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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Siesta' Dares to Be a Monumental Snoozer

November 25, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Ah, monumentally bad movies-- trashio in excelsis. Where would our screen memories be without them? And just in time for a big donation to that memory bank, we have "Siesta" (AMC 14, Century City), hot, awful artiness, with Ellen Barkin as a daredevil sky diver in the grips of an obsessive love.

At the heart of any project so awesomely wrongheaded there has to be a big, pretentious conceit, and "Siesta's" screenplay is that, all right. Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop ("9 1/2 Weeks") has taken Patrice Chaplin's mysterious novel about love beyond death, and run with it. Risk! Passion! Free falling! Death as a metaphor! Grace Jones as a metaphor! It's all there.

Barkin's character, originally a sort of cabaret tightrope-stripper, is now a sky diver whose free-fall into a volcanic crater in Death Valley is to be the highlight of the Fourth of July, if her amiable promoter-husband (Martin Sheen) has anything to say about it.

Precipitously, she jets to Spain only five days before the big event, after the arrival of a letter from her great past love, a Spanish tightrope trainer (Gabriel Byrne), mocking her fall from art into crass commercialism and mentioning that, by the by, he's gotten married.

In Spain, Barkin wakes from unconsciousness at the edge of an airfield, wearing only a bloodstained red dress and an impressive set of bruises, and worried that she may have killed someone, possibly Byrne's wife (Isabella Rossellini). Lest the stripteasing elements of the story get lost, Barkin gets to fling off that red dress many, many times, allowing us to inventory those bruises, or whatever, at our leisure.

In attempting to reconstruct her blacked-out days, Barkin careens from one disaster to another as in a dream--without money, passport, memory or underwear, and with a series of new, bizarre friends/enemies. There is a priapic Spanish cabdriver with tin teeth (Alexi Sayle); a group of aimless English artists, including photographer Julian Sands, in basic white suit and pearls; Jodie Foster, as a well-bred, impecunious young Englishwoman on the fringes of Sands' large, jet-setting entourage, and Grace Jones as the mysterious Conchita, wearing violet, a mantilla and a rat named Roscoe. (Yes, she is wearing it--on her shoulder, under the mantilla.)

Possibly this heavily freighted metaphysical story, which seems to view great loves and Lourdes as roughly interchangeable, would have defeated almost anyone, but another director might not have given it the great whoosh of awfulness--and collectibility--that Mary Lambert has.

In her leap into feature films after videos, notably Madonna's, Lambert has used a fragmented time technique, although the effect is not that of Nicolas Roeg, but of semi-incomprehensibility. The film does, and should, look gorgeous: Bryan Loftus, cinematographer of "The Company of Wolves," did those honors, and Miles Davis can be heard on Marcus Miller's sound track. And Jodie Foster, looking angular and interesting, comes off best among the cast. But that's it for the pluses.

The usually interesting Barkin has been encouraged to hurl herself into attitudes like some loony game of living statues; what you come away remembering--if not her suntan--is her marathoner's run, exaggerated as a cartoon character's. Poor Rossellini, as the wronged wife, has been guided to act like a prim, outraged Miss Manners. And in a role that needed smoldering Spanish charisma, we have Gabriel Byrne, heavy and lugubrious.

The movie hints strongly that Barkin is acting out a state of purgatory--one way you can think about "Siesta" (MPAA-rated: R for nudity, sexual violence) itself. On the other hand, you could find this sort of glossy affectation bracing; we haven't had its likes, well, not since "9 1/2 Weeks."

'SIESTA' A Lorimar Motion Pictures release of a Lorimar and Siren Pictures presentation of a Palace/Kurfirst/King production. Producer Gary Kurfirst. Executive producers, Julio Caro, Zalman King, Nik Powell. Co-producer Chris Brown. Director Mary Lambert. Editor Glenn A. Morgan. Camera Bryan Loftus. Music composed, produced by Marcus Miller; performed by Miles Davis. Production design John Beard. Screenplay Patricia Louisianna Knop, based on the novel by Patrice Chaplin. Associate producer Lisa Z. Jones. Costumes Marlene Steward. Aerial sequence designed by Tom Sanders. With Ellen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Isabella Rossellini, Martin Sheen, Alexi Sayle, Grace Jones, Jodie Foster, Anastassia Stakis.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).

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