

Director: Martin Donovan
Cast: Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Dora Bryan, Liz Smith, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, James Telfer, Mirella D’Angelo, Francesca d’Aloja, Elvia Andreoli
Distributor: Anchor Bay
MPAA rating: R
Studio: The Summit Company
First date: 1988
US DVD Release Date: 2007-02-20

Maybe it was no accident that the decade in which AIDS first reared its ugly head produced an astonishing number of films concerning ambiguously and dangerously repressed homosexual protagonists. That these were mostly thrillers featuring homicidal homosexuals with phallic knives in the closet was perhaps not surprising, either. The subtext seemed to mirror the homophobic fear of a “Gay Plague” reaching into the homes of the straight middle class and pulling them out of their own collective closet and into a coffin.

Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man(1983), William Friedkin’s Cruising(1980), Jack Sholder’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge(1985), Martin Campbell’s Criminal Law (1988), Curtis Hanson’s Bad Influence(1990), Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female(1992) and of course, Apartment Zero, are all part of this odd Sub-subgenre. Criminal Law in particular lays its subtext quite bare: While making love to his girlfriend, Gary Oldman stops in terror when he looks down and imagines that he’s on top of Kevin Bacon, instead.

Apartment Zero had a limited release in 1988 but has built a strong reputation since then as a “sleeper” gem. The script by director Martin Donovan and co-screenwriter David Koepp is set in Buenos Aires, Argentina where Adrian Le Duc (Colin Firth) owns a movie house that screens classic American movies. Adrian certainly has his troubles. Business is slow and his mother (Elvia Andreoli) is in a sanitarium slowly dying from a mental illness. The nosy tenants in the apartment building he owns are all suspicious of him and treat his need for privacy with fear and disdain. In financial trouble, Adrian puts aside his privacy and places an ad looking for a roommate to help him pay the bills.

After going through the long line of crazies and vagabonds looking for a low rent home, he meets Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), an American who seems to be the living embodiment of the movie stars whose publicity photos he has hanging all around his apartment. Carney has a certain charm about him that seems almost manufactured. But Adrian is taken with him from the moment he arrives and almost begs him to take the room. He tries to mold Jack into his best friend by teaching him about old movies and fittingly, Jack’s first screening at the movie house is Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion, a thinly-veiled version of the notorious Leopold-Loeb murder case. Like that famous pair, Adrian and Jack play an unspoken game of power and influence. Adrian’s xenophobia has left him friendless and quite lonely. With Jack, he immediately feels a need to build an intimacy. He tells him a secret. He was actually born in Argentina but 16 years of living in England have given him a strong foreign accent. He likes to let everyone think that he’s English since that “creates a comfortable distance, you know.”

The pair settle into domesticity, with Adrian doing both the cooking and the laundry while denying that he’s some kind of “Felix Unger” in an offhand reference to a more famous oddly heterosexual odd couple. To his chagrin, Adrian watches as Jack begins to develop relationships with his despised tenants. He is uncomfortable with his latent feelings for Jack and this leads him to suspect Jack is not exactly who he says he is and to try and find out what it is he is doing in Argentina. A series of violent murders all over Buenos Aires do not suggest that he is merely a tourist.

In many ways this is a story that could happen anywhere. Paris, London, LA, New York, or Rome all have their own share of introverted sociopaths. But the choice of Buenos Aires expands the scope of the story in ways no other city could really match. Back in 1988, Argentina could still feel the ghostly presence of the death squads that moved through the country murdering political rivals and causing innocent civilians to “disappear” at will. The movie unexpectedly opens up a strange subplot involving the political group that his solitary employee, Claudia (Francesca d’Aloja) has joined. Adrian allows them to use his theater on dark nights to screen footage of supposedly dead but still wanted mercenaries who were part of the terror squads years earlier.

Roman Polanski’s shadow looms large over this film. His signature themes of alienation, paranoia, and identity are built into the plot and the tone is his specialty: part thriller, part jet black comedy. For the most part the film is very effective. It’s only when the filmmakers want to be all things at once that the delicate house of cards comes crashing down. It’s in the final third that the film intentionally shifts the point of view away from Adrian to a more objective view of all involved. It is necessary in terms of wrapping up the loose ends of this plot, but in many ways it is also a let down after the studied ambiguity of the first half. The ending is meant to be shocking in a way, but really it’s shockingly predictable and par for the course for a doppelganger story like this one.

It’s amazing to see Colin Firth in this kind of role since he has become famous for playing “Mr. D’arcy” over and over. His performance puts the audience right into Adrian’s shoes from his very first appearance, sitting in the projection booth of his theater, tearing up at the climax of Welles’ Touch of Evil. The slightly studied walk and the pained smile he displays are immediately convincing. Adrian’s fear of intimacy and his desire for privacy lead to the most frightening scene in the film. Convinced that Jack has come to harm, the tenants suspect that Adrian is responsible and as a mob rush through him into his apartment to see what has happened. This violation of his very personal space feels personal to us, as well. This is a real tribute to an actor who has taken a character’s quirk and transferred it to the audience. It’s both a sympathetic and dangerous performance, and the kind of material someone should offer Firth again.

To say this is Hart Bochner’s best performance does not do it real justice. Bochner is very good in the film and has never reached the level of this work since. He matches Firth’s performance every step of the way and Firth is taking very long strides. The film is driven by the tension between these two characters and any weakness from either actor would’ve rendered the film meaningless.

It appears that Martin Donovan cut about seven minutes out of the film for video release. The transfer is nice, with excellent contrast throughout, although the movie suffers from the flat lighting disease of ‘80s cinema. But at least we’re spared the puffy hair and stone washed jeans. Buenos Aires looks somewhat timeless here and the location is well used by director Donovan and cinematographer Miguel Rodriguez.

The extras include two separate commentary tracks, one by director Donovan, the other by screenwriter David Koepp and a “surprise guest”. Donovan’s commentary is very informative, but the deal-maker here is the other track. Koepp is now one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood, having written the scripts for films like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Carlito’s Way, Panic Room, War of the Worlds, Spider-Man, and the upcoming Indiana Jones 4. The Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes and Secret Window were also directed by Koepp.

Here he gives an excellent commentary on the behind the scenes problems in bringing one of his first projects to the screen and about filmmaking in general. The reason the track is so effective is that it is moderated by a “surprise guest” who is very knowledgeable himself and has proven to be skilled in interviewing filmmakers about their work: Steven Soderbergh. Like the incredible commentary he moderated with Mike Nichols for the Catch-22 DVD, Soderbergh keeps the discussion flowing, prodding Koepp to explain the choices made in the production, and he is able to expand upon the nature of independent filmmaking in the ‘80s and today. It’s a fantastic “fly-on-the-wall” shoptalk between two witty and friendly colleagues.

In some ways the film resembles the Patricia Highsmith novel and (later) film of The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which a character becomes so enamored with another’s persona that he wants to absorb that persona himself. It may be less sexually predatorial than psychologically starved. It’s also an inverse of Polanski’s The Tenant, in which Trelkovsky slowly realizes that his weak persona is slowly being taken over by the former tenant of his apartment. In any case, the story has proven to be quite durable and this film would also get a more conventional reworking by Koepp himself several years later as the Hollywood thriller Bad Influence, in which James Spader and Rob Lowe played the Leopold-Loeb game. All of these tales involve some sort of vampiric relationship which uses sexual identity as a kind of rope in a tug of war between twinning opposites. I am sure we have not seen the last of this genre.


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