on 18 September 2015
The Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar has been at the forefront of world cinema since the mid 1980s. To date he has 19 feature films to his name and since 1987’s The Law of Desire he has been a permanent fixture on the international film festival circuit. Strangely for a top European director he has never won at Cannes, but he did receive academy awards for All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002). In my view his films are as great as everyone says they are and we are lucky to have them all on DVD in convenient, low priced and extremely well produced box sets coming from Optimum World and Pathé. Volumes 1 & 2 of Optimum’s collection are both mandatory purchases and include all the films from Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) through to The Flower of My Secret (1995) except for Labyrinth of Passion (1982), High Heels (1991) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990). All the films (except What Have I Done to Deserve This? ) come with very interesting introductions by José Arroyo and on the Kika (1993) and The Flower of My Secret discs there are interviews with the cast including Almodóvar. For the later films I chose Pathé’s box including All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education (2004) and Volver (2006), but for completeness you might want to get Pathé’s 7 DVD ‘The Ultimate Collection’ which includes these four together with Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Broken Embraces (2009) and The Skin I Live In (2011). You will notice that Live Flesh (1997) and High Heels (1991) are both missing from these box sets. There is a fifth 5 DVD Pathé set which includes All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Live Flesh. Buy this though and you will miss out on Volver, a film many think is this director’s best. I recommend buying Optimum World Vols. 1 & 2 and Pathé’s Ultimate Collection. Labyrinth of Passion, High Heels and Live Flesh can all be picked up cheaply as single discs.
Almodóvar’s film language is arguably an acquired taste. It is extremely strong, colorful, vibrant and teeming with complex emotions, even more complex plots, and a consistent generosity towards all his characters no matter how ‘bad’ they appear to be. He is a transgressive film-maker, but he and his films possess a morality of their own accompanied with a full-blown passion which while at first might seem shocking or off-putting, finally emerges as hugely seductive. He says, “[film-making] is a passion for me. It is probably the closest thing to being in love.” Allied to this is his conviction that “it’s important not to forget that films are made to entertain. That’s the key [to success].” This puts him closer to the spirit of Martin Scorsese than to the high art of Michael Haneke, but the combination of passion and desire made visual (and verbal) with the determination to entertain makes for a heady mixture which could only come from him.
Almodóvar’s work may seem complex and hard to enter, but it isn’t really. Underlying everything is a concern with autobiography. Everything stems from within himself and feels completely honest as a result. First, there is the fact the he was born in La Mancha and grew up in Ciudad Real, a dull provincial city where he felt he didn’t belong. Second, he grew up in a Spain determined by General Franco, a Fascist dictator who emphasized the pillars of the right wing establishment (the Church, law and order, education) which perpetuated a bourgeois patriarchy. Third, Almodóvar was sent to a religious boarding school where he was meant to study to be a priest, but revolted and spent his youth studying at the local cinema instead. Fourth, he ran away to study cinema in Madrid, but finding Franco had shut the national cinema school he was forced to learn by himself. In a milieu strikingly similar to the one Federico Fellini grew up in, Almodovar took to writing humorous stories, articles, even a novella. He found himself involved in Los Goliardos, an experimental theater group where he met Carmen Maura. He also became a lead member of La Movida Madrileña (the Madrilean Movement) which was a counter-culture renaissance group. Even before Franco died in 1975 he got a super 8 camera and started making shorts. The fact that he is self taught and got his gift for writing by listening to the language of the streets on a daily basis influenced the look and feel of his later films. Fifth, Almodóvar discovered he was gay. This (and every other freedom) had been suppressed under Franco, but when he died (more accurately two years later when his old government came to an end), Almodóvar was part of the huge celebratory party and all his films from Pepi, Luci, Bom through to Kika (1993) can be read as a passionate assertion of freedoms denied by Fascism for the 40 years Franco had ruled the country.
The themes of Almodóvar’s films are the inverse of the values prevalent in the old Spain. The old patriarchy is assaulted in film after film which celebrates the strength of women, their friendship and their solidarity in the face of adversity. This comes from his childhood observation that while men appeared to run things, it was actually women who did all the work. This makes family itself (with all its problems and virtues) and a return to roots also a key theme which becomes clearer as the director matures. Organized religion is roundly attacked in films such as Dark Habits and the later Bad Education as spiritually desolate and morally bankrupt. Policemen are turned into rapists (in Pepi, Luci, Bom) or more simply as chauvinists (as in The Law of Desire and Kika). And most famously, sexuality is celebrated as being wonderfully liberating whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, bi-sexual or transsexual. Everyone is allowed to be who they want to be in a fully emancipated state, a state which only really appears elsewhere in the mainstream in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
In Almodóvar, cinema (and the whole business of narrative construction and story telling) becomes a theme in itself to reflect the young director’s film addiction. Buñuel, Fassbinder, Hitchcock, Waters, Bergman, Edgar Neville, Fellini, Cukor, Luis García Berlanga and Ferreri have all been acknowledged as influences and it is clear that many more from Lang to Sirk and from Vidor to Franju are also in the mix. From film to film different genres are experimented with from farce and screwball comedy to melodrama and tragedy. Porno vies with film noir and murder suspense vies with musicals, the different genres often clashing within the same film. There’s a formal adventurousness about Almodóvar which is audacious, but invariably gels spectacularly well. Sometimes his ambition over-reaches the final result, but there is nothing that is not obviously keenly felt.
Furthering the autobiographical nature of Almodóvar’s cinema is the fact that his brother Agustin has produced every film since The Law of Desire and his mother cameoed in 4 films before her death. His family is augmented by the roster of talent who he chooses to work with repeatedly. Actors Carmen Maura, Cecilia Roth, Rossy de Palma, Penélope Cruz, Victoria Abril, Kiti Manver, Marisa Paredes, Chus Lampreave, Antonio Banderas, Fabio McNamara, Julieta Serrano, Eva Siva, Lola Dueños, Lupe Barrado; cinematographers Angel Luis Fernández, José Luis Alcaine and Alfredo Mayo; composers Bernardo Borezzi and Alberto Iglesias; and art designers Antxón Gomez, Román Arango, Javier Fernández and Pin Morales are all part of Almodóvar’s inner circle, his second family. Producers Esther García and his brother Agustin have produced every film while José Salcedo has been the sole editor in charge of everything from 1980 to the present day. Living and working with the same people, they have become as much a part of his life as anything in his childhood and there is much inter-connection between what goes on in front of and behind the camera. For this director art and life are intertwined in a passionate embrace.
In a nutshell Almodóvar’s oeuvre can be broken down into three periods. The earliest stretches from Pepi, Luci, Bom through to Matador (1986) and shows the director at his rawest, his rudest, and (some say) his best. The attack is full on as he revels in a post-Punk demolition of old conservative values literally genre by genre in a very rough and ready way. With the international success of Matador under his belt he founded his own company named appropriately enough El Deseo (Desire). The law of this desire was laid down very explicitly at the beginning of The Law of Desire which features an opening porno film within a film as a boy masturbates on a bed saying “f**k me” repeatedly. This is a reference to Almodovar’s first (unreleased) feature named F**k Me, F**k Me, F**k Me, Tim and notifies us that we have moved onto a new phase (a new beginning) of his career. The film is one of his very best and states the exquisite cohesion which will be the mark of his work from now on. The earlier themes of rebellion remain the same however and the 80s post-Franco party doesn’t pop until Kika in 1993. With The Flower of My Secret the director seems to calm down. In his third period the brash in-your-face gender-bending is toned down in favor of three superbly polished melodramas about “loss, growth and recovery.” The fact that Bad Education erupts between Talk to Her and Volver makes it clear that the director hasn’t totally turned his back on ‘gay cinema’. Rather, the new sadness and introspection is more clearly put down to Almodovar getting old, changing his priorities and feeling the old passion from a distance as opposed to feeling at first hand. The new introspection also coincides with a downturn in the fortunes of Spain. Despite all the freedoms won after Franco, the people were actually worse off in the late 90s, early 00s with mass unemployment, government debt and numerous political scandals all taking their effect. This has continued to this very day and it will be interesting to see what Almodóvar will do next. He has already played the national crisis as a political satire in I’m So Excited! (2013) and rumour has it it’s back to hard hitting drama and his favorite ladies in the upcoming Silencio.
NB: Work in progress. I plan to review each film below. For now I leave the basic details of each film.
PEPI, LUCI, BOM (Pepi, Luci, Bom y Otras Chicas del Montón)
(1980, Spain, 77 minutes, color, aspect ratio: 4:3, English subtitles)
EXTRAS: José Arroyo introduction
DARK HABITS (Entre Tinieblas)
(1983, Spain, 100 minutes, color, aspect ratio: 16:9, English subtitles)
EXTRAS: José Arroyo introduction
WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS? (Que he hecho yo para merecer esto)
(1984, 97 minutes, color, aspect ratio: 16:9, English subtitles)
EXTRAS: Art Gallery (posters)
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios)
(1988, Spain, 85 minutes, color, aspect ratio: 1.85:1, English subtitles)
EXTRAS: José Arroyo introduction