Apartment Zero

November 15, 2011

Apartment zero is actually apartment 10, but the “1” has rubbed off the 10, leaving only the vacancy. This is appropriate, because the occupant of the apartment has no real life—a neurotic zero, he pieces together bits from the movies he loves and invents his own dry, isolated existence.

Apartment Zero is also the title of the most stylishly strange film of the year, directed by Martin Donovan and written by Donovan and David Koepp. The man in the apartment is Adrian (Colin Firth), who runs a revival moviehouse in Buenos Aires.

When we first see him, he is weeping at the ending of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, but this private moment is about the last emotion he will show; uptight and foppish, he keeps his distance from people (“There is only one rule: avoid the neighbors”). The only human company he has in his tidy apartment are the photographs of the silver screen legends he loves.

He’s forced to take a roommate, and the man who swaggers into his life is a vulgar American named Jack (Hart Bochner) with movie-star good looks. These two aren’t just an odd couple; they’re extremely peculiar. Eventually, the story takes a turn into darkness and paranoia, as Jack’s presence coincides with some violent events.

With the chemistry of his two actors and the exotic backdrop of Buenos Aires, director Donovan creates a sense of unease that nevertheless verges on giddiness, as though Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train had been adapted by David Lynch on a particularly playful day.

The layers of movie trivia, the baroque supporting cast, the tremors of Argentine political unrest, all make for a perversely intoxicating nightmare. The film seems to move in dream time, too, a weird, off-rhythm—ungainly, perhaps, but original. Donovan is a talent to watch.

So is Colin Firth, the English actor who gives Adrian the solicitous sweetness of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Firth visited Seattle for interviews last week, as this engagement is the film’s premiere American run.

Firth appeared as the radicalized student in Another Country and in the unjustly neglected A Month in the Country. He appears set for greater things, as he will soon star in Milos Forman’s new version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, called Valmont.

Firth says he enjoyed playing the unhealthy Adrian: “I like playing screwed-up, paranoid, neurotic people,” he says. “They’re fun. The more problems the character has, psychologically, the more there is to work with. I also find it quite relaxing, because if everyting goes into that, you feel like you’ve got no problems of your own.”

He noted the movie’s odd construction. “I see the flaws that I see in the movie. But I think that it triumphs on its own terms.”

The film brilliantly captures a sense of unease, which seems to come from the exoticism of the setting, a tension that pervades the air like the Argentine tango music of the soundtrack. Firth suggests that he always felt uncomfortable in Buenos Aires, adding, “I come away from watching the film with the same distaste, unease, slight headache, nervousness, that I felt when I was there.”

First published in the Herald, September 1989

Nice fellow, that Colin Firth—self-deprecating, casual, profane. I wonder what ever happened to him. Apartment Zero dates from just about the end of the era when an independent film could rely on Seattle as a place to get launched; that stuff isn’t happening anymore. The lavishness of my praise for this movie didn’t quite hold up on a second viewing, as I recall, but it’s a good film, and Donovan (whose “talent to watch” was well into a career at this point) and Koepp (his first screen credit) both brought their own stuff to an interesting project.