Vicente Perez Herrero’s dense, atmospheric “Private Life” blends mystery and a highly developed aesthetic sense in a study of obsession which, though it achieves moments of nightmarish beauty, is abstract and demanding. Perez Herrero has risked making a film about ideas rather than people, so pic is unlikely to move far beyond the arthouses for which it was designed.
Darkly attractive Lola (Carmen Elias, from Almodovar’s “The Flower of My Secret”) works as a cook for an elderly, eccentric, nameless writer (a forbidding Fernando Guillen). His nightmarish house is similarly eccentric, with insects everywhere, a tortoise that crawls onscreen at odd moments, and lighting that suggests the electricity bill is extremely low. A messenger boy warns Lola that previous employees have gone mad, but she believes she is made of sterner stuff.
At first, the writer is angry when Lola tries to find out more about his private life. When she starts reading stories to him, and we start seeing the stories she is telling him, we know we are in for some intense, abstract reflections on the nature of the imagination and the function of storytelling a la Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The refs to literature and film come thick and fast, and everything about pic suggests we are watching a parable — though it is never made clear what of. An ex-lover of the writer’s, Marta (Andrea Ferreol), comes on the scene and becomes a rival for Lola’s affections. Images of Lola’s childhood appear, needlessly introducing a third narrative level. She and the writer grow closer to each other through the stories they tell, and then the writer reveals that he has a twin brother (also Guillen) with whom, many years ago, he exchanged lives.
If lenser Arnaldo Catinari is ever short of work, he should move into food advertising. His exquisite, glistening, computer-enhanced textures won him the best photography prize at Valladolid. There is no camera angle too daring, no close-up too close: A full-screen tortoise biting into flesh is particularly memorable. The animate is made to look startlingly dead, and vice versa.
But in a pic that so loudly proclaims its own intellectuality, one hunts in vain for an answer to the question of what the film is actually about. Its visual power partly compensates, but final impression is that the movie tries to hint at too much without ever pulling itself into dramatic focus.