A true passion for cinema is something that effortlessly shines through the work of the greatest filmmakers. We've seen homages to classic films, in this year alone, in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, Judd Apatow's Funny People and Lee Daniels' Precious, but no contemporary director references film history as commandingly as Almodovar.
Perhaps more consistently than any other contemporary filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar’s ardent cinephilia is displayed throughout his movies. Alongside allusions to theatre, literature, dance, painting, television and advertising, references to film are central to the world that Almodóvar constructs on screen. From the very beginning of his career, the director has creatively incorporated allusions to the diverse range of movies that have inspired and influenced him; his work, as Jose Arroyo has noted, “borrows indiscriminately from film history”.
In interview with Frederic Strauss, Almodóvar acknowledges that “cinema is always present in my films [and that] certain films play an active part in my scripts. When I insert an extract from a film, it isn’t a homage but outright theft. It’s part of the story I’m telling, and becomes an active presence rather than a homage which is always something passive. I absorb the films I’ve seen into my own experience, which immediately becomes the experience of my characters” (Strauss, 45). With his latest film, Broken Embraces riffing on Hitchcock, Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953), Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and aspects of Almodóvar's own past work, now seems a particularly appropriate moment to assess the function of cinema references in Almodóvar and the role that film has played as a source of inspiration for his own movies.
Almodóvar’s passion for film was nurtured from an early age, during childhood trips to the cinema. Movies, the director has claimed, provided a continual source of solace, engagement and escape when he was a child, as well as forming his early interest in story-telling. Almodóvar started going to the cinema when he was about ten years old, and reports an early enthusiasm for comedies by directors such as Frank Tashlin, Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder and Stanley Donen, the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Hitchcock thrillers and the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’s plays, in particular Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). “I was much more sensitive to the voice of Tennessee Williams, springing from the lips of Liz Taylor, Paul Newman or Marlon Brando, than to the slimy patter of my spiritual director," Almodóvar has said (1996), articulating a postmodern belief in art over religion that will come to be shared by his characters.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the censorship of the time, Almodóvar was also able to see the first films of the French New Wave, as well as work by Bergman, Buñuel, Pasolini, Visconti and Antonioni. “They touched me profoundly,” Almodóvar has said. “None of these films spoke about my life yet I felt strangely close to the world they described” (Strauss, 2). Later, at the Madrid Film Institute in the 1970s, Almodóvar was exposed to the work of older generations of filmmakers, including the Hollywood comedies of the '30s and '40s (by Lubitsch, Sturges and Leisen) and the work of the German Expressionists: “These films left me speechless as if I’d seen miracles” (Strauss, 5). In addition, Almodóvar was introduced at this time to films by the contemporary American avant garde, including Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, John Waters and John Cassavetes.
All of these diverse film influences have found their way into Almodóvar’s work at various points. With a sensibility steeped both in the underground and in Hollywood, in comedy and horror, realism and artifice, “high” culture and “low”, the director has evoked, quoted, alluded to and parodied the work of the many filmmakers who have inspired him. Cinema referencing in Almodóvar takes a couple of forms. In some instances, the reference is incorporated diagetically: a character sees or talks about a particular movie whose themes reflect those of the Almodóvar film in which it appears (cf. Vidor’s Duel in the Sun in Matador, Ray’s Johnny Guitar, in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, in High Heels, or Mankiewicz’s All About Eve in All About My Mother). Alternatively, a film might be alluded to through a less direct method, such as an echoing of specific shots, themes or aesthetics (cf. the 1950s Hollywood-styled credit sequence in Women on the Verge …, and the film’s subsequent nods to Rear Window and Strangers on a Train). Here Almodóvar relies upon the film-savvy viewer to recognise and “place” the reference in its new context. Increasingly, too, Almodóvar has resorted to self-referencing of his own films, with the opening sequence of The Flower of My Secret providing the genesis for All About My Mother and Volver re-using aspects of What Have I Done to Deserve This?!, The Flower of My Secret and High Heels.
In addition to this, Almodóvar sometimes incorporates into his work scenes from a fictional film or film-in-the-making. This meta-cinematic conceit has allowed the director to present his own idiosyncratic takes on the erotic film (“The Paradigm of the Mussel” in Law of Desire), the horror film (“Midnight Phantom” in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!), the silent film (“The Shrinking Lover” in Talk to Her) and the religious melodrama (“The Visit” in Bad Education).
Such referencing serves a number of interrelated functions within Almodóvar’s work. On the one hand, it allows the director to place his own films within the wider context of cinema history and to self-consciously acknowledge his debt to other filmmakers. (Although Almodóvar always disavows the notion of simply paying “tribute” or “homage” to the films in question.) Referencing cinema also allows Almodóvar to demonstrate his work’s difference from the cited texts, which he usually uses simply as a jumping-off point for his own narratives and characters. Sometimes this results in a direct subversion or re-writing of the model film, as when Almodóvar turns a classic comedy of female betrayal (All About Eve) into a celebration of female solidarity in All About My Mother or subverts the tragic fate of Blanche du Bois by refusing to allow any of his heroines in that film to succumb to madness. Cinema referencing also forms part of the director’s endeavour to create self-consciously hybridised films, works that might be classified as screwball melodrama, tragicomedy or queer noir.
It is of course film melodrama that has been viewed as the default mode of Almodóvar’s output, the genre to which his work most insistently returns. As Arroyo notes, melodrama is an adaptable form, “a mode that cuts across genre, equally capable of conveying the tragic and the comic, eminently emotional, adept at arousing intense audience identification, and capable of communicating complex psychological processes no matter what the character's gender or sexual orientation." In this sense Almodóvar’s work both draws on and destabilizes the traditions of melodrama exemplified by the films of a director such as Douglas Sirk. While Sirkian elements within Almodóvar movies are easy enough to identify -- a focus on women’s stories; an expressionist approach to color, costume, music and mise-en-scene -- at no time has Almodóvar produced an equivalent film to Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2002).
Instead, Almodóvar uses Sirkian tropes -- both thematic and stylistic -- to his own ends, merging them with other influences. Films such as High Heels, The Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother and Volver may all be viewed as being influenced by Sirk, but Sirkian elements are combined throughout with allusions to other films, from Bergman’s Autumn Sonata through Cukor’s Rich and Famous to Cassavetes’ Opening Night. (Clearly, though, a link between these movies, and one of the reasons for their resonance for Almodóvar, is the strong presence of female characters in each of them.) In addition, Almodóvar’s protagonists are not subject to the same social strictures as Sirk’s and his films can (and usually do) take a far franker approach to sex and violence. As Arroyo rightly points out: “Almodóvar's signature, and a unique contribution to the movies, is the synthesis of the melodramatic mode with a clash of quotations."