Apartment Zero almost makes you wish that Firth hadn't done Pride and Prejudice. Not that he isn't brilliant as Darcy but it stuck him in rom-coms for years. Whilst some were great (Bridget Jones' Diary) others were dire (What A Girl Wants). It was only with A Single Man that he managed to get back on track as a serious actor but I doubt whether he'll do anything as fascinatingly odd as Apartment Zero again.
The film is set in modern day Buenos Aires. Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth) runs a little cinema club showing old classics. He's a bit of a film geek, with the walls of his apartment covered with photos of actors like Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Adrian's a bit odd anyway but the fading sanity of his mother is driving him towards a breakdown. To raise cash for his cinema club, he reluctantly takes in a lodger: hunky American Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), who looks like the James Dean type (or Montgomery Clift, in Adrian's opinion). The two become friends but Adrian is intensely jealous when Jack starts making friends with their neighbours. How far will he go to keep his friend?
Why it was a surprise to anyone that Firth played a gay character in A Single Man is a bit of a mystery. To my count, he's played five gay characters (or characters implied to be gay) plus two characters whose only friend is gay and in love with him. Although in this day and age, it's a surprise when people are surprised that a straight actor can play gay characters. There's enough homoeroticism in Apartment Zero to burn the screen down. The only thing that burns more is Bochner's eyes. Jack doesn't say a lot; he's a creepy cipher who tells you exactly what you want to hear. But this is exactly why the neighbours love him- that and his glistening bare chest, which makes a frequent appearance.
Apartment Zero is yet another example of a film that uses the plot of a thriller but the themes and psychology it explores turn out to be the real thrill. One of the themes is that surfaces are misleading but we allow ourselves to be misled because it's simpler. As Adrian says to Jack: "If that is a mask please take it off now, or keep it on forever". With one of the neighbours being a transvestite, we get a literal interpretation as well. What is so touching is that Adrian and Jack completely accept each other, even at the point where acceptance is really not the most appropriate thing. In a strange way, you sort of want the friendship to work and as each twist comes, your first thought is how it will affect their friendship rather than the psychotic truth.
As for Firth's performance, this is one of his best. He does a lot of what he does best- sexual and emotional repression, being the nice guy- and yet it has substance. Adrian may be psychotic but his repression is a result of his desperate loneliness. Jack is his salvation. A Month in A Country is another good example of Firth's ability to do a shattering breakdown.
Despite breakdowns and tragic illusions, it's actually quite a funny film in parts, where the neighbours are about as odd as Adrian anyway. There's some political stuff there as well but I admit that went over my head. Maybe that will emerge more strongly on the rewatch. Or maybe the tenth rewatch...