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Lady of Spain

Plot summary is normally the lazy way out of a movie review; not so with Kika. The latest by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has a story arc that's so detailed, and that's carried by so many characters, that to chart it would be hard, tedious work. I had to see Kika twice before I saw how its various pieces fit together. It might take another viewing to grasp how they work together, which sounds like a polite way of saying that they don't. But with Almodovar I've learned to take a second look before making up my mind.

His films generally track characters caught on the horns of desire. But since the childlike frivolity of his earliest work, he has found that what he once considered a single road of desire and pleasure has a fork in it. Now his characters have to walk with a painfully wide gait to get a taste of both. The results can be excruciating to watch.

The first time I saw Matador, for example, I harrumphed that it was all very well for Almodovar to prove his daring by explicitly linking death and pleasure. But he was testing the depth of his vision in the more tender parts of my sensibility, areas in which I didn't want artists or anybody else mucking about. Then I saw Matador again, largely on the theory that no movie about bullfighting could be all bad, and I realized that the elements I wasn't originally able to get my mind around now made breathtaking sense.

Something along those lines happened with Kika. I walked out of my first viewing feeling terribly riled. It wasn't the advertised rape scene that offended me. Rushing in where everyone, from the angels on down, fears to tread, Almodovar -- and the awfully game Veronica Forque, as Kika -- has somehow made the protracted violation of his title character funny. But it was still depressing to see how Almodovar was willing to heap insult even on a character he plainly enjoyed. His loathing of the rest of his creations was so intense that it simply overwhelmed them. Worst of all, he had thrown together so many genres, and given us so many characters of nearly equal weight, that he seemed to be floundering, throwing ideas against the screen in the hope that some of them would stick.

But remembering the lesson of Matador, I trudged back to another screening, and found, if not a masterpiece, at least an edgy, legitimately disturbing film.

Much credit is due Forque. She plays the nearly middle-aged Madrid beautician with a girlish lightness, complete with a cartoony voice, that could easily have degenerated into an embarrassment -- but doesn't. Almodovar, unfortunately, makes the mistake of not planting Forque's Kika more firmly in the center of the film.

Almodovar has two movies here -- Kika on the verge, and the mass media as matador. Both have their grace notes, and at times the two converge. But they split apart in what I'll finally have to call a failure. It is not, however, an empty failure. Having rejected the perfection of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodovar is still ferociously trying to get at something.

-- David Theis

Kika.
Directed by Pedro Almodovar. With Veronica Forque, Alex Casanovas and Peter Coyote.

Not rated.
115 minutes.

 
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