August 21, 2005

The perfect crime

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

Rafael Gonzalez is incredibly shallow, exceedingly cocky, and an inveterate womanizer–but he’s strangely sympathetic anyway. As played by Guillermo Toledo, who can tell a story in the raise of his eyebrow, in Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia’s latest film, El Crimen Perfecto, Rafael’s charm wins us over from the moment he breaks down the fourth wall and speaks to us.

To be fair, he has had a generous set up. El Crimen Perfecto opens at a salesman training course. Someone asks the demanding teacher if anyone has ever received a perfect score. “Yes,” the teacher says, he once knew a man who could sell anything. “I bought a basketball jersey and I hate basketball,” he remembers. “I have it framed in my room.”

Rafael has sold nothing better than himself. In return, he leads a life most men would envy.

“Welcome to my world, where everything’s perfect,” he declares as the camera pans around the ladies department of a large urban department store. Manager Rafael rules over his fiefdom with a velvet glove. His sharp suit, ever-present tie, and shiny shoes are all courtesy of the store. So are his lovers–he’s been intimate with every beautiful woman on staff. He wines and dines them in the store after hours, with champagne and lobsters, and they make love on display-model mattresses. Everyone knows this, but none of the women seem to mind sharing.

But the line is not only a reference to Rafael’s life. It’s also a subtle shot at the superficial consumerism that the store represents and that Rafael has completely bought into. “It’s the world we live in that makes me hate you,” he later says to the ugly Lourdes. “People, magazines, TV . . . How many people like you get to host TV programs? Seen many ugly girls riding in Ferraris?”

The utopia disappears when Rafael loses a promotion to floor manager to the men’s department manager, Don Antonio. It’s a huge blow–Rafael was born in the store, he sees his ascendancy as his birthright. But before the contemptible Don Antonio can tell the brass he’s fired Rafael, the two argue and Rafael accidentally kills his rival.

But this isn’t the perfect crime of the title. Rafael, panicked, makes the unwise decision to dispose of the body, not realizing there’s been a witness. Lourdes (played by Mónica Cervera) is one of the store’s few homely salesgirls. And while she has become obsessed with the charming Rafael, he doesn’t even remember her name. But all that changes. Rafael may have won his dream promotion. But now he has a, horror of horrors, girlfriend on his hands. It’s enough to drive him from manslaughter to murder.

This synopsis may sound like a typical thriller, but El Crimen Perfecto is a pitch-perfect black comedy. Director Álex de la Iglesia has learned much from Hitchcock, and thrown in more than a touch of European surrealism and social satire. It makes for a potent brew that entertains while it pokes small, subtle holes in our celebrity, consumerist culture. Perhaps the time is finally right for the Spanish filmmaker to find a wider following in America.

De la Iglesia is not above giving homage to his forefathers, either. The inexperienced Rafael looks to the cinema for pointers on murdering Lourdes. He argues with a clerk when Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, which was released in Spain as Crimen Perfecto, scans as Crimen Ferpecto. “This has to be perfect,” he insists.

There is even some understated religious imagery. At one point, Rafael walks through a building on fire, looking every bit like Don Giovanni walking through the gates of hell. But soon after, a knife through his hand reminds one instead of the crucifixion.

But ultimately, Rafael is first predator, and then prey in this surreal, human edition of a nature documentary. In his decline, he starts hallucinating, and the dead Don Antonio becomes something of a sidekick. “There’s a point where sanity gives way to depression,” Rafael explains. “Then depression fades, and neurosis begins. And finally, in the most extreme cases, like in war, or death camps, the subject becomes unstable, his mind breaks apart, and he can no longer distinguish what is real from what isn’t.”

But then, Rafael’s life has always been something of a fantasy. What he ends up hating most about Lourdes is not her unattractiveness or her incessant chatter. “You turned me into a normal person,” he tells her, with bitterness. “Just another one of the million fools with a mediocre, ordinary life, surrounded by kids and supermarkets. I never wanted to be that. I wanted to be . . . elegant.”

“I’m in your head,” Lourdes responds. “You can kill me, but you’ll never forget me.” I won’t reveal the ending here, of course. But safe to say, Lourdes turns out to be right, in the end. Rafael’s crime does turn out to be very clever. But, as he discovered about his old, much loved world, nothing is ever perfect.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is