"Sex and Lucia" is one of the sexiest movies out this year to date. It's a hallucinatory tale about a seemingly tragic love affair that detours through the world of imagination and memory. The result: a blissful island idyll, seething with eroticism and gorgeous visions of sun and sea.
"Sex" is set in modern Madrid and on the Mediterranean isle of Formentera, but it also takes place in the present and the past, in real life and within the imaginary confines of a novel. And Spanish writer-director Julio Medem packs it with so much stunning, wildly colorful imagery -- and so much sex -- that it transfixes you even when you're not quite sure what's going on. (For some audiences, that may be often.)
Instead, Medem, the vibrant young director of "Terra" and "Cows," whirls you from one time and place to another with swiftness and ease while his uninhibited cast members (including star Paz Vega, whose performance here earned her the Goya -- the Spanish Oscar -- for Best Actress) keep stripping themselves bare, emotionally and sexually. Vega plays Lucia, first shown intertwined, underwater, with her lover, Lorenzo (Tristan Ulloa), and then in the blackness of the Madrid night as she receives a last desperate phone call from Lorenzo. Later, she's informed by the police of his death by accident.
Distraught, she travels to Formentera and almost immediately tumbles down a huge hole that opens into another world. In this world of reverie, we see -- mixed together, with little regard for chronology or classical narration -- Lucia's meeting with Lorenzo, the raffishly appealing writer she's adored from afar; Lorenzo's liaison with another woman, Elena (Najwa Nimri of Medem's "Lovers of the Arctic Circle"); and the birth of Lorenzo's and Elena's daughter, Luna (Silvia Llanos). Then we plunge into a visualization of the novel Lorenzo is writing while he's with Lucia, a tale that may or may not be a true record of his high jinks with the adolescent Belen (Elena Anaya). Belen lives in a sexually complicated household, and she also baby-sits for Luna, Lorenzo's daughter.
A tragedy erupts in this story as well, a darkness that alternates with the blazing sunlight and sensuality of Formentera's beaches, where Lucia meets Elena, as well as a man, Carlos (Daniel Freire), who seems to be the double of the mother's lover in Lorenzo's novel.
Does it all sound confusing? It is. But what's important in "Sex" is less verisimilitude -- the story is full of outrageous coincidences -- than the scintillating visuals and conflicts and the sultry mood. Like "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and the recent flood of French eroticism ("The Piano Teacher," "Fat Girl," "Pola X"), "Sex and Lucia" uses the screen's current sexual openness with intimacy and abandon. The sex is frequent, but it's completely integrated into the story, which is, after all, about sexual obsession and betrayals.
Spanish cinema has often revealed a flair for bizarre melodrama; the country's greatest director (even though he was an exile who mostly worked in Mexico and France) was Luis Bunuel. Medem's film is in the Bunuel tradition; he's defiantly sexy and radical. But Medem also goes in for the flashy, ravishing visuals Bunuel usually eschewed. (Here, they're shot by the splendid cinematographer Kiko de la Rica.) The movie is a journey into a land of wonders beneath the surface of consciousness,-- but it's also a sexual ride of unabated heat. You may be confused by "Sex and Lucia," but you won't be unmoved.
3 stars (out of 4)
"Sex and Lucia"
Directed and written by Julio Medem; photographed by Kiko de la Rica; edited by Ivan Aledo; art direction by Montserrat Sanz; music by Alberto Iglesias; produced by Fernando Bovaira. A Palm Pictures release; opens Friday at the Century Center Cinema. In Spanish; English subtitled. Running time: 2:09. No MPAA rating (adult: sensuality, nudity, language, violence).
Lucia -- Paz Vega
Lorenzo -- Tristan Ulloa
Elena -- Najwa Nimri
Carlow/Antonio -- Daniel Friere
Belen -- Elena Anaya Luna -- Silvia Llanos
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.