Pedro Almodóvar 101

All About My Mother (1999)

Mothers should die before their children. Or so the natural order would have you believe. But when a child is taken from a parent at a too-young age, what happens to the broken heart they leave behind? When the mother’s identity was virtually wrapped in a delicate tissue paper of their children’s needs and future, how do they move into their own future and go forward?

The first step, according to Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, is to examine and confront their past, what led them to their children, and how they got to where they are in the first place, not to mention what their dreams and aspirations were before they had children. Women often put everything on hold to nurture, to ensure their children will be given the right care. It is that particular kind of selflessness that we expect women to constantly give of themselves. Their wants and needs are supposed to be placed behind not only their husbands or their parents, but also their kids. Women are there to make it easier for men, the elderly, and their offspring, but who makes it easier for them?

Manuela (expertly realized by Cecilia Roth) works as a nurse in an organ donor program, but when her son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) is violently taken from her (in scenes purposefully recalling John Cassavetes’ masterpiece Opening Night), she is placed in the position of her clients, and has to make the same difficult decision: does her son’s heart live on beating in the chest of another young person, or does he end right then and there?

The pair shared a special relationship – quote about Tennessee Williams. They watch classic Hollywood “diva” films such as All About Eve and go to the theater together – memorably to see Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, with the mercurial role of Blanche Dubois performed by Esteban’s favorite actress, Huma (Marisa Parades). That Manuela’s son seems to be gay, and that she nurtures not only his creative side, but also his sensitive side, is a nod to her past: unknown to the young man, Esteban’s father happens to be a transsexual man dying of AIDS, and Manuela once lived a much more adventurous life among the fringe, even playing Stella in a production of Streetcar herself once upon a time, something that will become key to the plot later.

When Esteban dies, Manuela goes searching for the boy’s father, who never knew he was alive. She is catapulted back into this sometimes dangerous, often humorous world where the lines of gender, sexuality and “acting” are all smeared like Agrado (the amazing Antonia San Juan)’s lipstick when Manuela happens upon her fresh from being beaten by a rough trade trick in the street. Agrado’s world is dangerous – prostitution is one of her only options for work. She suggests they go to see Hermana Rosa (Penelope Cruz) to find some sort of suitable work, but the sister is harboring a few secrets of her own in regards to the shady junkie dad.

Almodóvar’s treatment of “the underbelly of society”, the queens who work the streets, the dying, the thieves, and those who dare subvert gender is unique to contemporary cinema in that it portrays a group of people who are marginalized by not only heterosexual people, but also the gay community to an extent. Transgender men and women are unfortunately still a group that encounters the worst kinds of extreme violence and hatred. Trans people are still widely, routinely victims of hate crimes all over the world and are often persecuted for simply existing. Fear of that which does not fall into a category is something Almodóvar is much more eloquent at articulating than I am, but his treatment of trans women, as witnessed in this film, is a landmark topic for a contemporary auteur and one that he depicts with dignity and strength, rather than stereotypes. He treats all of his trans women as ladies, born of the innate respect for women the director is renowned for, showing the good, the bad and the ugly, every facet, nothing left unturned. Almodóvar doesn’t let anyone in his films get away with being a paper saint, thankfully.

This treatment is extended not only to the trans characters, but also to the nuns and the mothers, both kinds of characters are presented as both flawed and good. Mothers according to the director, also have their little mysteries and pleasures – they’re not just archetypes. Almodovar’s own relationship with his own mother (Fransica) enhances the vision, and the viewer’s connection with Manuela, as well as with their own mothers, will only benefit from the story’s empowering of this character type and the emotional focus on the many shades of mysterious human behavior that we all share an interest in. It is a world that is not free of judgment, but one that challenges and even overcomes it at points: it is a world in which mothers can be whatever they desire and one in which their children never die.

Matt Mazur

Bad Education, Dark Habits, and Law of Desire

Bad Education (2004)

Bad Education had the good fortune to follow two of perhaps the most critically acclaimed and well-received films of Almodóvar’s career, All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002). The film eschews a chronological narrative for one that utilizes flashbacks and short films within the primary film. The basic plot of the film maneuvers back and forth between 1964 and 1980. Two boys, Ignacio and Enrique, fall in love at a Catholic boarding school for boys. Father Manolo, the school literature teacher and principal, becomes enraptured with Ignacio and begins molesting him while expelling Ignacio’s paramour Enrique.

Fast forward to present day and Enrique is a film director who is visited by a man claiming to be Ignacio. Ignacio gives him a script that Enrique likes very much about their days at Catholic school, which includes Ignacio’s molestation. Enrique wants very much to make the film but Ignacio saddles him with one caveat, that he play the leading role of the transsexual Zahara. Through the course of the film, Enrique finds out that Ignacio is not Ignacio but rather Juan, Ignacio’s younger brother. Father Manolo, now resigned from the priesthood, enters the narrative. The film ends when it is revealed to Enrique that the real Ignacio was blackmailing Father Manolo. Meanwhile, Father Manolo fails in love with Juan and both of them plot to kill Ignacio, who dies while typing Enrique a love letter.

Bad Education featured the incredible Gael Garcia Bernal as the Ignacio/Juan/Zahara character. Influenced by Patricia Highsmith’s notorious character Tom Ripley from her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the Ignacio/Juan/Zahara character is equipped with a beautiful face that refuses to belie his manipulative, sociopathic nature. It is this character that truly embodies the binary feel of the narrative for Almodóvar embroiders plots, subplots and films within films to tell a story of abuse, betrayal, love, desire, and murder. Bad Education is perhaps the only film of Almodóvar’s where women are barely present. They are at best peripheral to the narrative and make abrupt, transitory appearances. Rather, Almodóvar marinates the narrative in relationships among men that are defined by mutual desire and love, pernicious power relationships, abuse, and deception. Nothing is what it seems at first look in this film. Almodóvar further relays the human anxiety around story telling and truth telling in one’s journey towards the desired, end result. Garnering an NC-17 rating, Almodóvar’s foray into film noir with this film was by and large a successful one. Maintaining that the film is at best distantly autobiographical, Almodóvar masterfully creates a tour de force in Bad Education, mainly because one of his greatest strengths is that he is not burdened by reality and never tempers the voluptuousness of his own imagination.

Matthew Sorrento

 

Dark Habits (1983)

Almodóvar on crazy nuns should be as madcap as Peter Jackson was on zombies: witty farce dropping gags that only the id should joy in. But the result is a rather low-key affair, quietly observed and respectful of its characters. In fact, its lack of a plot-driven scenario seems miles away from the filmmaker’s mature style, which matches melodrama with dramatic perception. Dark Habits is a notable early step, with risque subject matter not yet freed into the range of All About my Mother.

Having witnessed the death of her junkie boyfriend by poisoning, Yolanda (Cristina Pascual) has a rough deal but is nowhere near a “woman on the verge”. She gets herself to a nunnery to hide out (not in a habit — this isn’t Sister Act). There she finds all sorts of misbehavior: one sister cooking heroin, another requesting acid. The perversions aren’t so much repressed, with Sisters named Manure, Rat, or Damned, one of whom pens trashy novels undercover. A pet tiger may seem a bit surreal, but here is just a casual whim.

Pedro seems too curious about the premise to ramp up the film into farce. He works with long takes in his rough, early-career Tie Me Up visual style. A bizarre move is when he drops optical shots a la Terminator/Wolfen in the nun’s point of view. Are they monsters? Not really. It it a joke? We suppose. Meanwhile, Yolanda, an ex-club singer and one-time science teacher, gets high but senses her own awakening. Living in a room once occupied by a benefactor’s daughter, Yolanda becomes the quiet inspiration of the order — turns out the Sisters are alright.

Matthew Sorrento

 

Law of Desire (1987)

Something of a breakthrough for Almodóvar in the States, Law of Desire was also the first film produced under the auspices of the director’s own production company, the aptly titled El Deseo. Desire is certainly the watchword for this sultry movie. From its provocative film-within-a-film opening sequence onwards (this is, Almodóvar has claimed proudly, the first mainstream Spanish film in which a character says the words “Fuck me!”) Law of Desire explores the vagaries of love and obsession, a terrain in which, paradoxically, few laws apply. “What interests me most is passion for its own sake,” Almodóvar told Nuria Vidal in 1988. “It is a force you cannot control, which is stronger than you and which is as much a source of pain as of pleasure. In any case, it is so strong that it makes you do things which are truly monstrous or absolutely extraordinary”.

Such themes have recurred frequently in Almodóvar’s work. But Law of Desire represents something of a rarity for the director in that it explores them within the context of a gay male relationship. Almodóvar, clearly, has no interest in creating worthy-but-dull “positive images” of gay characters, even at a time when this was viewed as a prerogative by many film-makers. Instead, Almodóvar’s protagonists remain complex and contradictory, palpably human and recognizable, however extreme their actions. The passion that Antonio (Antonio Banderas) develops for Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), a successful film director, is so irrational, excessive and out-of-control that it ultimately earns the film’s respect, even when Antonio elects to dispose of the ex-lover that Pablo himself is still smitten by. As Antonio’s amour fou runs its inevitable, self-destructive course even Pablo comes to recognize that (as the Los Panchos song on the soundtrack tells us) he will never “find a love so pure” as that offered by Antonio. The scenes between these two are extremely well-developed: Poncela is an engagingly elusive object of desire and Banderas has never been slyer, sexier or scarier than he is here. Twenty years on, their frank, funny sex scenes put the less-than-convincing grapplings in Brokeback Mountain to shame.

Equally central to the film is Carmen Maura as Pablo’s sister, Tina. A truly original character, stunningly rendered by Maura, Tina began life as Tino, before undergoing a sex change to please his father, with whom he was sexually involved. Having been abandoned by him, Tina swears off men and dedicates herself instead to bringing up young Ada, the daughter of her lesbian ex-lover.

These self-consciously outrageous developments are presented with a matter-of-factness which is quintessentially Almodóvar, and which exemplifies the director’s commitment to offering alternative visions of family and gender identity on screen. As Pauline Kael notes: “Maura succeeds in looking neither masculine nor feminine – her Tina is a great satirical flip-flopping creation”. It’s Tina, in fact, who’s the protagonist of some of Law of Desire’s most extraordinary sequences: the scene in which she demands to be hosed down in the street; her theatre performance in Cocteau’s The Human Voice; the scene (anticipating a similar sequence in Bad Education) in which she confronts her priest. Law of Desire’s mode is, of course, melodrama, but, as Almodóvar notes, “the film does not respect any of the conventions of the genre … There aren’t good people and bad people, everything is more complex. [It’s] a melodrama which breaks the rules of the genre”. Truly transgressive, Law of Desire is an Almodóvar classic.

Alex Ramon

The Flower of My Secret

The Flower of My Secret (1995)

“Every woman has a secret”

— tagline for The Flower of My Secret

There is no mistaking, the viewer knows from the first few seconds of The Flower of My Secret, that it is, distinctly, a Pedro Almodóvar film. The bold, graphic title sequence could be best described as a cross between the opening credits of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence mashed up with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring’s primary-colored geometrical forms, and it quite loudly heralds the great director’s familiar blend of sleek modernity combined with a strong stylistic nod to the pop-art kitsch of the recent past. The blending of past and present will become important in the film, and also in Almodóvar’s oeuvre.

A tight close-up of a fraught mother, “Manuela” (Kiti Manver) being given a speech about “brain death” from surgeons immediately recalls the director’s 1999 film All About My Mother, which also begins in a clinical environment (not to mention, both films’ leading ladies are named “Manuela”). A son dying, leaving a mother left alone to find solace in the company of strangers, is the primary dramatic framework for All About My Mother, but in this offering, it is but a catalyst – the story we see at the beginning of The Flower of My Secret is a staged soap opera, it’s only make-believe. As the camera pans slowly away from the actor’s faces, the heightened reality is stripped away, making way for a singularly Almodóvarian reality that historically combines elements of surrealism, naturalism and realism, often all at once.

The floral motif of the credits is echoed by the carmine-red fluorescent blooms that rest on the windowsill of screenwriter Leo’s (Marisa Paredes) bedroom. Overlooking a child’s playground, the commotion on the street gives way to natural geometric patterns that Almodóvar utilizes as a form of “pop art” to create interesting lines on screen: neon pink graffiti, bright rubber balls bouncing, and yellow scrimmage lines might have all been there already, but in the director’s hands, even the most mundane establishing shots become animated, full of impact. Almodóvar uses many interesting, effective little tricks to add visual interest, whether it’s placing the brilliant Parades in front of a strikingly artificial, lush backdrop of painted emerald palm trees near an unnaturally baby-blue sea or shooting her through the caning of a lattice-backed wicker chair, bold patters abound in his vision.

Another “pattern” for Almodóvar is the depiction of the show within a show, a favorite recurring theme of the director. Here, the soap opera that begins The Flower of My Secret again echoes the director’s All About My Mother, which memorably featured a “production” of A Streetcar Named Desire that was integral to the main story’s dramatic action. It is fitting then that Almodóvar chose Parades, who played actress Huma in Mother (and in turn played Blanche Dubois in that film’s version of Streetcar), to play the steely-yet-fragile Leo here. The director’s love for such famous behind-the-scenes-in-the-theater-world films such as All about Eve or Opening Night can be felt not only in All about My Mother, which directly references both movies, but also here in Flower’s moody, slightly madcap milieu, in which belly laughs and suicide attempts somehow peacefully coexist next to one another. Here, the “show” merely exists to introduce Leo’s confidante Betty (Carme Elias), who is the scripter responsible for the onscreen soap opera that would later be completely fleshed and taken in a fresh, feature-length direction by Almodóvar.

If Mother is the director’s homage to Sirk, Cassavetes, and to “actresses”, as he states at the end of that film, then perhaps The Flower of My Secret can be seen as a wink to both Robert Altman and his great woman-centric chamber plays Images, 3 Women, and Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, each of which are relatively intimate in scope with distinct surreal elements mixed into the hyper-reality. With intersecting female players, both Almodóvar’s and Altman’s casts feature countless interesting moments of emotional truth scattered into the almost other-worldly (even “soap opera”) landscapes. Each woman in the company, Parades, Manver, Elias, Chus Lampreave, Rossy de Palma, and Manuela Vargas is given a fascinating role and each has their own scene-stealing moment, yet they all remain perfectly in synch as an ensemble, supporting one another heartily.

But as much as the focus on Almodóvar’s films has been directed towards “actresses”, The Flower of My Secret is actually the director’s love letter to writers, to a writer’s struggle. This is especially significant in a time where newspapers and print magazines are dropping like flies and even the most respected professionals in the industry are having trouble finding work that pays the bills. Almodóvar deconstructs the absurd reality of a writer being assigned a topic that they hate, something we’ve all had to deal with at one time or another. Do you write about the lame subject anyways and keep whatever shred of remaining dignity you have intact? Or do you accept the job because you have to, because you need the money? This conundrum consumes Leo.

The old familiar theme of “art versus commerce” is practically (silly) putty in Almodóvar’s hands as Leo, who says she enjoys the work of “women above all”, is offered an assignment to do a book review of an author named “Amanda Gris”. It’s a job that she flatly refuses, in fact the mere suggestion sends her into a rage. It turns out she loathes Gris. Mainly because she secretly is Gris, or rather a part of her. “Amanda Gris” is a conglomerate of sorts, a collective of edgy, low-brow literary world types who make the trashy novels by committee under this pseudonym. “No politics, no social awareness,” hisses one editor at Leo while reading to her from her contract. Leo is sick to death of the kind of romantic pap she is contractually obligated to produce, preferring to write “noir” (one of “Amanda Gris’” plots would go on to become Volver in another masterful stroke of self-referencing from the writer-director). Again, the artist is forced into the position of corporate drone, forced to produce work that is both unnatural to her process and also simply beneath her. Perhaps this is Almodóvar’s way of declaring his own independence from the traditional Hollywood filmmaking systems, and firmly asserting his personal artistic integrity.

Mercifully sparing the audience of any too-blunt floral imagery, Almodóvar restrains this impulse, instead choosing to contemplate the alternative definitions of the word “flower” throughout. How does an artist “flower”, personally, professionally or otherwise? According to the filmmaker, they embrace change in all of its rickety guises and they even try and enjoy the precise moment it smacks them upside the head. Sometimes this requires the artist to leave their familiar surroundings in the city for the Zen calm of the country (or vice versa, again echoing both All about My Mother and Volver). “The whole world can change suddenly,” states Leo, and for a writer (in fact, for an actress, director or any other type of artist for that matter) constant change is not only a necessary tool used for artistic rebirth and renewal, but also something they must have easy access to in order to continue keeping their secrets. The flower, then, can be seen as the writer who opens their “petals” toward the sun, allowing for their imagination to bloom. They must follow a natural instinct to flourish without the fear of reprisal or suffocation; or of editors.

Matt Mazur

Live Flesh

Live Flesh (1997)

Disappointingly for some, Almodóvar’s adaptation of British crime-writer Ruth Rendell’s 1986 novel (his first “adaptation” proper) turned out to be his straightest movie to date, both in terms of sexuality and tone. Nonetheless, Live Flesh remains an intelligent, engrossing entertainment that ingeniously translates Rendell’s novel into a Spanish context. The result is a more sober but still thoroughly distinctive brand of “Almodrama”.

The movie begins with the impromptu birth of our hero, Victor, on a Madrid bus in the middle of winter to a young prostitute, Isabel (Penélope Cruz, in a brief but memorable first appearance for Almodóvar). Flash-forward 20 years and Victor has morphed into the striking Liberto Rabal (possessor of “the fleshiest lips in the history of Spanish cinema,” according to Almodóvar). The doe-eyed Victor arrives at the apartment of Elena (Francesca Neri), a drug addict with whom he had a one-night stand and who he’s now obsessed by. Elena, however, has practically forgotten him. The ensuing struggle — which develops as Buñuel’s Ensayo de un Crimen plays on TV — serves to entangle the fates of Victor, Elena, the two policemen who arrive on the scene, David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (Jose Sancho), and Sancho’s wife Clara (Angela Molina).

Focusing in large part upon the vengeful power-play between Victor and David, Live Flesh is, perhaps, Almodóvar most “masculine” movie, albeit one which offers a few superbly-drawn women’s roles. It’s the director’s most effective thriller, too, with a well-sustained atmosphere of tension and menace. The movie also boasts a fabulous, eclectic soundtrack — including an impressive sex scene scored to a deliriously OTT bolero performed by Chavela Vargas — and excellent performances from its leads. Rabal’s transformation from geeky 20-year-old to muscular stud-in-training is compelling, Francesca Neri radiates guilt and sensuality from every pore, and Angela Molina is moving as the abused, sorrowful Clara who flowers, momentarily, under Victor’s attention. Javier Bardem — perhaps the most imposingly physical of actors, confined to a wheelchair here — delivers a simply brilliant performance that challenges all kinds of stereotypes about “disability”. His David is a basketball champ and cunnilingus expert, a man both bluff and vulnerable, whose world is shaken by Victor’s reappearance. It’s a real shame that Almodóvar hasn’t collaborated with this quartet again.

Live Flesh’s political framework is less well-developed. The film opens in 1970 with a Government announcement of a State of Emergency affecting citizens’ “freedom of speech, residence and association” and ends in the mid-1990s with another birth and a celebration of a new Spain in which “people are no longer afraid”. It’s a glib moment that demonstrates Almodóvar’s lack of skill as a polemicist. But, overlooking the clunky ending, Live Flesh remains fluid, stylish, surprisingly moving and sexy as hell.

Alex Ramon

Pepi, Luci and Bom and Other Girls Like Mom and Talk to Her

Pepi, Luci and Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980)

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.

Jaime Esteve

 

Talk to Her (2002)

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.

Matthew Sorrento

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Volver

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)

One of the first films to receive an NC-17 rating, Pedro Almodóvar’s 1990 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is the story of a man, Ricky (Antonio Banderas), recently released from a mental hospital and obsessed with Marina (Victoria Abril), a woman he had a one-night stand with before being hospitalized. Ricky kidnaps Marina in an effort to make her fall in love with him. Marina’s past as a junkie and ex-porn star make her the sexualized victim to Ricky’s oppressor.

However, Ricky’s plan inexplicably works and Marina begins to develop some kind of romantic feeling towards him to the point that she asks him to leave her tied up so that she won’t try to escape. Throughout the film Marina complains of a toothache and Ricky’s attempt to ease her pain results in his trying to buy heroin and getting beaten instead. The scene in which he returns bloody and hurt so moves Marina that she tends to his wounds. Objectified by Ricky as a prize he is entitled to, Marina’s eventual surrendering to her situation is an unbelievable moment of suspended disbelief.

The inclusion of the equally obsessed porn director adds another layer to Marina’s objectification. His single-minded pursuit of Marina reinforces Ricky’s feelings and makes for an even more problematic premise in that again, she is something to be acquired. Once more, Almodóvar frames his story as an unconventional romance with a large amount of the ridiculous to set the tone. Regardless of Almodóvar’s light approach to the subject matter, Marina’s complicit agreement in her own imprisonment leaves the viewer uncomfortable and offers further evidence to Almodóvar’s critics of his misogynistic tendencies.

In addition to Almodóvar’s comic approach to the story, his romanticizing of a woman physically intimidated and imprisoned by a delusional man makes for an unnerving and premise. At one point, as he is tying her to a bed, Ricky asks that she think of someone other than herself for once. Almodóvar’s insistence on distorting the roles and relationship played by victim and captor is his attempt at creating a different kind of love story. In fact, while Marina eventually escapes with the help of her sister, she is reunited with Ricky at the end in a romantic coda to the film. While other independent and mainstream films have focused on dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships, Almodóvar’s effort to somewhat idealize the relationship in his film adds further weight to the arguments made by many feminist and women’s groups at the time. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! retains many of the standard Almodóvar filmic choices, such as outrageous characters and situations, explicit explorations of sexuality, and a dark comic sensibility. However, the subject matter does not lend itself as easily to these qualities and in turn, the film does not hold up against many of Almodóvar’s other films.

J.M. Suarez

 

Volver (2006)

“Cosas de mujeres [Women’s troubles],” whispers Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda by way of explanation to an inquisitive acquaintance who’s just spotted blood on her neck. In fact, our enterprising heroine has been up to a little light body disposal in the kitchen… Following the intriguing but sour and muddled Bad Education, Almodóvar was back on peak form with this delicious, witty and moving melodrama. Famously, the film marked a series of “returns” for the director: a return to his home turf of La Mancha (presented here as a place where persistent winds drive the inhabitants to madness), and his first collaboration with Carmen Maura in 18 years, following their post-Women on the Verge rupture.

At times, in fact, Volver feels like a compendium of earlier Almodóvar movies. There’s some What Have I Done to Deserve This?! (the unregrettable — and unpunished — dispatching of the abusive machista husband) and a resulting mother-daughter murder scenario that evokes High Heels. The return-to-the-pueblo scenes are reminiscent of those in The Flower of My Secret, while a trash-TV lampoon recalls Kika. In addition, the film’s emphasis upon a supportive female community evokes All About My Mother. Casting his intertextual net as widely as ever, Almodóvar also incorporates nods to Italian neo-realism (including a late excerpt from Visconti’s Bellisima), a dash of Hitchcock, a little Mildred Pierce, and a glorious tango lament mid-way through the film.

That Volver feels as fresh and vibrant as it does is a testament to Almodóvar’s unique vision and his ability to build on and transcend his diverse cultural influences. Along with some effective supernatural twists and well-handled forays into the uncanny, he’s helped in no small part by superb supporting work from Maura as the ghostly matriarch, Lola Dueñas as Raimunda’s sister, Yohana Cobo as her daughter, and Blanca Portillo as a neighbor, plus a cherishable cameo from veteran Chus Lampreave.

Ultimately, though, it’s Penélope Cruz’s stunning performance that anchors this movie. Following a string of lacklustre appearances in mediocre American films, the actress reinvigorated her career with this indelible characterisation. Dragging a shopping trolley through the streets and kitted out with a fake butt (all the better to evoke the curvaceous Anna Magnani), Cruz’s Raimunda is a quintessential Almodóvar heroine, a glamorous yet down-to-earth multi-tasker who’s considering the possibilities of a new financial venture even as she disposes of her husband’s corpse. She’s a woman who’s been badly treated in the past but who’s making her present with inventive, improvisatory aplomb. It’s a tough, funny, graceful, moving and utterly radiant performance, the crowning glory of one of Almodóvar’s warmest works. “Cosas de mujeres”? Indeed.

Alex Ramon

What Have I Done to Deserve This and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

What Have I Done to Deserve This (1984)

For the past 30 years, Pedro Almodóvar has created films at a consistent pace, approximately one every two years or so. The fourth film in this impressive oeuvre, What Have I Done to Deserve This, marked a critical turning point in his development as a filmmaker and emerging auteur. This film was the first to enjoy international distribution, his second out of six collaborations with the actress Carmen Maura, and concretized many of the recurring thematic elements of his films: female solidarity and independence, the importance of female relationships, the recurring characters of the prostitute and the troubled housewife, the deterioration of the family, the dangers of patriarchy, and the evils of consumerism.

What Have I Done to Deserve This centers upon a glorious performance by Carmen Maura as Gloria, a bored, unfulfilled housewife that lives in a small apartment in Madrid with her abusive husband, two sons and meddling, miserly mother-in-law. Gloria’s taxi driver husband withholds money from her, money that she desperately needs to maintain the household while he not so secretly pines for a German opera singer. Her mother-in-law constantly complains, longing to live in the countryside. Her oldest son Toni sells drugs and her youngest son Miguel has sex with older men. Working as a maid for wealthier families, Gloria’s only refuge from her life is her next door neighbor and best friend Crystal, a prostitute. Though the film contains many subplots and additional characters (including an impotent policeman, a telepathic young girl, and the dentist Gloria sells her youngest son to), the meat of the narrative occurs when Gloria accidently kills her husband with a ham leg as he is attacking her, the only witness being the family iguana named Dinero. Gloria successfully evades the police and is never prosecuted for the murder of her husband.

What Have I Done to Deserve This is perhaps the most important film of Almodóvar’s early career outside of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In this film, he was able to lay the foundation for the dichotomous relationships that define his work: farce vs. melodrama, tragedy vs. comedy, female oppression vs. female liberation, authority of the state vs. authority of the individual, reality vs. surrealism. After the completion of this film, Almodóvar intensified his exploration of these relationships to worldwide success and acclaim. What Have I Done to Deserve This, if nothing more, is the beginning of a template of filmography that borders along genius.

Courtney Young

 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

“A new comedy about someone you know” tagline for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown announces its status immediately: the opening credits is a series of commercial pop art, equally vibrant and gaudy. Pop art is an embrace of the commercial and the manufactured, some of the qualities that many artists deride. Almodóvar is after all a pop artist; he seems to have no pretensions that he’s making high art, especially with Women the Verge, the film that catapulted him to international fame.

Because of the screwball nature of the plot, any description of it borders on irrelevant. Ivan (Fernando Guillén) leaves his girlfriend Pepa (Carmen Maura), who goes into a state of depression that she combats with sleeping pills. After she receives some important news from her doctor, she sets out to tell Ivan. Although she doesn’t find him, she does find out something new: Ivan had a son, Carlos (a dorky young Antonio Banderas), who is married to Marissa (the fascinating, Picasso-esque face of Rossy de Palma). From there on the group mingles with phone repairmen, the mentally ill, and Shiite terrorists. If you want to label the film, melodramedy seems to be the only appropriate term. Coincidences, estranged sons, political intrigue, mistaken identities, spiked gazpacho, it’s a loving embrace of the most commercial film genres perfected melded into one. Yet each element serves to enhance the others, there’s no clashing of the various tones of each style.

Women on the Verge isn’t meant as a self-serious drama, but rather an off-the-wall comedy, where the absurdity of one situation leads to the even more absurd next. The comedy doesn’t arise from humorous situations, but rather a juxtaposition of a series of rather serious ones. It’s the type of zany narrative that is frequently employed by many filmmakers today, from the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, to François Ozon’s 8 Women, to David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express. But the form has commercially viable filmic roots back in the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, including Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, and His Girl Friday.

It’s Almodóvar’s embrace of his work as pop art which makes it such an endearing film. The color palette resembles Warhol’s silkscreened celebrity portraits, but more to the point would be the way in which Almodóvar pays homage to well-respected commercial filmmakers. Pepa works dubbing films, and we see her doing voiceover work for Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. A poster for the Charles Vidor musical Cover Girl (starring Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth) hangs on a wall. And as Pepa stares at Ivan’s apartment complex, Almodóvar visually quotes Rear Window, showing us a Spanish Miss Torso. It’s the ability to straddle commercial guidelines and artistic vision (something so few can do, but Hitchcock, Ray, and Vidor are notable exceptions) that makes Almodóvar one of the most well-respected commercial filmmakers.

Joshua Jezioro

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