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By Tom Gaffey | March 20, 2003

Susan Seidelman’s comedy-mystery “Gaudi Afternoon” is finally coming to American theaters. Like so many other personal, small films, it sat on shelves for quite some time (the film was made in 2001) and has already been available internationally on DVD.

Seidelman, who directed the pilot and first two episodes of “Sex and The City,” starts off “Gaudi Afternoon” off in a “Sarah Jessica Parker” sort-of way, with the Barcelona-based American writer Cassandra (played with great spunk by Judy Davis), smoking a cigarette and tapping away on her laptop while talking in voice-over to the audience. She is trying to adapt a Spanish novel into English, but she is having trouble: she lacks inspiration. It isn’t that her Barcelona apartment and neighborhood isn’t “ethnic” enough. Something is missing.

Into Cassandra’s life comes Frankie Stevens (played by an aggressive, no-holds-bar Marcia Gay Harden), a fellow American with the startling business proposal: Cassandra is to track down Frankie’s husband Ben and their daughter Delilah, who she believes to be somewhere in Barcelona. Since Cassandra needs a quick infusion of cash and since Frankie (with her fire engine red wardrobe and equally fiery personality) is not one to take no for an answer, Cassandra decides to play detective for hire.

There are a few quirks to this assignment, which Cassandra eventually realizes. First, Frankie is not the woman she seems to be. And Ben is not the man Cassandra is expecting: Lili Taylor plays the butch “Ben” character who is trying to protect her daughter from Frankie. Also in the mix is April (played by Juliette Lewis), Ben’s somewhat mysterious girlfriend. If it sounds strange to read, it should be seen to be enjoyed. Taylor gives a heartfelt performance as Ben, proving that a woman can be a wonderful dad, while Lewis, whose character plumbs the stranger edges of New Age philosophy, treats the films as if she was in a playground by experimenting with how far her flaky character can go. Both performances were a treat to watch.

The film itself is even more bizarre than its synopsis would suggest. The characters are all eccentric and unpredictable, and the plot twists and turns never stop coming. Seidelman frames all of these actions with a series of eccentric camera angles that come close to being insane. Enhancing the lunacy of their story is having it played against the backdrop of Antonio Gaudi’s wild and fantastic architecture, making the character’s adventures seem as if they were loose in a real-life version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.

While “Gaudi Afternoon” uses great levity and daring gender bending to show there is no traditional concept of a family, it offers a touching message that a wonderful child can be raised regardless if the parental ratio is mother and father or two mothers or two fathers. The child in this story, Delilah (played beautifully by newcomer Courtney Jines) radiates a sort of Victorian innocence that makes this wacky film come down from its highest comic peak to an unexpectedly soft and special tale of the love between child and parent.

Even with its over-the-top performances, “Gaudi Afternoon” is an emotionally and intellectually subtle work. Few people may immediately see its charm, and Seidelman herself has warned viewers that the film may not be for everyone. Though much like Gaudi’s architecture, perhaps this piece is a bit ahead of its time, if so, it will certainly be appreciated in the future.

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