After all the elevated blood pressures regarding Basic Instinct and its allegedly graphic bisexual assignations, it's a pleasure to report that Vicente Aranda's Lovers, a 1991 movie from Spain, has a more palpable sexual charge than Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas could ever manage, is engrossing in a way the American film was not, and - crowning its achievement - is beautifully acted by one brilliant actress, Victoria Abril, and two excellent supporting performers, Jorge Sanz and Maribel Verdu. You could argue that in Europe they still know how to whet sexual appetites and engage narrative curiosity simultaneously. One thing is certain: As witnessed here, the sexual urge is hardly a contrived, glossy, choreographed ritual fit for music-video consumption. In Lovers, it is spontaneous, enjoyable, sometimes awkward, an activity that can be, both in its enactment and eventual consequence, downright messy.
Based on a true murder story from the late Forties but set by Aranda in 1958, still at the height of Franco's dominion over Spain, Lovers tells its tale straightforwardly, without fuss. Paco (Sanz), a young man from rural Spain, has just finished his military training - which Spaniards call la mili - and returns to his pure-as-the-driven-snow fiancee, Trini (Verdu), who works as a maid for Paco's former commander at the barracks and his wife. The virginal, traditional Trini, obeying the moral code of the time, doesn't permit Paco, a typical paleto (low-class person), more than the customary adolescent peck on the lips. Frustrated, Paco goes looking for a job in Madrid, and rents a room in the downtown apartment of Luisa (Abril), an attractive older woman, a widow.
Letting nature take its course one day after Luisa arrives home tired and depressed, Paco and the widow get down. Soon they're in each other's arms and heaving over Luisa's bed. A protracted sexual obsession ensues. Thereafter the plot thickens and darkens: Trini attempts to recapture Paco's interest - she literally spreads her legs one day over Paco's unused bed, and he obliges - while Luisa tries to get her lover involved with her in a criminal-underworld scam to make fast pesetas. At one point, Luisa owes her gangster chums money, and they threaten her life. Paco comes up with a solution: He'll pretend to take Trini away to his home town, marry her, steal her savings to pay the debt, kill her, and run away with Luisa. Things don't exactly turn out that way. In film noir fashion, though, there is a death and an apotheosis. At the very end, we learn what happened to Luisa and Paco as they embrace at a railway station in a frozen frame.
Repression, release, reversal - the forces of morality and human instinct alloyed in an innocence-breaking odyssey lend this film an ironic, very Spanish feel. In that respect, it can be compared to the vastly dissimilar work of native Spaniards such as Carlos Saura and expatriated ones such as Luis Bunuel. (Indeed, such heavy-weather moralizing may have been why the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno so often lost patience with his brethren south of the Pyrenees.)
Lovers was shown last February at the Miami Film Festival, one of the few worthy films of the entire run. At that time, I had a chance to speak with Jorge Sanz and Maribel Verdu - both young, Madrid-born actors were here promoting the film. Having worked with Vicente Aranda in previous film and television productions, Sanz claimed Aranda's updating of the action to the late Fifties was deliberate and served two purposes: first, to glamorize the setting somewhat (Spain during the Forties, remember, was economically and spiritually broken from the attrition of the Second World War and the devastating effects of the Spanish Civil War); second, because the director had already explored the Forties in his previous work.
The formula works here, because while American film noir models crucial to this picture were innovated in the aftermath of the war, the devastation in Europe was such that the entire continent was, in fact, ten years behind the United States in quality of life. Aranda successfully captures the restrained hedonism of the Franco period, a time when the guardia civil paraded the streets in full force but didn't stop the cafes, cabarets, and movie theaters from ringing with ebullient chatter.
But the film belongs to Victoria Abril as the enigmatic Luisa. As American audiences have seen in her previous roles in Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and High Heels, Abril is a sexy, earthy comedienne - a fitting counterpart to Almodovar's long-time protagonista, Carmen Maura, a more stylish, sensuous actress. In Lovers, Abril brings to a generic, Barbara Stanwyck-variety role the fierce animal predatoriness of an Anna Magnani or Jeanne Moreau. (There can be no greater encomium.)
If you compare the lovemaking scenes here with Basic Instinct's, where the Sharon Stone character was likewise the dominant sexual partner (and how!), it's clear how much more naturally Abril takes to it. Yet most of the time in Lovers Abril makes love to Sanz with her clothes or lingerie still on. It's an odd directorial choice - he's nude and she's not - but Abril's strength of personality and incandescence are extraordinary; it's as if we do see her naked. There's no parallel in American cinema that I can see, a magic that's easy to praise but impossible to explain. That's her secret.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.