Like two sides of the same boner, Spanish director Julio Médem’s technical prowess has followed an arc that runs parallel to the erotic charge of his films. Both arguably reached their turgid apogee with 2001’s Sex and Lucia, his most popular film in the US, and deservedly so. Lucia perfected Médem’s career-long fascination with melodramatic romance, circuitous lineages, and sexual symbolism while adding a welcome dose of explicit eroticism (including, gasp, erections, both real and hopefully prosthetic). Not counting his epic and controversial 2002 documentary on Spain’s Basque conflict, The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone, he’s since been content to create variations using more or less the same ingredients as Lucia: first, the globally- and reincarnation-minded anti-imperialist rant, Caótica Ana, and now with the more restrained, more minimal, and much more Sapphic, Room in Rome.
As the film opens, our nighttime vantage is a few stories above a cobbled square, looking nearly straight down. At their drunken leisure, two women walk and stumble into the frame. They linger, the blonde one (from this angle, that’s all we can see) unsure about coming up to the other’s hotel, but her dark-haired pursuer is a highly effective sweet-talker. The camera turns around and enters a hotel room through the open balcony doors and, soon enough, the two women enter. The blonde one eventually leaves; unsure about the whole girl-on-girl thing and also one half of a straight monogamous relationship, she slips on her dress and slips out the door after her pursuer dozes off.
But we — that is, the camera through which we voyeur in on their affair — stay in the room. Even after the two women depart (yes, the blonde returns to pick up her forgotten cellphone, and nobody can really blame her for staying the night) the next morning (together? apart? no spoilers here), we can only watch them walk away from the hovering perspective the film opened with, as if we were, and had always been, tethered to some unknown point inside this hotel room.
It’s a clever trick; the restless, chained camera makes the room feel inhabited even when empty. Judging by all the close-up shots of paintings and comments from the women themselves referencing myths and the classics and the bygone eras in which Europe likes to imagine its own cultural birth, the most likely ghostly inhabitant is that ever shape-shifter: history itself. In that regard, this affair is a ménage à trois, although not the kind that their helpful bellboy — who, in one scene, gladly offers his services (and a pre-warmed zucchini) to the pair — would like. The women make up names and detailed personal histories to disguise themselves from each other, but these, like their clothing, come off quickly. But more than that, Alba (Elena Alaya) and Natasha (Natasha Yarovenko) are having a tryst with courtly love, that ill-conceived historic relic in which our modern ideas about love and romance have their roots.
That Médem is reimagining both the mythical cradle of European civilization and the seed of modern gender relations through a lesbian (technically, half lesbian, half bi-curious) couple makes the film’s excessive emphasis on romance much easier to stomach. Otherwise, it would be too easy to dismiss the couple’s declarations of love so soon after their meeting as an extremely naïve love story or, worse, a dude’s attempt at making lesbian porn for straight guys. It’s not; in fact, maybe in a conscious effort to avoid that outcome, these sex scenes are some of the least explicit — though not the least hot — that Médem’s filmed. Of course, it helps that Alaya and Yarovenko are stunning naked, a state they remain in long after the eroticism dissipates. And it’s impressive how Médem explores the sheer range that the two beautiful human forms are capable of, from arousing to mundane, echoing the variety of expression in classical nude sculptures while remaining wholly modern.
This modernity isn’t simply in the film’s easy acceptance of homosexuality and, for Natasha, sexual fluidity. As the two women look out onto the city from the balcony, they notice that one of the flags the hotel has mounted there is missing: the EU flag flies on one side, the flag for the city of Rome on the other, but Italy’s flagpole is bare. Before leaving the next morning, they joyously attach their white bed sheet onto it. Why position two women’s love story amidst references to Europe’s conceptual birth? To revisit one of the more virulently persistent and, in Médem’s oeuvre, destructive ideas to emerge from that time: the nation state.
Despite being the film most exemplary (not to mention most acclaimed) of his career, Sex and Lucia is atypical for Médem in one regard: its lack of issue with nationality. Since his very first film, 1992’s Vacas, which follows three generations of two Basque families across two of Spain’s civil wars, he’s often linked national identity to trauma and accordingly searched for ways to transcend it. It’s hardly surprising, considering Médem’s from Spain’s Basque Country, a region long plagued by separatist terrorism on one side and federal oppression (and much worse, during Franco’s regime) on the other.
In Vacas, nationalism is symbolically tied to the families’ successive patriarchs, and the violence that accompanies it is perpetrated by them as well. It’s a microcosm of what takes up the pages in the world’s history books: men killing other people over disagreements about identity. In contrast, devoid of any males besides the bellboy who appears only for a minute and is most likely a stand-in for Pan, Room in Rome is Médem’s least violent film, despite each character coming from an opposite end of Europe: Alba from San Sebastian, one of the Basque Country’s main cities, and Natasha, as you might have guessed, from Russia (much to Alba’s sexual excitement).
That lack of conflict and pain might make the film seem slight; comparatively, it is. But Alba and Natasha both reveal enough about themselves to suggest they’ve already experienced enough hardship as individuals, without nationality’s contribution.