B>Hell is a grungy S&M brothel in a dystopian future, rather than simply other people, in “The Zero Years,” an intriguing oddity by vet writer-director Nikos Nikolaidis. Fans of the late Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic one-act “No Exit” shouldn’t rush to buy the DVD, but inbetween its soft-core titillation pic boasts striking perfs by its four lead actresses that lift the movie into more than just the sum of its excesses. Late-night fest programmers should take a look.
Entirely set in a dilapidated apartment some time in a fascistic future, pic starts with an unnamed woman (Vicky Harris, a dead ringer for Gina Gershon) arriving to join three other sterilized women in what turns out to be a state-run brothel. Opening exchange between her and Christina (Eftyhia Yakoumi), with each mirroring the other’s dialogue, concisely sets up the pic’s off-center, ironic flavor.
The outside world appears to be entirely populated by lubricious male clients, some of whom are briefly seen in genuinely shocking S&M seshes with the girls. However, with food and water running short, the girls spend most of their time hanging around the apartment playing cards, participating in weird “punishment” rituals (one, memorably, involving a fresh egg) and simulating fantasies revolving around kids and childbirth.
Film sounds like a cross between a sex movie and a pretentious art pic, and in some respects it is. But Nikolaidis, who can come up with a glossy slice of erotic trash when he wants to (“See You in Hell, My Darling,” 1999), dials down the tease as the movie progresses, and keeps a strain of irony running.
Ensemble playing by the four leads — which looks like the result of exhaustive rehearsal — generates its own fascination, even when what is being discussed isn’t significant. Though actually written for the screen, film has the feel of a legit piece being shot with its original cast. The central quartet ensemble is so tight that, when subsidiary characters briefly pop up, the movie’s weird spell is momentarily broken.
Harris dominates with her poised playing: When she’s off-screen in the latter stages, the temperature dips. As the jittery Christina, Yakoumi is the most striking looker but is faced with a borderline risible character. Arhontisa Mavrakaki, as the blonde “baby” of the group who’s desperate for a child, is better, and Jenny Kitselli, as the group’s more mature leader, outclasses both of them.
Marie-Bartholomew’s dank, gray sets and mismatched costumes are equaled by Sifis Koundouros’ desaturated DV lensing, acceptably transferred to 35mm.