Pepi, Luci and Bom and Other Girls Like Mom
Pedro Almodóvar’s feature debut was made with little to no money, in a two years span full of complications that threatened to ruin the film’s continuity and was released only two years after Spain’s democratic constitution was approved. And all those problems show, making the film look amateurish, almost ugly to look at and poorly acted by most of the non professional but friendly cast, but it somehow makes for a cohesive and incredibly funny whole; Later in his career, the director would try to balance the madness of this film with more thought-out plotting, progressively more depth, and also a much more developed sense of visual storytelling, but until he managed to create his first truly great film the balancing act was not always successful. This one, however, a completely wild, free and energetic stravaganza, is not marred down by the still imperfect attempts at more depth of the immediately subsequent films. It’s just a zany, aggressively provoking collection of situations put one after the other, it’s punk cinema and it’s oddly engrossing because of that.
One of its most surprising aspects is how shocking it still is 30 years after it was made, and in some occasions for reasons that are opposite to the reasons why it was shocking in 1980. The treatment of violence in love relations, a possible scandal then mainly for openly showing a sexually disturbed behaviour, would cause a scandal today for the apparently frivolous, casual, comedic way in which Almodóvar shows it. Yet, in that frivolity lies its modernity, when in the end it turns out that frivolity is the most poisonous venom the director could put in the darts he throws at a culture of submission and authoritarianism in which many people seemed to want to keep living after the death of General Franco. That storyline couldn’t’ possibly be made exactly like that today: it would be misunderstood by most and could cause riots.
Yes, Luci’s masochism is played for laughs even at its most dramatic moments, when it acquires worrying shades of female submission to gender violence, but the final message should be clear: Pepi and Bom, as a symbol of the modern woman, leave behind and dismiss the submissive woman, and go by themselves onto new adventures enjoying their freedom. In other words, Pepi, Luci, Bom… declares that those who, in 1980, would say that they preferred life under oppressive forces are just sexual perverts, and much more questionable ones than the gays, lesbians and transsexuals Almodóvar chose to line with from his first film, those that the conservative groups were meanwhile questioning and treating as diseased. This is the best asset the movie has: a totally punk spirit, tied to the humanism and humor needed to, instead of throwing a raging diatribe against oppressors and those who miss them, just call them sexual perverts, ignore them and enjoy the freedom that the new political scene of Spain then allowed.
Seen nowadays, with the perspective Almodóvar’s career gives us, one would hardly consider it to be on par with the greatest films by the director, but it also shows that it’s not strange that the director has become such an important figure. This film is unique, and watching it you know it’s something unprecedented and completely personal. The ear for popular language and humor, the frank provocation treated in an almost naïve way, the questioning of old, perhaps stale ideas and traditions, the examination, in Particular, of Spain’s traditions and culture in the context of a delayed modernity… It wouldn’t and couldn’t have been done by anybody else, which is something important and auspicious for a debut feature.
Talk to Her
The greatest of expressionist films seem to be the fever dreams of their creators. Think of the haunting crime and punishment of Fritz Lang’s M, with its unforgettable shadows and light, or the sublime descent in the America offshoot, noir, in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. After a long tutelage and many entertainments—as loose as they are diverting—Pedro Almodóvar grew into a stylist of interiors, creating his own theater of the mind. One of his greatest, Talk to Her, is the finest example.
The narrative is rooted in melodrama. Bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) is the talk of the tabloids, her affair with a popular bullfighter overshadowing her work. One who faces horns but can’t stand a snake, she catches the eye of Marco (Darío Grandinetti), a journalist who straight away has more than an objective eye for her. When Lydia gets gored, in an elegantly disturbing moment by Pedro, Marco stays by her side, where he spots another coma victim. Alicia (Leonor Watling), in a four-year coma after a car accident, is nursed by Benigno (Javier Cámara), a sexually ambiguous young man who doesn’t hide his deep reverence her. Through flashback (one of many well-used instances) we learn he discovered her long ago, while watching dance classes from his apartment window; he even visits her father, a psychiatrist, just to get closer. Yet, Pedro never forgets Benigno’s devotion even if we are certain (rightly) that he is a stalker.
As with Almodóvar’s best, a sensational premise—and time-advancing title cards to match—reaches into the unconscious to dig to the roots of human obsession. As the two men long for the unattainable women, the filmmaker questions devotion and its ethical limits, while spinning plot revelations that are equally addictive and perceptive. The film’s trademark scene—and perhaps its standout—is a silent short that is everything but a pastiche. It shows how passion may thrive in what is nonetheless a violation. Humanity is intricate, contradictory, fathomless here, and the filmmaking just as rich. For Talk to Her, Pedro took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, but the award is really honorary—a foreign language entry just cannot be named the finest film of the year.