Seeing Red

There are three possible reasons to see Baton Rouge: Antonio Banderas, Victoria Abril, and Carmen Maura. If you're not fond of the work of at least one member of that triumvirate of popular Spanish actors, you probably will have a hard time sitting through this clumsy Spanish film noir. And even if you are a devotee, don't go in with high expectations. Although their bodies get some exposure -- all three appear partially nude at various points in the movie, with Banderas baring all in one scene -- their talents as thespians remain, for the most part, under wraps. This is not a film that fans are likely to remember as anything but a curiosity.

The shadow of Spain's best-known director looms large over the production. Rouge director Rafael Mole centsn learned the ropes as Pedro Almod centsvar's assistant, and the careers of all three stars benefited handsomely from their association with Spanish cinema's bad boy. But Rouge, made in 1988, could have used the Almod centsvar touch A madcap humor, vibrant set design and costuming, maybe a hint of scandal. Mole centsn's film is so muted, both visually and thematically, it should have been titled Baton Gris.

Banderas plays a brooder who comes on to Maura in a bar -- wordlessly. (It's closing time. She wants another drink. Bartender says no. Banderas pours his drink into Maura's glass, all the while maintaining soulful eye contact. Cheesy overwrought string music swells.) They rendezvous moments later in a gas station toilet. The usual embrace-kiss-grind sequence ensues, with the hitch that Maura okays oral sex but mysteriously balks at intercourse.

"My name is Antonio," he tells her in a passionate whisper, finally breaking the silence. The whole business is so self-consciously silly you half-expect it to be parody, especially given the Almod centsvar ties. Alas, Mole centsn and company are playing it straight. Later there's a scene in which Banderas, attempting to turn Abril on, fondles her lips with the tenderness of a bored mechanic changing a set of spark plugs. She actually utters the line, "Don't stick your fingers in strange women's mouths."

Poor Mole centsn. You can bet his mentor wouldn't have missed the opportunity to play up these vignettes for maximum camp value. Instead, Baton Rouge plods further into colorless psychodrama-cum-murder-mystery, with an improbable phony-identity-and-double-cross kicker. The screenplay, by Mole centsn and Agustin Diaz Yanes, provides a few unexpected twists, most of them in the final third of the picture; these will generate some interest for viewers who haven't already nodded off, but that's about it.

It's a curious film choice for the Gables's Astor Cinema, which kicked off a noble experiment in Spanish film exhibition with the racy sex farce Why Do They Call It Love When They Really Mean Sex? That 1993 film broke all prior Astor attendance records. But racy Spanish-language comedies always have done well here (witness the success of Jam centsn jam centsn, Belle epoque, and Like Water for Chocolate). Convoluted melodrama -- and six-year-old convoluted melodrama at that -- is a much riskier bet. Obviously the Astor is counting on the drawing power of the three big-name leads to compensate for the film's age and lack of distinction.

I hope they're right. It would be a shame to see Baton Rouge put the Astor into the red.


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