El Crimen Perfecto (Spanish)

I’m not acquainted with the works of Alex de la Iglesia, the Spanish filmmaker whose “El Crimen Perfecto” (“The Perfect Crime”) is now in U.S. theaters, but he seems to have a bit of a cult following in his native land. And no wonder: “El Crimen Perfecto” is a well-oiled machine of wit, sex and violence, as darkly funny as the Coen Bros. (almost) and as visually interesting as Tarantino (almost).

De la Iglesia (co-writing with frequent collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarrí­a) gives us the brightly colored, falsely cheerful world of Yeyo’s, a Madrid department store where the rakish señorita’s man Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) runs Women’s Clothing the way Hugh Hefner runs the Playboy mansion. He sleeps with all the salesgirls and is revered by his male co-workers. He claims to have been born in this very store (his mother went into labor while shopping), and he makes ample use of its resources to give his consumer-driven lifestyle a facade of luxury. Can’t afford a nice suit? No problem! Just take one home. He is, as he puts it in one of his monologues delivered to the camera, “the priest in a pagan temple, surrounded by my followers.”

A new floor manager is needed, and Rafael is passed over for the promotion in favor of Don Antonio (Luis Varela), the prissy, embittered head of Men’s Clothing. A scuffle in the dressing rooms leads to an accidental death for Don Antonio and a crisis for Rafael. It was an accident, of course, but everyone knows they were arguing, and Rafael certainly had a motive for killing him. He can’t allow his happy existence to be upset by something so trivial as the death of his rival. A cover-up is called for.

Panic sets in. Rafael stops speaking directly to the camera, forgetting us now that he has no time for suaveness or charm. He hear his thoughts via voice-over, though, and de la Iglesia swirls the camera around Yeyo’s as Rafael realizes the mess he’s in. Did anyone see what happened? Can he get rid of the body? Wait — Where did the body go?!

I thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s quote, about “what a messy thing it is to kill a man,” not easy and clean like it usually is in the movies. Rafael discovers that, and the movie goes from stylish and blithe to suspenseful and tense in a matter of moments. And then it becomes something else again: Lourdes (Monica Cervera), the only plain-looking salesgirl on Rafael’s staff, comes forward and says she saw the whole thing, she hid the body for him, and she’ll help him dispose of it. In exchange for what, you ask? In exchange for Rafael becoming a one-woman man, with her being the one woman.

Now it’s a farce, as Lourdes and Rafael — both opportunistic and loathsome — use each other for what they need, each at least partially despising the other. Rafael can’t stand being her sex slave, but he doesn’t want her going to the police, either. Lourdes, for her part, sees Rafael as a stepping-stone on the path to her true goal of running the store.

The film begins fantastically, as funny and interesting as you please, and downright Hitchcockian when Don Antonio dies. It’s a step down, then, when Lourdes enters the picture. (The transition from murder thriller to dark farce is always a bit jarring, in movies just as in life.) De la Iglesia walks a fine line with that character — you run the risk of appearing misogynistic when every woman in the movie is either a slut or a man-hungry wallflower — but Monica Cervera pulls it off fiercely, a combination of mental instability and pure evil that is wondrous to behold.

And in the lead, Guillermo Toledo: perfectly at home as a womanizer, as a fawning (and highly effective) salesman, and then as a man whose life is falling apart piece by piece, a man coming unglued before our eyes. Toledo plays it all with equal panache, the perfect guide on our journey through the giddy world of murder, extortion and fashion.

B+ (1 hr., 44 min.; Spanish with subtitles; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of harsh profanity, some strong violence, a lot of nudity, some strong sexuality.)