Lost in Translation

May 26, 2009: Pedro Almodóvar writes in his blog an entry titled “Black Chronicle of the Cannes Festival”, in which he analyses the chronicles published in one of Spain’s most important newspapers, El País, about the premiere of his last film, Broken Embraces, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The tone of the entry, as its title suggests, is not very happy, and it exhaustively details how such journal might have offered to its readers a distorted view of what had happened in the Croisette when his film opened.

In the entry of the blog written by the director of the cultural section of the journal, Borja Hermoso, on May 20, he selected lines from French journals Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération suggesting that the French press had flat-out disliked Almodóvar’s film, and ironically reminded how Almodóvar had declared, only days before, that the French press had always showed more respect for him and his movies than the press from his own country, Spain. Meanwhile, the truth was that, while a few of the reviews from the most important media were indeed less than flattering, the film had a very positive reception, finishing third in the rankings made by media such as Screen Daily or Le Film Français rankings which are based on the ratings given by different critics to the films in the competition.

The angry controversy went on for days and got a certain, somewhat important echo in the Spanish media. On June 24 Borja Hermoso announced that he closed his blog, at least for some time, and that nobody forced him to do so, maliciously adding “not even Almodóvar”.

This is perhaps the culmination (but perhaps just one example more) of something that has been a usual topic in discussions about the film scene and industry in Spain: the place Pedro Almodóvar and his films occupy in such scene, how he is seen in his own country as opposed to how he is seen in the European film scene and, finally, the overwhelmingly positive reception his later filmography has had in the United States, where all his films since All About My Mother (1999) have consistently received different accolades, including two Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film for the aforementioned All About My Mother and Best Original Screenplay for 2002’s Talk to Her) and the first Academy Award nomination ever for an leading actress performing in Spanish, Penélope Cruz for Volver (2006).

The exchange of accusations and data described here in the first paragraphs shows an essential dissension here: Almodóvar’s latest film was considered among the Cannes festival’s very best offerings of the year by the international media while at least a portion (but a very influential and important one) of the Spanish press seemed to be not only passively disliking it but even actively trying to present it as an undoubted failure in the international scene.

It’s definitely not unusual that an artist is not a prophet in his own land, and that he or she is “discovered” as a great one first by critics of other countries, but it is certainly interesting how big the dissension is in this case.

If one goes to the roots of Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography, one can see that this radical behaviour from certain critics suits well to the radicalism the auteur has exhibited from the beginning of his filmography: his feature debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) includes casual and happy abuse of drugs, open and brutal sadomasochism -with wives happily beaten or cheated on by their husbands- urination on a woman’s face and, in general, a collection of characters displaying a behaviour (especially a sexual one) that could easily cause scandal even among people who would consider themselves moderate liberals. And one has to have on account that all this was exhibited on screens in Spain only five years after the demise of conservative dictator Francisco Franco and only two years after Spain’s democratic constitution was approved.

Soon in his career, Pedro Almodóvar’s films were received outside of Spain as a clear evidence that Spain had changed and that the conservatism and censorship associated with the country during the Franco years were definitely finished. In a way, perhaps, there was even certain identification between Almodóvar’s films and the country, Spain, itself, with Pedro becoming a sort of a trademark for the country’s new image abroad. While his films, that early, weren’t still sealed with an approval stamp by mainstream award bodies, and even if they still were part of an underground culture or even counter-culture, it was usual that non-Spanish reviews of his work underlined how those movies were a symbol of the change in Spain.

Obviously, things weren’t the same inside Almodóvar’s own land. His films were radically provocative and hence, part of the people to whom the provocations were addressed (people who were not exactly like the international, supposedly open-mined critics who saw his films in the film festivals circuit) reacted accordingly, and there were people voicing their discontent and even repulsion for what Almodóvar showed on screen. It is important to note that his films weren’t still the cultural reference and almost milestone they are now and that they weren’t as popular and widely seen as his post-1988 fare has been, so the people giving both the praise and the attacks were still few, despite moderate homeland box office success.

However, in the second half of the ‘80s, the slow but persistent notices his films got from the press started permeating into more strata of Spanish society, Almodóvar was polishing his style, his actors were becoming more popular and this underground culture of Madrid (which we could loosely identify with what has been called “la movida”) was given much more publicity by the media, and it all exploded in the unexpected and overwhelming success of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), which became one of the biggest money-makers yet for a Spanish film within its own country, and whose success inside was approved abroad too with a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

That was the moment when Almodóvar definitely broke into the mainstream and became something every Spaniard had to take position about, and also when he officially became Spain’s biggest artistic icon abroad since Picasso or, in film, Luis Buñuel (the merits of other directors like Saura or Erice in the ‘70s weren’t really ratified by a popular success as huge as the one Almodóvar got, or by such a wide and unanimous acceptation by the international media).

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was nominated for 16 awards of the Spanish Academy (the “Goyas”) and won some of the biggest including Best Picture, Actress, and Screenplay, but surprisingly lost best director to Remando al viento (Gonzalo Suárez, 1988), thus starting the supposed long, and still unfinished series of problems between the director and the Spanish Academy of Cinema (despite the fact that both All About My Mother and Volver won the top honors including Best Director for Almodóvar). “Disputes” have included, for instance, an almost total shut-out to films that won many important accolades outside of Spain. High Heels, which won the French César for Best Foreign Film and a scored a Golden Globe nomination in the same category; Bad Education, which received, among other honors, the opening slot in that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the Best Foreign Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle; or the selection of Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002) over Talk to Her as the movie to compete in the name of Spain for the Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language, when the latter was hailed as a landmark in the director’s career and finally landed the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and a nomination for Pedro Almodóvar himself as Best Director (while Mondays in the Sun wasn’t even selected as a nominee by the Academy).

Where does this exceptionally radical dissension come from?

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Where does this exceptionally radical dissension come from? It’s not only that the artist is not a prophet in his homeland; it’s that, while he’s seen abroad as a symbol of his own country, at least a part of said country rejects the identification and actively shows a cold shoulder when given an opportunity. As we have already suggested, it shouldn’t be strange that an artist of such an aggressively provoking work elicits aggressive reactions from the press and from many sectors of society: he would be failing if he didn’t elicit them. Politically, socially and morally his films have many radical and challenging, even questionable elements, so he is bound to earn both attacks and praise for it, and undoubtedly it has always affected the way he is perceived by Spanish and international critics.

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.