[18 November 2009]
Pedro Almodóvar is a cinematic auteur that refuses to abide by limitations (both preconceived and personal), whether they be limitations of the imagination, limitations of space, limitations of story or the limitations of gender and sexuality constructs. The panoply of characters that occupy his narratives is not particularly beholden to these limitations either.
Assuredly, the most celebrated and critically acclaimed Spanish director of his generation, the 57-year-old director’s work is celebrated amongst a number of different cinematic veins (European, post-Franco, etc.) but his place in the pantheon of queer (male) cinema decidedly adds new perspective and additional layers to the conversations around his impressive opus. Almodóvar has frequently taken offense to being referred to as a “gay filmmaker” believing that the moniker boils down the emotion and essence of his films to one kernel, eschewing the wide spectrum of dimensionality and layers that his films exude.
Nevertheless, Almodóvar’s insistence on pushing boundaries and transcending confining definitions of acceptability, gender, sexuality, and narrative structure place his body of work amidst (among others) a queer cinematic canon that acknowledges and appreciates his placement of queer bodies and characters in essential strands of the narrative structure.
Perhaps one of the most salient threads of an Almodóvar film is his notion of the parallel lives of gay men and straight women. Moving both from margin to center, Almodóvar weaves mutually beneficial and supportive relationships between the two in his films. Recognizing the closely linked relationship between homophobia and misogyny, often his female and gay male characters have been abused, neglected, consumed with grief, or abandoned and rely on one another in an effort to move beyond their circumstances. These characters aim to circumvent, overcome or destroy the patriarchy that entraps and threatens to cripple them.
Earlier films such as Labyrinth of Passion, What Have I Done to Deserve This? and High Heels, capitalize on this relationship but his tour de force film, All About My Mother concretizes it. The multilayered plot centers on Manuela, whose son Esteban has died chasing after an actress whose autograph he desires. Manuela then, with the help of her friend Agrado (a transsexual prostitute), embarks on a journey to find Esteban’s father Lola, a transgendered prostitute who never knew he had a son with Manuela.
Driven by despair, Manuela leans on the strength of both Agrado and Lola and vice versa. Far from maudlin or melodramatic, All About My Mother utilized all the possibilities of the imagination while embroidering in moments of realism and tragedy, creating a film where Manuela and Lola and Agrado occupy a territory of grief and despair. But ultimately they maneuver their lives, through their love for and friendship with one another, into territories occupied by love and redemption.
Almodóvar dedicated this film “To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother”, further creating spaces for his two favorite types of characters to converge, bumping into one another and embarking on this filmic journey together. The Almodóvar formula maintains many components—the fantastic, layered narratives, farce – but the relationship between gay men and heterosexual women is fundamental to his work.
Perhaps even more dominant in Almodóvar’s films is his idea of sexuality as fluid and complex. Often in his films, characters have doubles or even triples. They are bisexual, transgender, gay, lesbian, or transsexual. They can be prostitutes, priests, nymphomaniacs, pedophiles, rapists, or sexually obsessed with a character or two. In working amidst many of these controversial terrains, Almodóvar weaves stories amid stories amid plots and subplots to create a narrative that is not bound by the status quo.
Consider his film Bad Education. Gael Garcia Bernal plays three versions of the same character—one a sociopath, one a singer/lover, and one an eager actor. The film abandons any ode to static narrative structure, bordering largely on the fantastic but ultimately exploring how power relationships shift, mutate, and switch hands—- all of this in a narrative of virtually gay male characters. Or better yet Labyrinth of Passion, a love story between Riza, the gay son of a Middle Eastern emperor and Sexi, a nymphomaniac pop star, centralizes two characters who, in any other narrative might be considered aberrant, negotiate the obstacles in their life with a mixture of comedy and tragedy outside of any judgments.
In an Almodóvar film, rarely if ever, do you meet LGBTQI characters that are riddled by guilt as a result of their homosexuality or finding a way to “come out” and reveal their “true” selves throughout the film. Rather, his characters are already full-bodied and sexually liberated, enlivening the narrative with complex figures that move beyond trite depictions of the LGBTQI experience. Desire and/or intimacy between two men or a man and a transgendered woman or a woman and a transsexual man or a heterosexual housewife and her prostitute best friend occupy care and attention in the world of Almodóvar.
Intimacy, primal urges, and lovemaking are not reserved for distinctly heteronormative relationships. For example, Law of Desire follows two parallel characters, a gay filmmaker whose stalker kills his true love and an actress who was once a boy but changed his sex in order to enter into a sexual relationship with his father, who ultimately leaves his “daughter” for another woman. Widely touted as Almodover’s first true “gay film”, the movie is largely a tragicomedy that focused on a love triangle between three men, winning him the first ever Teddy Award, a component of the Berlin International Film Festival that recognizes queer centered cinema.
Almodóvar does not pity any of his characters, he loves them, and he adores them. Refusing to be pigeonholed by his sexuality, he rather draws inspiration from it, creating mini-universes where marginalized bodies rarely if ever move to the periphery. The director’s contribution of the queer cinematic canon is duly noted as he has inspired new generations of filmmakers, occupied a bevy of critical and academic attention and won numerous prestigious accolades the world over. Almodóvar has always been one step ahead of his times and his contemporaries when it comes to sexuality, which is but one of the many reasons that he is so revered and his films appear so unique in texture. He is not simply just a queer auteur but an auteur that designates the queer experience as he sees it the dignity, respect, attention, and recognition it so deserves.