From the Boston Phoenix (September 8, 1989). — J.R.
I haven’t seen Martin Donovan’s first feature, 1984’s State of Wonder, but his eclectic background in both fikm and theater suggests that a baroque thriller like Apartment Zero isn’t coming out of nowhere. Born in Argentina, Donovan began his overseas career in Italy, as an actor (Fellini’s Satyricon) and an assistant to Luchino Visconti (on Ludwig and Conversation Piece). Then he founded his own theater company in England, Nuvact Studio Inyternational (where his productions included Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and his own play, Osterich), before writing and directiung State of Wonder.
Apartment Zero marks Domnovan’s return to Argentina, and the film’s multinational cast and crew bring together co-workers from three continents. Its disquieting suspense plot begins with the bizarre bonding of a reclusive, repressed eccentric named Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth), who operates a film club in Buenos Aires, and a charismatic, mysterious American named Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), whom LeDuc takes on as a tenant to help cover his mother’s hospital expenses.
The movie takes its time developing its perverse plot — which involves a series of serial murders in Buenos Aires and the employment of foreign mercenaries in Argentina’s death squads. But it’s well worth the wait, because the story uncovers a frightening and multi-layered portrait of the American abroad that could not be achieved without the gradual build-up. Such deliberate pacing also works in establishing the gallery of haunting secondary characters living in LeDuc’s apartment building, where most of the action is set; they include a woman whose husband is away , a transvestite, and two English spinsters.
Apartment Zero echoes a good many other movies — not only because of LeDuc’s tortured cinephilia, but also because of Donovan’s obvious schooling in the basics of Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Psycho), Chabrol (Les cousins), and Polanski (The Tenant), all of which he puts to good, macabre use. His camera movements and his emotional exploitation of music also recall Bertolucci at his most bombastic. But Apartment Zero is not just a replay of other stylish thrillers. Donovan’s background in the Theater of the Absurd and the political implications of his chilling story yield a flavor that is distinct from its movie sources. You may find the results excessive, but this is the kind of voluptuous experience that thrives on excess.
— Jonathan Rosenbaum