In anticipation of the forthcoming birthday of star Paz Vega, I’m re-posting this review of writer-director Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucia, originally published in Entertainment Today upon its Stateside release in the summer of 2002. Visually rich, stylistically bold and erotically charged, Sex and Lucia is a cinematic disquisition on desire, sex, fear and the secrets that the intertwining of the three cause us to keep.
The winner of several Goya Awards — the Oscar equivalent — in its native Spain, Sex and Lucia uses waitress and free spirit Lucia (feted Best Actress winner Vega, above) as chief conduit for its narrative, even though in fact the story is probably filtered to a slightly larger degree through her writer boyfriend Lorenzo (Tristan Ulloa, looking like a sort of vagabond Gary Sinese). After a distraught Lorenzo leaves her, Lucia too takes flight, seeking refuge on a quiet Mediterranean island of special significance, an island where she soon discovers some dark secrets regarding her relationship.
We quickly flash back six years, and see Lorenzo’s fiery one-night fling with a mysterious stranger, Elena (Najwa Nimri), that forms the thinly veiled spine of his autobiographical first novel. Ironically, it’s also the unbridled passion in this book that woos Lucia; we witness their first encounter, in which she takes a winged chance and declares her love in a cafe. Moved by her honesty and bravery, and seemingly nonplussed by the fact that she’s been stalking him, Lorenzo welcomes Lucia with open arms, and the two immediately become a couple.
Some years pass, but consequence comes knocking when Lorenzo, through his agent, finds out that Elena — whose name he never learned — not only became pregnant but also bore him a daughter, now 4 years old. Consumed with guilt and driven by a sweaty, despairing uncertainty, Lorenzo pours his tortured ambivalence into another thinly veiled tome, his third (this after his second effort, an upbeat book, didn’t register with Lucia). He keeps things a secret from Lucia even as he passively tumbles into an “inappropriate relationship” with his daughter’s babysitter, Belen (the beguiling Elena Anaya), a relationship that allows him access to his little girl, named Luna, without giving away his complete identity. More tragedy soon follows, however, leading us back to Lorenzo’s flight from the beginning of the film.
As the title might suggest, Sex and Lucia conveys in powerful strokes both bold and understated the potential consuming nature of raw sexual hunger; as usual, the Europeans get it right while we Americans continue to by and large wallow in shallow titillation. The film never for an instant feels lurid or ridiculous, even though some of the couplings are desperate and/or needy. The imagery of nature also plays a central role in Sex and Lucia‘s narrative (the sun and the moon are recurrent symbols), both on the surface and as an emotional/visual parallel to the characters’ arcs. Certain anglings and tactics of Medem (Lovers of the Arctic Circle), though, reek of both cheap male fantasy (the notion of writer as hardy sex god always screams surrogate screen presence) and writerly overreach when such obfuscation and complication are hardly necessary.
Characterized by a typical European ellipticism, the film is, technically and visually speaking, a marvel, but structurally something of a mess; Medem’s playful linear jumps and interstitial non-sequiturs are more often a hindrance than the dreamy incorporations they’re meant to be taken as. Still, forgiven these minor indulgences and occasional waywardness Sex and Lucia achieves an eerie hold entirely independent of its story proper, and maybe that’s part of Medem’s point. (Palm, R, 128 minutes)