Pajiba's Guide to What's Good for You / Jeremy C. Fox
Guides | July 12, 2006 | Comments ()
While much of Europe has already had a chance to see Volver — the new Pedro Almodóvar film that reunites the writer/director with perhaps his greatest muse, Carmen Maura — it doesn’t open in the United States until November, and some of us here at Pajiba (OK, one of us) will be on pins and needles for the next four months. In the meantime, we’re paying tribute to the polymorphously perverse genius with this brief survey of his career thus far.
“Life is so incredible. So cruel and so paradoxical. So unpredictable and sometimes so fair.”
— Pedro Almodóvar, The Flower of My Secret
Pedro Almodóvar is many things: a satirist, a humanist, a provocateur. Trying to suss out his significance in Spanish culture, one can almost feel that if he hadn’t been born, Spain would have had to create him. He’s the hedonistic Id of a hothouse nation, kept so long beneath the heel of Franco’s totalitarianism and the centuries-long repression of reactionary Catholicism. Almodóvar’s surrealist comedy-melodramas hit you in the groin, then the heart, then the head, revealing far more about the actual experience of being human than most conventional realist filmmakers could ever show.
Over 26 years and 16 features, Almodóvar has carved out a singular niche for himself, beloved by fans of LGBT cinema, independent movies, and foreign film without ever crossing into the mainstream or compromising his own admittedly peculiar vision. Some are no doubt put off by the overt and often explicit gay themes, while others may be uninterested in films that so often center on the private lives and powerful emotions of women. But besides those factors, and the traditional American aversion to subtitles, Almodóvar’s films have an additional strike against them: An operatic sense of romance that may make perfect sense in Latin cultures but that many non-Latino Americans, raised in the shadow of Puritan self-denial, have difficulty surrendering to. Almodóvar’s defining trait is a bone-deep romanticism in the face of harsh reality. He’s on the side of those who love against all reason; in favor of the futile, self-destructive, romantic gesture — of the grand, all-consuming passion that most of us will never have the ecstasy and torment of experiencing. His films repeatedly suggest that surrendering to these passions may be the only salvation possible, the only way to truly be alive, but that they can just as easily be suicide.
Almodóvar is part of a generation of directors who have an ambivalent affection for the conventions of classical filmmaking and feel the creative license to work out that ambivalence onscreen. Anyone who’s seen Almodóvar’s work knows that its kinky anti-Catholicism couldn’t exist without Buñuel and that its transgressive sexuality owes a debt to early John Waters, but critics and fans often overlook his similarities to Brian De Palma, another director who has stood on the shoulders of giants and examined his own idiosyncratic set of kinks in a very public way. Like De Palma, Almodóvar is obsessed with the relationship between reality and artifice, though De Palma lacks Almodóvar’s Wildean conviction that artifice is where the real truth lies. For my money, though, the artist whose work Almodóvar’s most resembles is the photographer Diane Arbus, another fiercely independent visionary who humanized freakish outsiders while seeing those who conformed to society’s standards as the true grotesques.
Sadly, many of Almodóvar’s earlier films have never been released on DVD in the United States, and some that were released have now gone out of print. But those who still harbor a dusty VCR and live near a well-stocked video store should be able to see most, if not all, of his films. I was able to assemble the (almost) full back catalogue in a mix of DVD and VHS through visits to just a couple of Boston-area stores.
Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) — Almodóvar’s early shorts and his first feature, Folle … folle … fólleme Tim!, don’t seem to be available in the States in any form, so we begin with his second full-length film, Pepi, Luci, Bom, which, like early De Palma films, consists of a series of loosely connected sketches rather than a fully formed plot. The film also invites comparisons to John Waters and the films Paul Morrissey made for Andy Warhol, whose Factory was in some ways mirrored by the Madrid punk scene that birthed Almodóvar. PLB is the least of his films, yet it’s both a fascinating document of Madrid at the end of the ’70s and a full survey of his future themes. While voyeuristically detailing the interpersonal collisions and surreal relationships of his three title characters (including Carmen Maura as Pepi), Almodóvar reveals a bizarre kink behind every bourgeois façade.
Labyrinth of Passion (1982) — Fans of his Zorro films (are there any?) would probably be shocked to learn just how much Antonio Banderas owes Almodóvar. Here, in only his second film role, Banderas plays Sadec, a gay Islamic terrorist with a keen sense of smell who’s on the trail of the son of the leader of a fictional Middle-Eastern country (Imanol Arias), who, though also gay, has fallen in love with Sexilia, the aptly named nymphomaniac played by Cecilia Roth. The campy roundelay also involves Queti (Marta Fernández Muro) Sexilia’s “biggest fan,” whose father casually rapes her. Just as perverse as Pepi, Luci, Bom but far more cohesive, Labyrinth also prefigures elements of future films, such as the verbally abusive mother of What Have I Done to Deserve This? and the chase to the airport near the end of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Dark Habits (1983) — A serious step backward in technique, coherence, and entertainment value, Dark Habits is set in the world’s most disturbing convent, where nuns with names like Sister Manure and Sister Sewer Rat indulge in their depraved vices while sheltering a junkie named Yolanda (Cristina S. Pascual) who’s on the run from the police. Nothing here seemed to go right for Almodóvar — the scenes intended to be funny aren’t, the ones intended to be shocking are just disgusting, and there’s not a single character onscreen that we can give a damn about. The most perverse thing about it, though, is that it’s the earliest of his films available on DVD in the United States.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) — Of all Almodóvar’s early films, this is the one that holds up best, still both shocking and hilarious 22 years later. Carmen Maura is the bedraggled mother of one seriously screwed-up family: Her abusive husband can’t be pleased, her older son is a heroin dealer, and her younger son, barely pubescent, is a hustler. This is the one where Almodóvar finds his tone, turning the direst situations into tar-black comedy, while Maura is given her first real chance to shine. Also available on DVD on this side of the Atlantic, this is the early Almodóvar to seek out.
Matador (1986) — In his most perverse and disturbing film to date, Almodóvar takes religion, sex, and death; tosses them in a blender; and then asks us to drink until we puke. Banderas returns as Angel, a loser who, when accused of being gay, perpetrates a botched rape on a neighbor girl. When he’s arrested, his humiliation and Catholic guilt drive him to confess to a series of murders he didn’t commit, and he winds up being defended by a lawyer who is herself a thrill-killer. There’s a lot more plot than that, but I’d hate to give too much away. Suffice it to say that those with very strong stomachs will enjoy it, particularly if they have a grudge against the Church.
Law of Desire (1987) — Another paean to sexual obsession and fractured romanticism, one that says that real, powerful love is always misguided or unrequited and that you can’t depend on the traditional relationships to be of any use, so hold onto anything that works. Almodóvar cast Eusebio Poncela as a semiautobiographical director named Pablo and Carmen Maura as his hotsy-totsy sister — who used to be his brother. Add Banderas as Pablo’s murderously obsessive stalker and an operatically tragic plotline, and you have one of Almodóvar’s richest, most disturbing films. Note also that elements from Law of Desire grew into the bases for two later films: Maura appears in a stage production of Cocteau’s The Human Voice, which inspired Almodóvar’s next film, Women on the Verge, and her confrontation scene with an abusive priest formed a partial basis for Bad Education.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) — An international breakout of sorts, this is the movie that first brought Almodóvar to the attention of many Americans, and what an introduction it was. Carmen Maura, in her last Almodóvar role until Volver, plays Pepa, a histrionic actress deserted by her married lover. Banderas is her lover’s son, who’s engaged to the fascinatingly odd-looking Rossy de Palma. A hilarious, relatively tame farce, this is Almodóvar’s most approachable film for beginners and an insightful depiction of the way movie romance ruins us all for the compromises and messiness of real-world love. The U.S. DVD release is now out of print, but it can be found secondhand (at a considerable markup due to its scarcity) and is available for rent in some video stores.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) — Who else but Almodóvar would make a romantic comedy about Stockholm Syndrome? In a bawdy parody of the obsessive-guy-breaks-down-the-girl’s-resistance-and-makes-her-love-him process of a typical romantic comedy, Antonio Banderas plays Ricky, a recently released mental patient who stalks and kidnaps a porn star, Marina Osorio (Victoria Abril), and sets about wooing her, oblivious to the deeply perverse nature of the situation he’s created. And damned if it doesn’t work. A succès de scandale upon its initial release, Tie Me Up! was one of the films that helped drive the MPAA to create the NC-17 rating.
High Heels (1991) — Built around the fractured relationship between a self-involved mother (Marisa Paredes) and the grown daughter she abandoned as a child (Victoria Abril), High Heels creates a world suffused with eroticism in which the usual boundaries between genders and sexual orientations are infinitely permeable. As usual, there’s a drag queen, a mysterious murder, sexual betrayal, and numerous unsavory characters slinking around in the background. Though not one of Almodóvar’s best, it’s still well worth seeing.
Kika (1993) — The title character is a makeup artist and holy fool who falls in love when she’s asked to prepare the corpse of a young man who turns out not to be dead. With echoes of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, this tribute to voyeurism slides back and for the between comedy and melodrama with nary a snag. Almodóvar occasionally verges on the Shakespearean here, but he always takes a quick hairpin turn into absurdity.
The Flower of My Secret (1995) — An exploration of denial in its various forms, Flower is the story of Leo Macias (Marisa Paredes), a successful author of trashy “women’s fiction” who has become too disillusioned to continue cranking it out. Her husband is cold and indifferent, and she’s begun drinking too much and toying with suicide. Seemingly fighting his own outrageous gifts, Almodóvar made one of his least engaging films, though Paredes is fascinating, if depressing, to watch.
Live Flesh (1997) —Almodóvar’s first direct foray into the legacy of the Franco years was this underrated adaptation of a novel by British mystery writer Ruth Rendell. At the movie’s center is a rich moral puzzle in which fate and bad luck tangle to ensure that no one gets what he or she truly deserves. The stunningly handsome Víctor Plaza (Liberto Rabal) is sent to prison for four years when a cop named David (Javier Bardem) is accidentally shot during a rowdy argument between Víctor and Elena (Francesca Neri). Upon his release, Víctor can’t leave well enough alone and has soon entangled himself in the sex lives and destinies of David, Elena, David’s former partner, and the partner’s wife.
All About My Mother (1999) — Almodóvar’s most heartfelt film, and his best to date, All About My Mother grew out of a brief scene in The Flower of My Secret and morphed into an homage to screen divas and strong women in general. Cecilia Roth is beyond amazing as Manuela, a middle-aged single mother whose only child is accidentally killed and who must then find a reason to go on living. Her answers come in the form of a tranny prostitute, a pregnant nun, and an aging actress with a junkie lover. If you can watch this movie without dissolving into a puddle, you officially have no soul.
Talk to Her (2002) — Almodóvar was certainly worthy of his Best Original Screenplay Oscar and his nomination for Best Director, but this lugubrious tale of loves lost and only imagined is not his most engaging work. What it lacks in zip is compensated for by the elegance of its cinematography, the resonance of its performances, and its Kaelian view of film as the art that can contain all others. Combining elements of modern dance and silent filmmaking with a narrative that feels almost 19th century in its embrace of coincidence and fate, Almodóvar plots the course of four people thrown together by unimaginably bad luck, only two of them conscious.
Bad Education (2004) — Almodóvar had used elements of film noir in previous movies like Matador and Live Flesh, but he never went whole-hog until this tribute to the femme fatale (who, naturally, is a man) that also takes on sexual abuse by priests and the horrible, irrevocable changes that such abuse wreaks on its victims. It’s also one of his most personal films, with one of the central characters a movie director (played by Fele Martínez) who clearly contains autobiographical elements. The participation of Gael García Bernal, internationally hot after the success of Y tu mamá tambien, helped garner an audience for this one, and his performance — in and out of drag — is flawless, but it’s the sleek gamesmanship of Almodóvar’s brilliantly complex structure, weaving together reality, fiction, and both false and true memories, that really puts this one over the top.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.