Even if you did not know that director Alex de la Iglesia began in the biz by illustrating comics, you would clearly suspect as much from the outrageous, over-the-top evidence at hand in El Crimen Perfecto (The Perfect Crime), a bizarre battle-of-the-sexes camouflaged as black comedy. Squaring off in the rubber-roped center ring he has concocted with his writing partner, Jorge Guerricaechevarría, are a super-suave lothario and an aggressively homely gnome who loves him in silence. It's a sudden flick of fate that reverses the tables and their roles.

We meet the man first-strutting, preening, splashing about in his own pool of narcissism. Rafael "Rafa" Gonzalez (Guillermo Toledo) fancies himself very much the ladies man, blasé with practice, contemptuous of monogamy and all the domestic drudgery that goes with it. He can be found in ladies' lingerie-double-entendre intended-manning the women's department at a large, upscale department store in Madrid. The one thing that would complete his glorified self-image of cock-of-the-walk would be to be named floor manager, but that title goes to Don Antonio Fraguas (Luis Varela), the silly toupee-topped fop who heads the men's department-an injustice that adds insult to Rafa's flattened ego.

Since Rafa's eye goes to beauty, we only glancingly, almost by accident, see Lourdes (Monica Cervera)-a love-struck face in the crowd, batting cow-eyes at him on the escalator. But she soon comes into sharp focus for him, warts and all, when it emerges that she is the sole witness to a heated changing-room exchange between Rafa and Don Antonio that leaves the latter terminally short-circuited. Seeing her opportunity and seizing it with both hands, Lourdes leaps into the fray, dismembers the body and disposes of it, making her his accomplice-for-life. Read: wife. She is quick to play the blackmail card, extracting all the sexual favors he has been so freely giving to the other lady clerks.

The picture gets blacker and broader, cruelly funny. The fact Rafa has it coming somehow sweetens his descent with delicious mischief. One notable stop along the way is the harrowingly hilarious meet-the-parents episode in which Lourdes' eight-year-old sister shrilly claims to be impregnated by her gym teacher. It carries the domesticity that he had dreaded to darker depths. In time, Rafa opts to fight his way out of this swamp and goes after Lourdes hammer-and-tongs, determined to make himself a merry widower or die trying.

The all-out war that ensues echoes the highly original, Oscar-winning one that director Pietro Germi and a couple of his collaborators dreamed up for Divorce-Italian Style-plus this has the special-effects artillery support of the mean-spirited She-Devil.

Toledo and Cervera are superb, unsparing sparring partners. No holds barred here. Both have a commendable lack of vanity that carries the comedy to some outlandish levels. She, in particular, pulls out all the stops in the deglamorization department-then, subtly, starts plugging them up toward the end, emerging a strange, style-over-substance looker.

Director de la Iglesia's fantastical farcing has no real rivals in his Spain-save for an occasional flourish from Pedro Almodóvar, who, predictably, is one of his big supporters.
-Harry Haun