The moon shines brilliantly on an impeccably romantic occasion: an island, a couple in the sea at night, bobbing and entwining, smiling and at ease, yet uttering earnest words of love. They won’t say their names, wishing instead to preserve the miracle of the moment, or, as the woman puts it, “the best fuck of my life.”
This scene is at the mythic center of Sex and Lucía, a film that assembles layers of truth and untruth, faith and distrust, as characters struggle to make sense of the worlds they make and resist. This perfect scene will be recalled often by its participants, Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa) and Elena (Najwa Nimri), not as they live happily ever after, but as they twist and turn, striving to survive with unspeakable pain.
You first meet Lorenzo as he is in the throes of that pain. He is unseen but you hear his voice, sobbing, as he speaks on the phone to his girlfriend, Lucía (Paz Vega). She’s stuck in a narrow hallway, at work in a Madrid restaurant where other waiters cross the dining room behind her. She apologizes to Lorenzo, but he tells her she was right for what she said, that she is “living with a sick person,” now fallen into “a hole, lost forever.” He can’t tell her what’s wrong. She asks if “the island” is at the root of his anguish. And then she has to get off the phone. “We’re slammed,” her boss tells her. “We’re slammed,” she tells Lorenzo. “Yeah, slammed,” he says.
Written and directed by Julio Medem, Sex and Lucía follows a similar structure to his previous film, the remarkable Lovers of the Arctic Circle, in that the layers of meaning are composed of imagery, language, and narrative, all folding in on one another and winding away from one another at the same time. Characters mirror and refract each other, their stories similar and parallel, interwoven and disparate, fluid and fragmented. All the stories are about sex, the intensity and intimacy offered by sex, as well as the illusion of security. That means, in part, that the film is full of consummately lit, close-up and explicit sex scenes, artful, pretty acts that shimmer but don’t resonate.
This lack of depth limits Lucía’s story, which begins and ends with Lorenzo. This despite the fact that she’s hardly dependent on him, emotionally or any other way, Lucía being a remarkably potent character, complicated and enigmatic in her own right. She finally arrives home that night after work (on her way out, her boss suggests she find her boyfriend “a shrink,” revealing that this is disaster has been long coming). But Lorenzo is gone, and has left behind a despairing note. As she trembles with note in hand, the cops call, right on time, concerning an accident, and she doesn’t even wait for the bad news; instead, she heads to the island, a remote Mediterranean isle off the coast of Spain, seeking understanding of her lover’s all-consuming sorrow.
Here Sex and Lucía breaks into various paths, some leading back in time, to reveal the conception and evolution of their relationship: he’s a novelist, she loves his work and comes on to him at a café; they share a sensational night (drinking and dancing) and morning (having fabulous-seeming sex: when Lucía comes, she yells out, “I’m dying!” apparently endearing her forever to her lover). And then, they are inseparable, until he writes a new novel, a happy one, and she’s frank enough to tell him it doesn’t move her as his sad work did. Eventually, he starts to come apart again, unable or unwilling to tell her what’s troubling him.
As Lucía’s frustration builds, the film pulls you into Lorenzo’s story, told in part through his next novel, which she is reading at night, unbeknownst to him. She assumes it’s fiction, and feels caught up in its turmoil. Soon, however, the film appears to reveal that he is living through these increasingly bizarre events and emotions. That said, it’s also hard to tell where fiction might begin and experience might end. This ambiguity is easily the film’s most intriguing aspect, creating intricate strands of characters’ beliefs and yearnings, apparent facts, and your own filtering of information, your own projections and expectations.
But just as you might be wondering about your responsibility in the story-making, the movie takes some too-convenient turns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his incessant self-involvement, Lorenzo’s tale is a less subtle construction than Lucía’s, full of tangled passions and sexual intrigues as overwrought as any soap opera. His unforgettable night on the island produced a child, and the mother, Elena (Najwa Nimri), is now living in Madrid with her daughter — named Luna, for the moon on that perfect night — and her killer rottweiler. He finds Luna playing in the park with her nanny, the beautiful and naughty Belén (Elena Anaya), and strikes up a conversation. He returns again and again; Belén develops a crush. And her story is even more tortuous than his, involving a porn-star mother and a boyfriend they share, Antonio (Daniel Freire). Naturally, he’s seduced. Disaster strikes.
Convolutions and contrivances continue. Lucía makes her way to that magical island, where she astonishingly ends up living in a beach house with two people who were closely tied up with Lorenzo, unbeknownst to them or to her. At this point, anything resembling delicate threads of coincidence or desire has turned into awkward assertions of narrative as willful manipulation.