'Kiki, Love to Love' ('Kiki, El Amor Se Hace'): Film Review

KIKI, LOVE TO LOVE still - H 2016
Courtesy of Wild Bunch International Sales
Feel-good fun, interestingly twisted.

The blend of comedy and pathos in Paco Leon’s third film, about people controlled by their fetishes, is currently making the Spanish box office go 'oooh.'

If Pedro Almodovar were starting out now, his films wouldn’t look so different from Paco Leon’s. Following up two cult hits featuring Leon’s mother as the estimable Carmina, Kiki, Love to Love is sexy, daring, transgressive, brightly colored and often very funny, mixing up its five interwoven stories of people enjoying — and suffering — their sexual fetishes into an upbeat, vibrant crowd-pleaser which has seen it dislodge Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice from the top of Spain’s box-office rankings. That “somebody understands me” sense that people had 30 years ago when they watched Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, their kids will feel when they watch Kiki (after due adjustments), and if that sounds like a grand claim for the Sevillian director Leon — who's canny enough to know all of this — then it’s not entirely misplaced.

Since there are plenty of people around who are nostalgic for the early-mid Almodovar, offshore sales are a real possibility for this distinctively Spanish outing (which is a transposal of Josh Lawson’s Australian sex comedy The Little Death: Leon borrows the plot of the original, but absolutely not its spirit). The only thing standing in Kiki’s way is its idiom-heavy dialogue, which would require a subtitling miracle to translate in all its fruity glory.

Throughout, Kiki skillfully straddles the line between the comedy you’d expect and the compassion which makes it work at a deeper level. After sex with b.f. Alex (Alex Garcia — most characters have their actors’ names), Natalia (Natalia Molina, who recently won the best actress Goya) confesses to him that she recently had an orgasm whilst being robbed at knifepoint. The word for this is ‘harpaxophilia,’ and the script has a lot of fun with Alex’s attempts to please her by faking a robbery.

In the second story, Ana (Ana Katz) and Paco (Leon), winsomely always a bit baffled by things, are a couple whose sex life isn’t what it used to be. As they’re trying to work out their issues, they’re visited by Paco’s friend Belen (Belen Cuesta), who’s working in a sex club. Maybe, she suggests, a visit would be in order. Viewers concerned about how sexually strong Kiki is can relax after this scene, which features nothing worse than a little non-consensual peeing (a throwback, indeed, to a legendary scene in Almodovar’s first 1980 film).

But it’s not all about good-looking young couples. Middle-aged Antonio (Luis Callejo) and Maria Candelaria run a fairground attraction and their sex life too is on the rocks until she discovers that she’s sexually aroused by seeing people cry (dacryphilia): Cue attempts to make Luis sad. It sounds cheesy, but the quality of the performances — which is general across the film — and the nuanced scripting mean it works.

Sadder still is the story of plastic surgeon Jose Luis (Luis Bermejo), married to wheelchair-ridden Paloma (Mary Paz Sayago), who treats him with cold disdain. So he drugs and has sex with her while she sleeps (more Almodovar: this time, Talk to Her). This sounds suspiciously like sexual assault, but the script is not as quick as some viewers will be to rush to judgment, since it’s clear that there is love between Jose Luis and Paloma, and that what’s standing in its way is her self-hatred. Under the comic surface it's dark, subtle stuff, through this part of the film, at least.

We’re on slightly wobblier ground with the story of Sandra (Alexandra Jimenez), a deaf, neurotic lizard-keeping cloth-fetishist who does good work but indeed struggles to fuse those parts together into something credible, just as that description suggests she will. There is an air of desperate comedy about the early scenes of this story which elsewhere is absent.

Less important to the film than the stories themselves are the hilarious set-pieces they work up to. One elegantly choreographed sequence featuring Jose Luis making love to the sleeping Paloma in a variety of poses is one example of how to wordlessly blend humor and pathos. A lengthy, wordless Skype chat between Sandra and her pretender similarly gathers up the story into a couple of skillfully handled minutes.

As a director, Leon has the ability to draw strikingly natural performances from his characters. This is perhaps less surprising in the two Carmina films, which starred his mother playing herself, but he pulls it off here, too: Witness in particular Maite Sandoval’s (like Saygo, she’s a Leon discovery) magnificent monologue as Jose Luis’s deranged assistant Maite.

Behind much of Kiki, of course, there’s an acidic criticism of what it means to be "normal" in our society, of the conservative social pressures which are quick to banish the other to a life of solitude, insecurity and self-harm (there's a fair bit of violence bubbling below the surface of these characters' lives). All the main characters are dealing with some insecurity or other, and it’s this — together with the script’s understanding of those insecurities — which make the film resonate interestingly, beyond being the "erotic-festive comedy" its publicity sells it as. The split between society’s claims on us and our claims for ourselves are seen most starkly in the minor character of Jose Luis’ Filipino maid Loreley. She’s earning very little money but is prepared to spend a lot of it on paying her boss to give her bigger breasts (a little subtle blackmail works the problem out).

Kiko de la Rica’s camerawork is snappy and energetic, key to the zippy rhythm of the project as a whole. The film’s fresh, clean look — featuring beautifully designed interiors and bright colors, all bathed in the intense white light of a sweltering, sexy Madrid August (the film ends with a collective scene at one of the city’s legendary summer street fairs) — are another reminder of a long-ago Almodovar. Dialogues are heavily reliant on the language and rhythms of Leon’s native Sevillle. The initial credits sequence, featuring humans morphing into animals — to remind us perhaps of the primary instincts which we seem to have become divorced from — is a memorable standalone.

Production companies: Vertigo Films, Telecinco, Mediaset Spain
Cast: Natalia de Molina, Alex Garcia, Paco Leon, Ana Katz, Belen Cuesta, Candela Pena, Luis Bermejo, Luis Callejo, Mary Paz Sayago, David Mora, Alexandra Jimenez
Directors: Paco Leon
Screenwriters: Paco Leon, Josh Lawson, Fernando Perez
Producers: Alvaro Augustin, Ghislain Barrois, Andres Martin
Executive producers: Josh Lawson, Elena Manrique, Agnes Mentre, Maribel Munoz, Michael Petroni
Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica
Production designer: Vicent Díaz, Montse Sanz
Costume designers: Javier Bernal, Pepe Patatin
Editor: Alberto de Toro
Sales: Wild Bunch

Not rated, 102 minutes