Where does this exceptionally radical dissension come from?
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
He owes to this radically liberal edge his films have a great part of the status and success he enjoys nowadays, so he should also accept the attacks, fair or unfair, that he receives for perhaps the same reasons. However, many of the criticisms he receives in his homeland come from sectors that are not suspect of being conservative or closed-minded to provoking ideas, so it would be interesting to study if there is something just about his style, about the mere visual and cultural signs that make him such a recognizable auteur, what causes such strong and divided reactions from different groups.
Almodóvar has made it easy for the international press to hail him as an auteur: he writes, produces and directs his movies and he has showed stylistic and thematic personality to spare from his beginnings. His brand of humor, for instance, which mixes with singular skill the popular, populist and almost low-brow tones with acerbic social critique and intelligent wit (and one must always remember that, despite being considered nowadays some sort of exquisite auteur, he comes from the counter-cultural scene and has always made popular art), has often been imitated but never paralleled, especially in Spain, where what seems a horde of writers and directors has hijacked his expressions, quirks, types, etc., forcing the press to coin the term “Almodovariano” (which would translate as Almodovaresque) to define a certain kind of comedy or even real-life situations; his use of pre-existing and very popular music and songs in situations that force the audience to re-think and re-contextualize their meaning has become a trademark of his movies; his explosive use of color and stylised way of framing (highly influenced by pop artists such as Warhol or Wesselmann) makes his movies easily identifiable with just the sight of a still image; he even puts his personality in the way the characters are dressed and he has dragged some of the most relevant designers and fashion firms to work for him and adapt their work to his style, something that reached his zenith in High Heels (1991), where the two conflicting leading ladies were dressed by different but equally famous firms, Chanel for Victoria Abril and Armani for Marisa Paredes. To sum it up, he’s made it easy for the film critic to label him as an auteur, to study his style and to select him as one of the most personal and iconic directors to come from the European art-house scene in years, to the point where he seems an heir not only to Spain’s most international artists, but also to the old European masters that made a big splash also in the United States during the ‘60s and ‘70s (from Fellini to Bergman).
And he has also made it easy to instantly associate him with Spain: less than 20 minutes into his first feature film, the aforementioned Pepi, Luci, Bom, the characters appeared dressed in the traditional regional clothes of Madrid and start singing a “zarzuela” (a Spanish kind of operetta) before hitting a policeman. From there, in absolutely all of his oeuvre, the icons and traditions from Spain have had a pre-eminent place, sometimes as just a quirky object of decoration but, most of the times, as a way to subvert its meaning, as a provocation, as a question thrown to the audience, who is forced to analyse the meaning of such tradition.
From bullfighting (Matador,Talk to Her) to the “gazpacho” (Women on the Verge…), from flamenco dancers and singers (The Flower of My Secret) to traditional Spanish religious imagery (Dark Habits, Law of Desire), from the windmills of La Mancha (Volver) to Sara Montiel, the first actress from Spain to made it somewhat big in the USA (Bad Education), almost every typical image and symbol of Spain has been featured in his films, which is something that leads us to one of the topics above: every Spaniard is almost forced to take a position towards his work, towards how he or she, as a Spaniard, seems to be portrayed by Almodóvar, who is even projecting that collective image of Spain to the international community. This, of course, is bound to cause more confrontation or division within Spain than abroad: for Spaniards, it may even be a matter of how their essence is being presented, while for a casual foreigner who’s not an expert on Spanish culture Almodóvar’s films may be just another quirky image from a somewhat exotic and colorful culture.
One of the questions this idea suggests could be “how much of it is honest artistic expression and contains worthy ideas or observations, and how much of it is just exploitation, or the product of cold calculation, with the only purpose of being liked abroad?” And it doesn’t just affect the specifically Spanish elements of his work, but also many other elements of his very particular style, some of them mentioned above: when he hires Jean Paul Gaultier, in the peak of his fame (Madonna’s blonde Ambition Tour and Gaultier’s designs weren’t far before), to design the dresses of Victoria Abril in Kika, does it really add to the result, content and aesthetics of the movie, or is it there just as a wink to trendy audiences and critics? In High Heels one can perhaps argue that the use of Chanel and Armani for Abril and Paredes informs about the irruption of a new European-ness in a Spain that had been culturally isolated only years before (and when we first meet the characters in a flash-back), but one can also ask if such information is really that relevant or if it could have been better analysed through less showy means.
One has to have on account that Almodóvar’s films sometimes have made more money in France than in Spain, and underlining as much as he does the use of the clothes by all these designers (Armani, Chanel, Gaultier) could merely be a commercial tool, a frivolous way to make his films look more cosmopolitan and trendier, more appealing to French audiences (and European audiences in general). The same can be said about the appearances of what we could call “guest stars” in some of his films: Pina Bausch and Caetano Veloso in Talk to Her or Chabela Vargas in The Flower of My Secret stand out, in the opinion of this writer, as some of the most flagrant cases of using international icons only to show off a certain culture and to appeal to a more international and supposedly more literate audience (perhaps even to be better received by high-brow critics).
Their intervention does create a certain emotional state or evoke a certain idea, but they’re so iconic and their art so strong that they can also end up being distracting and deviating the attention from the themes of the movie to their own personas or arts. And perhaps it can also be said about the multiple quotes and references to other works of art that Almodóvar usually includes: All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire in All About My Mother, The Hours (the book) in Talk to Her, Magritte or Rossellini and Viaggio in Italia in Broken Embraces to name a few. More often than not these references do enhance the meaning of the whole thing and are well brought and carried throughout the films, but sometimes one can question if they are used just as crutches for a lame scene, so that they say something Almodóvar has not been able to say by himself.
With the Spanish elements, though, this effect is much more pronounced and questionable. While the modern but still Quixotesque windmills of La Mancha, used now to produce electric energy, in the images of Volver, speak volumes about the persistence of tradition even in the most modern elements, and perfectly inform and evoke the ideas and moods the film needs, one wonders what’s the purpose of having a scene of flamenco dancing by such a Spanish icon as Joaquín Cortés in a drama that has nothing to do with flamenco traditions or with dancing as The Flower of My Secret. Yes, one can perhaps link the intensity and passion of Cortés’ dance to the intensity of the suffering of Leo Macías, the protagonist of the film, but when one needs another artist and another art to evoke the feelings that should be evoked by the script, the actors, the color or the framing, something may be wrong. And when such other artist and art are the trendy flamenco dancer of the moment, who is casually having a successful incursion in the US when the movie is being made, the trick is under suspicion.
In the drama about men in comatose relations with women Talk to Her, one of the women is a bullfighter, and this allows Pedro to film stylised images of a bull fight that surely appealed to the international audiences that love these notes of Spanish exoticism; however, at the same time, it is very interesting that we have a woman in such a traditionally masculine profession, when one of the main themes of the film is the role men and women traditionally play in love relations.
The examples are countless, but these few may illustrate some of the problems a Spanish critic may have when analysing a film by Almodóvar, and can perhaps throw questions out there about why and how he enjoys now the status as the most pre-eminent of the current European auteurs. The Taviani brothers used to say that, in order to be international, one had to go for localism. Almodóvar underlines and exaggerates his localism and (more in the late part of his oeuvre than in the early one) he also mixes it with cosmopolitism and culture regarding the current European art scene. Whether this is or isn’t a calculated movement, or whether it is merely a natural part of his style, and whether or not this has an influence on how he is valued by Spanish and international critics, is debatable.