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'Perfecto' is a satisfying ride

Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) is pulled into store by Alonso (Fernando Tejero).
Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) is pulled into store by Alonso (Fernando Tejero).
Vitagraph Films

EL CRIMEN PERFECTO — *** — Guillermo Toledo, Monica Cervera, Luis Varela; in Spanish, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (sex, violence);.

In this antic and outrageous black comedy, Rafael Gonzalez (Guillermo Toledo) is a salesman in the ladies' department of a Madrid, Spain, department store. The suave, womanizing Rafael is the king of the sales floor, where he claims to have been born when his mother went into labor while buying a handbag. His fondest dream is to be made floor manager; when his archrival, Don Antonio (Luis Varela), is named to the position instead, Rafael's world begins to unravel.

During a scuffle in the women's dressing rooms, Don Antonio is accidentally killed, and Rafael makes the fatal decision to dispose of the body in secret. But as it turns out, the incident has been witnessed by Lourdes (Monica Cervera), the homeliest sales assistant on the floor, who is secretly in love with Rafael. Soon she is blackmailing him into giving up his freewheeling bachelor's life. Before he knows it, he is trapped in a cloying, claustrophobic marriage from which murder may be the only escape.

The director of "El Crimen Perfecto" ("The Perfect Crime"), 34-year-old Alex de la Iglesia, has been hailed as the successor to Pedro Almodovar, who produced de la Iglesia's first film, "Accion Mutante," in 1993. Almodovar's influence is visible in this film's crisp, almost cartoonish visual style, bright, pulsating colors and generous use of slapstick.

But de la Iglesia's bleakly cynical world view is a far cry from Almodovar's expansive humanism. There are no heroes in "El Crimen Perfecto": Rafael and Lourdes are a callous, self-serving pair, locked in a zero-sum death struggle that recalls the pulp-noir couples of James M. Cain. De la Iglesia's anti-romantic comedy is also a sly critique of consumerism, as the myriad temptations of the department store sales floor come to symbolize the warped values of capitalist culture.

Toledo's performance as the shallow and cowardly, yet strangely sympathetic, Rafael is a wonder of comic timing, while Cervera is unforgettable as Lourdes, the ugly duckling who becomes not a swan but a monster. Varela, the veteran Spanish actor, has fun as the murder victim Don Antonio, who returns after death as a greenish, bodiless head to commiserate with his beleaguered killer.

Like the Ferris wheel that serves as the setting for one of its climactic scenes, "El Crimen Perfecto" is a bright, gaudy and tremendously satisfying ride.

"El Crimen Perfecto" is not rated but would probably receive an R for strong sexual contact and scenes of comic violence. Running time: 104 minutes.