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Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Gender roles in a blender

Gaudi Afternoon

Rating: * * * *
Director: Susan Seidelman
Running time: 88 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 22

Here's a new thing: a woman's movie in which no woman is a victim, and no one gets divorced. Directed by Susan Seidelman, "Gaudi Afternoon" showcases four brilliant performances by some of America's finest actresses, including Marcia Gay Harden, whose womanly physique and husky, breathless voice are deployed to the max in the most unexpected ways. This is one director who knows how to draw the best out of women in front of a camera, who has always maintained an offbeat take on women's lives and their problems.

News photo
Marcia Gay Harden and Judy Davis in "Gaudi Afternoon"

Seidelman's name went on the map with "Desperately Seeking Susan" in 1985, which paired Madonna and Rosanna Arquette, and was a fun, irreverent look at the quest for female identity and independence. Seidelman has since moved on. While "Gaudi Afternoon" features an almost all-woman cast, the issues she brings to light transcend usual women's film material (love, marriage, sex, children or a general lack of those things). It even transcends conventional concepts of femininity to embrace those who are confused about theirs. In this way, "Gaudi Afternoon" takes the woman's movie several notches higher, away from the gender map that insists on dividing the world into two opposing camps: men (and their priorities) and women (and their problems stemming from those priorities).

Still, "Gaudi Afternoon" is very much a woman's film, because, girlfriends, this is Seidelman's (and screenwriter James Myhre's) way of saying that women are more likely to have the patience, interest and flexibility to embrace other people's hang-ups, transgender-related and otherwise.

"Gaudi Afternoon" kicks off with an introduction to the dry, unglamorous life of Cassandra (Judy Davis), a globe-trotting translator who never stays in one place for very long. She is currently in Barcelona, city of Gaudi architecture (and transsexuals), where two women exchanging a passionate kiss on the street blends right in with the rich and colorful setting.

But to Cassandra, in the middle of translating a Spanish "woman's novel" that she's not interested in, Barcelona is just another city where she has to scramble to make ends meet. Then suddenly, drama turns up at her doorstep in the form of a gorgeous brunette from San Francisco called Frankie (Marcia Gay Harden). Even in Barcelona, Frankie's wardrobe stands out -- think of it as Jackie O meets Joan Collins. Seeing the glitzy Frankie and somber Cassandra together is like seeing a golden Borgia goblet next to an ancient, chipped matcha bowl, side by side on the same museum shelf.

Frankie asks Cassandra to locate her missing husband Ben, which she cannot do herself for lack of language skills, and she's willing to pay $3,000. Cassandra says yes without thinking twice, but this is before she knows that Ben (Lili Taylor) is actually a woman and Frankie is a male transvestite, so it's really Frankie's wife that Cassandra must seek. Get it?

Ben is currently living with her lover April (Juliette Lewis) and daughter Delilah (Courtney Jines) in the apartment of bisexual magician Hamilton (Christopher Bowen), who's friendly with everyone. The math involved in who goes with whom doesn't confuse Cassandra; she quickly sees that underneath all the cross-dressing is a marital dispute triggered by sexual ambivalence, followed by a bitter custody battle.

The only sane person is 6-year-old Delilah, who accepts her father's womanhood as easily as she does her mother's male demeanor, and only wishes that they could all live together again in San Francisco as one happy family. As she grows closer to Delilah, Cassandra gets in touch with her own need to see her mother again and recover a relationship she had lost long ago.

Harden, in the role of a man posing as a woman but who still insists on exercising the rights of a "father," is a feat of acting acrobatics that must not be missed. Her combo with the hardened, cynical but sincere Cassandra makes the most compelling couple in the movie, even though April is making passes at Cassandra throughout. Much of this is one huge nod to Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," but with an American twist to the characters -- Ben models herself after James Dean, April is too Californian New Age to believe, and Cassandra relies on her solid, Midwestern common sense to see her through crises.

Personally, though, I would have liked the story to delve deeper into the relationship between Frankie and Ben. Interestingly, of all the females, Ben is the least tolerant of other people's idiosyncrasies and can't forgive Frankie for becoming a transvestite. Ben is the one who yells and resorts to violence to make a point, while Frankie prefers to sneak around and lie to get what she wants.

"Gaudi Afternoon" takes gender stereotypes and spins them on their heads -- perfect viewing for a pensive weekend when your boyfriend is glued to the World Cup games and is not speaking to you.

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