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Spanish Fly

Judging from her appearance, it's quite clear that Zoe (Daphna Kastner, who also wrote and directed) is sexually repressed. Wearing her hair in a tight bun and buttoned up in her proper business suit, this journalist seems walking cliche.

Having fled a bad relationship, she has landed in Spain to research a book on machismo. Trouble is, she doesn't speak the language, and her interpreter, Antonio (the handsome Toni Canto, oozing charm and charisma), irritates her, a sure sign that they are meant for each other, although each is loath to admit it for much of the story.

Zoe has also attracted the attention of a motorcycle-riding flamenco dancer (Antonio Castro) who almost seems to be stalking her. Then there's a former professor (Martin Donovan) now running a bookstore with whom she begins a mismatched affair (he amusingly discusses philosophy during sex). Still, her basic problem is that she hasn't a clue about men and repeats a pattern of hooking up with the wrong guy.

As a director, Kastner exhibits a flair for using locations. While not a travelogue, the film revels in the sites and sounds of Madrid. Her screenplay, while somewhat schematic, possesses enough conflict and layers of emotion to maintain audience interest.

Not that there aren't some missteps. Having her old boyfriend (Danny Huston) coincidentally show up in Spain with his men's group doesn't provide necessary exposition nor does it allow for satire in the way that "Bedrooms and Hallways" did. It seems the audience is meant to see him as yet another of her mistakes, but his newfound assertiveness doesn't mean much as we are not vested in him.

Over the course of the film's progression, Zoe's life spirals out of control, and she reveals her real reasons for coming to Spain. This subplot fleshes out the character, and it's a shame that Kastner didn't introduce it earlier.

On the other hand, it was disheartening that the writer-director would resort to the shopworn depiction of the character's liberation via looks (when her hair dryer breaks, she adopts a naturally curly hairstyle around the same time she jettisons her glasses) and manner of dress (her clothes become more flowing and sexier, and in one scene she even wears a red miniskirt). That a female writer-director would employ such overused shorthand is depressing and a bit lazy. In addition, the last scene plays like something out of a bad romance novel. What should be a final consummation comes across as clumsy and disappointing.

The acting for the most part is fine. Donovan radiates a sort of bad boy charm while Castro postures and preens as the virile stud. Canto cuts a fine figure as the translator who eventually gets under Zoe's skin. As a leading lady, Kastner has the appropriate good looks but sometimes seemed to be trying too hard, particularly in the early segments when Zoe is more guarded and repressed. As the character slowly blossoms, so, too, did the actress. While no Meryl Streep, Kastner proves a winning screen presence, and she shared a nice chemistry with Donovan and especially Canto. Although uneven, "Spanish Fly," like the faux love potion, can induce a pleasant thrill.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and language.

"Spanish Fly"

Daphna Kastner: Zoe

Toni Canto: Antonio

Antonio Castro: Julio

Martin Donovan: Carl Livingston

Danny Huston: John

A Miramax presentation. Director Daphna Kastner. Screenplay Daphna Kastner. Producers Juan Alexander, Iain Brown, Bill Chamberlain and Lora Fox. Director of Photography Arnaldo Catinari. Editor Caroline Biggerstaff. Production Designer Alain Bainee. Costume Designer Jose Maria Cossio. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.