Festward Ho! Take 2

Uh-oh. Unbeknownst to his fiancee and boss, Max blows off the Tokyo trip to go i.s.o. Lisa. Earlier that same day, on his way to the aforementioned cafe for a farewell drink with Muriel, his boss, and two Japanese reps, Max has also run into his best old friend, the cavalier Lucien (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey), owner of a tony shoestore -- whom he hasn't called in ages. (Such chance meetings -- or, conversely, two people just missing each other -- occur constantly in L'appartement, right down to people literally bumping into each other.)

Meanwhile, as Max attempts to track down Lisa, working from clues she leaves behind like bread crumbs on the forest floor, he repeatedly flashes back on how he met her (he stalked her until she turned the tables and cornered him in Lucien's shop), how they were so in love (dancing around her apartment together), and how, unaccountably, she suddenly disappeared from his life (he asked her to move to New York and live with him; she flew the coop for Rome). Meanwhile, back in the present, he learns that his successor in her life was Daniel, a wealthy Parisian art dealer, who, it would seem, has iced his wife by making it appear she perished in a car accident -- at least that's what Lisa thinks, and what she accused Daniel of during that phone conversation Max overheard.

Meanwhile, Lucien and Max bond -- "I just have to find her," Max earnestly tells his chum. "Don't try to understand. Help me" -- and the love-'em-and-leave-'em Lucien uncharacteristically falls for Alice, a stage actress who, weirdly, plays a role we saw Lisa read for during one of Max's dreamy flashbacks. Double rut-roh. (In case you're wondering about poor old Muriel the fiancee, don't bother. Mimouni signals right from the get-go that she doesn't matter because she wears sensible, unrevealing clothes -- unlike Lisa and Alice. Ergo, Muriel vanishes after speaking nine words at the outset, never to be seen again until she becomes a final-scene convenience.)

Meanwhile, Max finally locates Lisa's incredibly posh apartment by following Daniel, who's also still crazy about her. Max hides in one of her closets but emerges just in the nick of time to save her as she throws herself out a window. But wait! It isn't Lisa after all, just a woman who resembles Lisa and whose name is also Lisa. (Jumping out of windows, look-alikes -- enter Vertigo.) He winds up staying the night, and, of course, they have sex, with Mimouni subtly choreographing the scene to thunder and lightning.

Meanwhile, Max, Lucien, Lisa, Alice, and Daniel gambol all over Paris, just missing each other, and one of them -- sacre bleu! -- turns out to be something and someone wholly other than he/she has led all the others to believe. These proceedings aren't so much confusing as they are overly convoluted, and only the most forgiving and patient viewers will still give a hang by the time Mimouni trots out his slo-mo fiery climax -- foreshadowed earlier, natch.

In addition to invoking Vertigo via the two Lisas, the director tosses in some stunningly high staircases to bolster the comparison, and then, totally out of control, he briefly quotes Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train in a scene involving Max and a key. A clear case of style over substance, L'appartement nonetheless begs its audience to take it and its hollow men, women, and themes (the role chance plays in our lives; we're not always who we seem to be) seriously, a task that would've been made considerably easier with a less overripe script and characters who live instead of posture.

Just when it seems as if the Seventies revival has finally sputtered and expired, along comes someone to exhume one of its best-forgotten totems, like, say, the made-for-TV miniseries. You remember: connect-the-dots scripts, dollops of discreetly portrayed sex, boldface-type messages, and hard-fought, life-affirming victories. Roots. Rich Man, Poor Man. With Desnudo con Naranjas (Nude with Oranges) (Sunday at 2:00 p.m.), Venezuelan director Luis Alberto Lamata has managed to trash-compact a three- or four-night epic into a tight, speed-of-light 102 minutes. And no commercials!

Based on a story written by the godfather of action-adventure yarns, Robert Louis Stevenson, Desnudo con Naranjas takes place in nineteenth-century Venezuela, where a series of revolutions has left the nation ravaged. The current conflict pits federal troops against a ragtag guerrilla army led by the swaggering, aristocrat-hating General (Manuel Salazar); as the film opens, he and his men are taking delight in plundering a plush estate. Well, all except the unsmiling, misanthropic Captain (Daniel Alvarado), a Venezuelan Indian resigned to a soldier's life. He just goes about his duties without emotion. Another year, another war.

Before he and the men under his command split off from the General's posse, the Captain spies a large religious painting, The Blue Virgin, on a wall in the estate. He cuts the canvas from its frame, rolls it up, and takes it with him. Shortly thereafter he and his troops come across a mute, starving white woman (Lourdes Valera) -- a displaced aristocrat -- in the ruins of yet another pillaged estate; when his men appear ready to rape her, he intercedes to save her. Good guy. The men move on, only to run afoul of the federal army, which wipes out all of them except the Captain, who stumbles across the scuzziest of his men, Cupo, just as the latter is about to shuffle off this mortal coil. Cupo asks the Captain for a handful of pesos, and, in exchange, hands over a bilongo, a magic talisman that enables its owner to win at any game of chance. But it comes with a major caveat: If you die while in possession of the bilongo, you go straight to Hell. No passing "Go." No collecting $200. So Cupo, in effect, has just saved his sorry-ass soul from eternal damnation by tricking the Captain into buying the bilongo.

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