The dancing is dazzling in director Emilio Martínez-Lázaro’s The Other Side of the Bed, but the movie itself is a dud. When the characters — a quartet of friends tied up in a healthy assortment of romantic entanglements — spontaneously burst into song, their movements are vibrant and sensual, as though their confused passions were contorting their bodies into all manner of expressive positions. Most of these numbers are set in unglamorous, everyday locales — among them a health-club locker room and (my personal favorite) a natural-history museum — and the choreographer, Pedro Berdayes, responds by making terrifically inventive use of those spaces. What’s more, the actors can really bust their moves; when they’re in full motion, they come close to making you forget the easy-listening anonymity of the Spanish pop songs on the soundtrack. Fans of musicals may find this one a breath of fresh air, in the sense that it’s unapologetic: It doesn’t feel the need to make postmodern excuses for its singing and dancing, unlike Hollywood’s recent contributions to the genre.
They may also find that those momentary pleasures don’t occur frequently enough — there aren’t nearly enough songs for a nearly two-hour movie — and that the rhythms of this would-be screwball comedy are rather too sane. David Serrano’s Almodóvar-like screenplay begins with a couple, Pedro (Guillermo Toldeo) and Paula (Natalia Verbeke), on the verge of a breakup. She tells him that she’s fallen in love with another man; he’s sure that she’s just going through some emotional jitters. What Pedro doesn’t know is that Paula’s other man is none other than his best friend, Javier (Ernesto Alterio), who, no matter, already has his own beautiful and loving girlfriend, Sonia (Paz Vega). Naturally, the complications build steadily from there, with Pedro — in a moment of weakness — bedding down with Sonia, and Javier becoming convinced that Sonia is actually a lesbian, in love with a fellow member of her drama troupe.
So far, so farcical, with generous doses of mistaken identity and characters who can’t quite assemble the larger picture of their jigsaw-puzzle lives. Except that, unlike in the best such farces, we don’t sense there’s all that much at stake for those caught up in these bed-hopping, partner-swapping shenanigans. Because we’re never made to feel that either couple is really that blissful in the first place, we can’t get too worked up about all the lies and double-crosses and twists of fate they endure. Why should we care who ends up sleeping with whom? Besides, things never get that out of hand anyway; the characters never seem too far away from just yelling “Stop!” and having everything return to relative normal.
Frankly, Martínez-Lázaro and Serrano seem somewhat bored by their own creations — despite the spirited playing of the four leads — and by the Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice–style paces they rather dutifully put them through. Often, though not often enough, their attention (and ours) drifts to the kookier comedic entities who dwell in the background and on the edges of scenes. I became particularly fond of the cocky taxicab driver Rafa (Alberto San Juan), who makes unsubtle passes at his fares, and of the Clouseau-like private investigator (Ramón Barea) hired by Pedro to tail Paula — when he isn’t snooping on unfaithful spouses, he’s updating his epic book about the “suicide” of JFK. But it’s María Esteve, as the motor-mouthed office girl Pilar, who steals whatever show there is to steal, declaiming each of her lines as though she were reading from an encyclopedia and doing much to rekindle the spirit of Judy Holiday. A movie with these three folks as the stars — now there you might have something.
The disappointment of The Other Side of the Bed is doubly so, in that the film represents the debut offering of the newly formed Sundance Channel Film Series, designed as a theatrical distribution outlet for deserving foreign and independent films that might otherwise get passed over for U.S. release. The series, which plans to unveil four titles between now and year’s end, is in essence a reprise of the short-lived, much-mourned Shooting Gallery Film Series of 2000-2001 — the one responsible for programming such films as Mike Hodges’ Croupier and Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka — right down to the partnership with the Loews Cineplex theater chain. There’s also the caveat that any profits earned will go directly to the nonprofit Sundance Institute, suggesting that Sundance isn’t in this for the money, that the series will continue regardless of how the films perform. Which all sounds great, until you consider that The Other Side of the Bed is precisely the kind of highly accessible, instantly forgettable import that companies like Miramax and Lions Gate already unload on art-house audiences by the truckload, and without which art-house audiences would be none the worse. While the Sundance folks are to be lauded for their interest in Michael Winterbottom’s extraordinary In This World (opening September 12), what moviegoers really deserve is a whole season of such films — of movies like The Son and Japon and Bolivia (to name three from this year alone) that play briefly through major cities, but whose distributors can’t afford to properly publicize them.
Another such movie, which could very well be gone by the time you are reading this, is Claire Denis’ Friday Night, in which a woman (Valérie Lemercier) heads out to meet friends for dinner, only to find herself ensnared in a city-wide traffic jam caused by one of Paris’ not-infrequent mass-transit strikes. The woman’s apartment is, at present, no more than a series of packed and sealed boxes; tomorrow, she will move in with her boyfriend and start a new chapter in her life. Yet, for a moment, she is free, and so she finds the traffic oddly calming, as though time were — ever so briefly, and solely for her benefit — standing still.
Friday Night is, beguilingly and intoxicatingly, all about such arrested moments between here and there, in which one is thrown off balance and opened up to new, exhilarating stimuli. For this woman, at this time, there is no reason to go any particular place, and even less reason to say no to the stranger (Vincent Lindon) who approaches her car in search of a ride. She does not know this man, who looks like the poster child for rumpled bachelorhood and whose demeanor is docile enough to arouse suspicion. Yet they will spend an entire evening together, and few words will pass between them, for they recognize in each other not simply a shared yearning, but a desire to give words a rest. When morning breaks, they will part, and likely never see each other again.
The Bridges of Madison County redux? Not hardly, but rather a great and simple movie romance in which Denis (who co-wrote the film with novelist and Under the Sand co-scenarist Emmanuelle Bernheim) reduces characters and situations down to their emotional scaffolding, studying people and their environments with the fascinated objectivity of an animal behaviorist. Friday Night is also driven by ravishing visuals, courtesy Denis’ longtime cinematographer Agnes Godard, who shoots in an offhand, unaffected way, yet manages to imbue her images with a kind of weight and texture that movie images rarely have. Watching the film, you don’t just look at Godard’s evening-green streets, with their shaded, orange-lit windows peeking out like sleepy half-eyes; you breathe them in, like air. Beyond which, as in all of Denis’ best work, the movie might mean nothing — or, more likely, anything we want it to.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BED | Directed by EMILIO MARTÍNEZ-LÁZARO | Screenplay by DAVID SERRANO | Produced by TOMÁS CIMADEVELLA, JOSÉ ANTONIO SÁINZ DE VICUÑA | Released by Sundance Channel Film Series | At Loews Beverly Center Cineplex
FRIDAY NIGHT | Directed by CLAIRE DENIS | Screenplay by DENIS and EMMANUELLE BERNHEIM, based on the novel by BERNHEIM Produced by BRUNO PESERY | Released by Wellspring | At Landmark Cecchi Gori Fine Arts