Almodovar 101 takes a look at some of the Spanish auteur's greatest hits - from Pepi, Luci and Bom up through Volver, a crack team of PopMatters film writers/Almodovar experts from New Jersey to Madrid are on hand to guide readers through the vivid world of the director.
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.
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.
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.