Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

"Vicente Aranda blatantly plays up the virgin/whore dichotomy between the two female characters but the women give nuanced performances that suggest. undercurrents of complexity"

Based on a true story and set in a grey 1950s Madrid, Lovers (Amantes) is part melodrama, part film noir with Paco (Jorge Sanz) newly on civvy street and caught between his virginal fiancée Trini (Maribel Verdú) and his sexually voracious landlady Luisa (Victoria Abril). Director Vicente Aranda blatantly plays up the virgin/whore dichotomy between the two female characters but the women give nuanced performances that suggest undercurrents of complexity and hint at the difficulty of women finding their way in a world weighted against them.

If anything, the man at the centre of this world is overwhelmed by the two women - a bit of a non-entity, Paco doesn't seem worthy of the women's tussle. This is no fault of the baby-faced Jorge Sanz, but rather an indication of the weakness of the man he plays. Paco is something of a weasel, unable to definitively decide anything for himself and instead buffeted by the actions of the women he can't choose between - soft words come easily to him but his promises mean very little, and the ease with which he betrays one woman or the other marks him as a coward into the bargain.

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The women are the backbone of the film. That they both genuinely love Paco - to a self-destructive extent - is the only thing they have in common other than using sex as their most persuasive method of keeping him. From the moment Abril opens the front door dressed in a black kimono and draped in the tinsel with which Luisa is decorating her Christmas tree, Paco's fate is sealed. Part ready-wrapped gift, part black widow, Luisa is a femme fatale of the old school and Abril throws herself wholeheartedly into the bad girl role in a performance that frequently segues between sensuality and a tightly coiled fury (often within the same sex scene).

Luisa's apartment - in which Paco rents a room - is shot in honeyed-mahoganies by director of photography José Luis Alcaine, creating an intimate space that feels enveloping when juxtaposed alongside the grey spaces inhabited by the younger woman, Trini. A modest young woman who uses shy glances in the place of direct eye contact, Trini's girlish innocence is occasionally overstated in Maribel Verdú's performance but the sincerity of the character is never in doubt. Despite outward appearances, Trini is as passionate as her rival but expresses it in a manner that goes unappreciated by Paco.

The contrasting colours of the women's clothes - Trini in baby blue, Luisa in bold red or a waspish yellow - is an obvious bit of character coding but subtler manifestations of their differences are also in evidence, such as the recurring motif of Paco being fed (homemade sustenance vs shop-bought confections). These fleeting moments - nothing is ostensibly made of them within the narrative (nobody decries Luisa's lack of basic culinary skills, nor praises Trini's kitchen management) - nonetheless bolster the characterisations of two very distinct women. Although Abril was named best actress at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival for her performance, it is Verdú - as the loving woman who is not loved in return - who lingers in the mind after the credits roll.

Showing as part of the London Spanish Film Festival's Aranda retrospective, Lovers is a key film in the director's filmography - it won Best Film and Best Director at the 1992 Goya Awards. The three performers have acted together frequently over the years - each has worked with Aranda multiple times - and here they elevate the tawdry and torrid (hallmarks of Aranda's films) into a classic noir.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2014
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After finishing his military service, a young man intends to settle down with his fiancée but begins a dangerous affair with his landlady.

Director: Vicente Aranda

Writer: Álvaro del Amo, Vicente Aranda, Carlos Pérez Merinero

Starring: Victoria Abril, Jorge Sanz, Maribel Verdú, Enrique Cerro, Mabel Escaño, Alicia Agut, José Cerro, Gabriel Latorre, Saturnino García, Ricard Borràs, Lucas Martín, Jorge Juan García, Cosme Cortázar, Carmen Ibarra, Fernando Hernández

Year: 1991

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Spain


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