Gaudi Afternoon
directed by Susan Seidelman
(First Look, 2001)

Gaudi, the Spanish architect, was a 20th-century master of a surreal design style that brought the usual visual order of buildings into question. Gaudi Afternoon, the movie, tries really, really hard to be a surreal, comedic romp that makes its audience question the usual order and characteristics of relations between the sexes.

It wants badly to be as avant garde as the Gaudi architecture that infuses its Barcelona location. But, instead of a true farce, director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) has created an offbeat movie that has a difficult time finding its pace.

Two-time Academy Award nominee Judy Davis is the heart of the movie as Cassandra, a woman who never lives anywhere for more than a few months at a time. She's now in Barcelona, cobbling together a living as a translator.

One day, Frankie Stevens (Marcia Gay Harden, a 2000 Oscar winner for Pollock) arrives at Cassandra's door with a proposition: for some quick money, she needs Cassandra to track down her estranged husband for some legal matters. Cassandra soon finds someone she thinks is Frankie's husband, Ben, but it's really the bisexual Hamilton, who's allowing Ben to stay with him.

And so begin the mistaken identities, compounded by unexpected sexual identities and complicated by a child, that have the potential to make Gaudi Afternoon an appropriate match for the magical, Gaudian view of Barcelona.

Where Seidelman runs into problems is writer James Myhre's inclusion of the child. The little girl becomes the real crux of the plot, but her storyline forces what could have been a lightweight film into a melodrama, and not a very sincere one at that. As little Delilah, Courtney Jines is wonderful, but it's as if Myhre and Seidelman don't know what they want: A story about grownups' relationships? Or a study of what makes a "real" mother? Or a movie that uses the fairytale curves and spires of Gaudi's architecture in some way that makes them part of the movie, and not just part of the backdrop?

Even the big surprise revelation lands pretty much with a thud, hinted at broadly before it arrives and complicating the plot without explaining anything.

It's too bad, because the first 20 minutes or so make the most of Davis's wry manner and no-nonsense approach, the perfect touch for the life of a self-sufficient expatriate.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 7 February 2004

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