siestaWhen David Lynch’s ultrabizarro Blue Velvet was not only a critical but even a modest commercial success in 1986, it prompted speculation that the studio system might just be willing to gamble on small, quirky, idiosyncratic films.

We’ve seen some fruit of that in such oddball items as Raising Arizona and David Byrne’s True Stories. But nothing quite as strange as Mary Lambert’s first film, Siesta.

It’s based on a novel by Patrice Chaplin, and it’s a sure­-enough American art film. A woman (Ellen Barkin) in a red dress wakes up in a field next to an airport. She walks to a stream, strips and rinses her blood-stained dress, and tries to remember the events of the last few days that have led her to this place.

She gradually remembers: A few days before her airport awakening, she was in the United States with her husband (Martin Sheen) planning a stunt in which she would drop from a plane into a volcano on July 4th; it seems she is a daredevil, a kind of female Evel Knievel called “Claire on a Dare.”

But then she abruptly flew to Spain to see an old lover (Gabriel Byrne), the man who originally taught her the art of the trapeze. He has married a woman (Isabella Rossellini, a talisman from Blue Velvet) from Madrid. Somehow this reunion has caused the violence that resulted in Barkin’s blood-spattered dress.

As Barkin tries to remember these events, she’s hanging out with a tiresome batch of swingers, including an artist (Julian Sands), an English party girl (Jodie Foster, the movie’s only sharp performer), and a gross, omnipresent cabdriver (Alexi Sayle).

Director Lambert is a veteran of music videos (including Madonna’s clever “Material Girl”), and she renders images in pop-shallow bites. The locations are photographed in the bleached light of arthouse self-importance; and the dialogue is constructed and delivered with ponderousness, as when Byrne tells Barkin: “I taught you to fly. You chose to fall.”

But wait: Wasn’t Blue Velvet also self-consciously wacky and avant-garde? Yes, but Blue Velvet was the lucid and commanding work of a true and rare visionary. That’s a far cry from the facile pretensions of Siesta, in which a character’s “How do you do?” is answered with, “I don’t.” Siesta certainly doesn’t.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

I should watch this again, I think. I liked Lambert’s Pet Sematary, mostly, and I remember at least liking the arty tendencies here. There were so many music-video directors breaking into features at this point that it was tempting to dismiss the whole movement. Barkin was coming off The Big Easy and having a moment, well-deserved. She and Byrne married the year after this was released.

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