This year's Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival concludes with the South Florida premiere of Susan Seidelman's Gaudi Afternoon, an entertaining mystery-comedy. Headlined by the always excellent Judy Davis, the cast includes champs such as Marcia Gay Harden, Christopher Bown, Lili Taylor, and Juliette Lewis.
Imagine a cinematic cross between Seidelman's early hit Desperately Seeking Susan and Pedro Almodovar's recent All About My Mother. That's pretty much what you get with Gaudi. Like Susan, Seidelman's latest feature has to do with a confused woman whose sudden encounter with a mysterious stranger leads her down a rabbit hole of confusion, mistaken identity, and reckless pursuit. If there were such a thing as a feminist chase genre, both Susan and Gaudi would be categorized as such.
Davis plays Cassandra Reilly, a globetrotting translator who has landed, if briefly, in Barcelona, the city of the visionary architect Antonio Gaudi, whose wild, colorful churches, piazzas, and houses festoon the cityscape. Cassandra is ensconced in an ancient apartment building while she translates a Spanish novel for an impatient television producer who hounds her by long-distance telephone from the United States. Cassandra's arid single life could hardly contrast more with the subject of the novel she's working on, a magical realism tale about a woman's jungle search for her long-lost mother. Cassandra's work drags on as her money runs out, and she faces eviction from her long-suffering but sympathetic landlady. But into the writer's life comes Frankie Stevens, a sultry, husky-voiced femme fatale who wants to pay Cassandra a cool three grand to find her missing spouse, Ben. Cassandra balks at first, but, desperate for the cash, she agrees to hunt for him. What appears to be a straightforward cash job soon turns into a devil's bargain for Cassandra, who gets drawn into a complex Alice in Wonderland chase through the narrow back streets of Barcelona. Along the way she encounters a wacky rooftop fistfight, a banana-bedecked gay cabaret act, a titanic custody battle, and some droll characters.
Seidelman aids and abets her cast with a visual design featuring rich saturated colors and dynamic perspectives that echo Gaudi's designs. But her strong suit is her stellar cast. Davis, twice nominated for an Academy Award, is splendid here. Recently praised for her television turn as Judy Garland, she seems perfectly at ease as the baffled, world weary Cassandra. There's more than a touch of Woody Allen in her comedic sensibility (she no doubt picked up a thing or two from her work with him on Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry). Davis is about as versatile as an actress can get. Consider her wide-ranging career: From My Brilliant Career through A Passage to India and Barton Fink, it's hard to think of any film in which she isn't spot-on perfect.
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Davis is backed by an array of talent. Marcia Gay Harden, who just picked up an Oscar for her work in Pollack, turns in another memorable performance here as Frankie. Indie faves Lili Taylor and Juliette Lewis check in as Bernadette and April, hilarious odd-couple lesbians with enough domestic crises for their own movie. Christopher Bowen is equally charming as a gay magician with a secret. Almodovar veteran Maria Barranco is another treat as Cassandra's landlady/confidante who has troubles of her own with her geek of a husband, a hapless Elvis impersonator.
There are many pleasures to this film, to be sure, but it's not without some flaws. Some are minor: Davis is supposed to be a Spanish translator, but she can barely speak the language. Bowen, an English actor, plays an American, but his accent also wavers. The foremost problem here, however, is the basic story material. Gaudi Afternoon is based on a book of the same name by Barbara Wilson, a veteran mystery writer who has created Cassandra as the heroine of a series of mystery novels. The use of a detective/hero is a time-honored literary tradition, and many such characters and stories have been adapted as films. Most of these have failed because the films tend to center on plot and twists rather than character. The heroes don't get much to do, and they fade into the whodunit action. And that's the case, here, unfortunately. While Davis brings a lot to her character, she doesn't bring it all, and Cassandra Reilly just isn't complex or central enough to the story line to keep her in focus. Once this tale gets rolling -- and it really gets rolling -- Cassandra blends into the ensemble.
One scene in particular points out a lost opportunity. During the wild-goose chase through the streets, Cassandra sits in a little plaza with Delilah, the sober daughter of Frankie and Ben. Cassandra isn't a child-friendly sort, and the conversation is awkward. But when the girl reveals that she wants to grow up to be like Cassandra, the series of emotions that ripple through Davis's face is astonishing. Cassandra starts to come to terms with what it means to be like Delilah, the unsettled child of unsettled parents. In doing so she starts to see the connections to her own life and her own mother. That's what's lurking behind her own restless life, and what the story ultimately is about.
It's at that point that Gaudi Afternoon shows its best side and also reveals what's missing: When a film is blessed with an actor of Judy Davis's stature, it's best to use that talent, not hide it. With her lovely, weathered face and quiet persona, her Cassandra is the modern heir to the old Western gunslinger, the middle-age, single woman as loner/hero. Instead of wandering through the empty, vast Western prairie, Davis gives the impression that she's traveling through an emotional emptiness: tough, self-sufficient, wounded. She's got scores to settle in her own life. Like the cowboys before her, she kisses the girl, packs up, and heads out. She doesn't ride off into the sunset; she flies off in a plane. But the feeling's the same. Gaudi Afternoon doesn't reach that level of mythology. It does suggest what might lie ahead as cinema develops. But for now Gaudi Afternoon is meant to be enjoyed, like our wacky, unpredictable lives, flaws and all.