A slickly made, intense and powerfully visual take on time-honored problems such as identity and the body's power over the mind, Julio Medem's technically accomplished "Sex and Lucia" combines the self-conscious philosophy of his previous work with the more commercial spirit of melodrama.

A slickly made, intense and powerfully visual take on time-honored problems such as identity and the body’s power over the mind, Julio Medem’s technically accomplished “Sex and Lucia” combines the self-conscious philosophy of his previous work with the more commercial spirit of melodrama. Since making a powerful debut with “Cows” (1992), Medem has only fulfilled his potential in isolated, startling filmic moments. “Lucia” — with its overwrought storyline, jaded symbolism and a feeling of hollowness at its heart — follows suit, the whole adding up to less than the sum of its parts. But there is enough happening, both onscreen and between the lines, to guarantee pic is never merely stylish.

Film has split crix at home, where strong marketing has generated excellent B.O. since opening late August. Offshore prospects are decent and, though Medem’s reputation is not what it was, the sharp combination of sex and psychology could end up seducing both fests and upscale viewers. Judicious pruning of some sexually explicit detail may be necessary in some territories.

Waitress Lucia (Paz Vega, best known in Spain for her sitcom work) receives a phone call telling her that her ex-b.f., writer and sensation-seeker Lorenzo (Tristan Ulloa), has been run over and killed. (In fact, he has not.) Devastated, Lucia heads for the idyllic Mediterranean island where he used to go to write.

A flashback shows their meeting six years earlier, a comic and, incredibly, plausible scene which has Lucia telling Lorenzo, despite not knowing him, that she has fallen in love with him through his fiction. The script uses humor sparingly but, even so, there’s more than usual in a Medem movie. The first of several tastefully lensed sex scenes follows, although one in which Lucia strips for Lorenzo looks more “Nine 1/2 Weeks”-like than was probably intended.

A narrative switch intros Elena (Najwa Nimri) having a baby which, we soon learn, is Lorenzo’s. Back in the present, Lucia meets scuba-diver Carlos (Daniel Freire), who lives with Elena in her beach house, and soon Lucia and Elena are face to face, each ignorant that Lorenzo links them.

In the past again, Lorenzo has writer’s block, and his buddy Pepe (Javier Camara) tells him there is material for a novel in the story of his sister — Elena — who is raising her daughter, Luna (Silvia Llanos), single-handed.

Lorenzo’s suspicions of his paternity of the child are aroused, so he tracks down the kid and her nurse, Belen (Elena Anaya), who works for Elena. Belen’s mother is a porn actress whose boyfriend is Antonio (also Freire), with whom Belen is in love and who provokes her into delirious sexual fantasies.

Lorenzo and Belen get it on and, as they are having sex, Luna, who is in the next room, is killed by Belen’s rottweiler.

The tormented Lorenzo tries to escape from the horror of the death by writing about it as he slowly falls apart; Lucia innocently reads what he writes, believing it to be fiction.

The mystifications and narrative tricks pile up dazzlingly. But a more directly told story would have shifted the emphasis to where it should be — on the characters’ feelings rather than on the puzzling plotline. The viewer is always too aware of Medem’s guiding, auteur hand.

Perfs are very watchable across the board. Looker Vega has limited bigscreen experience but is well-cast, her wide-eyed innocence making her entirely plausible at the center of the emotional chaos which Lorenzo has created around himself. Ulloa effectively plays Lorenzo as quiet and intense rather than histrionic, while Nimri’s otherworldly features are perfect for the twitchy bag of nerves that is Elena. Though Anaya does her best with her role as Belen, her storyline feels tacked on, and the same dramatic effects involving her could have been achieved through more compact plotting.

Visually, pic is a treat, with lenser Kiko de la Rica taking the kinds of risks with lighting and angles that are associated with Medem to sometimes over-the-top effect: lengthy shots of suns and moons are already a Medem cliche. Use of handheld, hi-def digital video, plus natural light, helps to create an intimate docu feel: Medem has admitted the flexibility of shooting on DV allowed him just to let the camera run, which also makes some scenes just too long.

Pic’s title is on the nail. Though so detached it’s never very sexy, sex abounds, shot in a variety of light and moods — tender, self-destructive, unhappy, passionate, even (in a briefly suggested moment) bestial.

Occasionally explicit details have been kept in, at helmer’s insistence, on artistic grounds. Score is strangely old-fashioned, at odds with the hi-tech visuals.

Sex And Lucia

Spain

Production

A Warner Sogefilm release of a Sogecine/Alicia Produce production, in association with Canal Plus, TVE, StudioCanal. (International sales: Sogepaq, Madrid). Produced by Fernando Bovaira, Enrique Lopez Lavigne. Directed, written by Julio Medem.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HDCam-CineAlta 24P), Kiko de la Rica; editor, Ivan Aledo; music, Alberto Iglesias; art director, Montse Sanz; sound (Dolby Digital), Agustin Peinado. Reviewed at Cines Acteon, Madrid, Aug. 20, 2001. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 129 MIN.

With

Lucia - Paz Vega Lorenzo - Tristan Ulloa Elena - Najwa Nimri Carlos/Antonio - Daniel Freire Belen - Elena Anaya Luna - Silvia Llanos Pepe - Javier Camara
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