Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s lushly melancholic meditation on identity and film is steeped in a joyous knowledge of that medium, but there’s never pandering or knowing winks, just pure love. I liken his work to the British band St. Etienne (whose “Good Thing” was featured in Almodovar’s Volver), masters of the pop art whose work is often mistaken for pastiche, but never lacks for sincerity and is informed by an un-ironic affection for pop history.
Almodovar works similar magic by paying tribute to the leitmotifs of his icons (most prominently film noir and the “women’s pictures” of director Douglas Sirk and George Cukor, both foreigners working within a Hollywood idiom) and plundering his own past work, as well. It’s never done in a distracting way – the director’s laser-like style is his substance, and his work has remained resolutely modern and relevant. The emotional themes are given heft by his luminous and multifaceted heroine, played by Penelope Cruz, in their fourth effort together.
The film opens in the middle of the seduction of an incorrigible blind man (Lluis Homar). We soon learn that his name is Mateo Blanco. He is an established filmmaker and screenwriter. He writes under the nom de plume Harry Caine, and has done so strictly since the accident on the island of Lanzarote which took his sight 14 years ago.Originally a cheeky nod to his abiding love for film, the name becomes a coping mechanism, eventually superseding his pre-trauma identity.
Harry/Mateo is looked after by his longtime production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo), overprotective of Harry, and her son, Diego (Tamar Novas), who is collaborating with Harry on a script about a society of vampires who start a line of sun cream. They have an easy rapport, though Harry is a wittily acerbic man.
Soon Harry is visited by a “stranger”, name of Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano). Oily documentary filmmaker X asks Harry to make a biographical film about his fraught relationship with his father. Harry flatly refuses, sending the interloper away, shaken, but won’t say why.
Diego works as a DJ at a club where the stimulants are free-flowing. One night after some alcohol and MDMA, he mistakenly takes a nip from his colleague’s GHB’n’coke, which effects some grievous bodily harm, resulting in an ER visit. Judit is away, but Harry arrives at the hospital, agreeing not to tell her about the overdose. Their shared secret acts as a catalyst, pulling them together in complicity.
Diego confronts Harry: why has he begun answering to the name Mateo since the appearance of X? Why the veil of mystery which has always hung over his friendship with Judit, and the pivotal events surrounding the production of their last film before the accident, a botched comedy?
In the parallel plot from 1994, Lena (Cruz), an aspiring actress, is slumming as an executive assistant to magnate Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), who secretly yearns for her. A plot twist involving an escort agency and her father’s need for an operation precipitates a mutually beneficial relationship between boss and employee. While Lena is physically sickened by selling out to Martel, she gets a chance via Martel’s son, X, to audition for Harry Caine’s new film.
Martel agrees to finance the production, effectively kick-starting Lena’s career, with the caveat that he have complete control. Harry and Lena find themselves inexorably attracted to each other, which soon jeopardizes the production. They are a force of nature, and in the wake of their affair becoming public, each character is forced to make life-altering decisions, testing their ability to manage unwieldy jealousy and obsession.
“You remind me of Peeping Tom,” Harry opines, taunting X, his tormentor with the omnipresent camera, trying to get at the truth behind his father’s machinations. The real Peeping Tom, of course, is Martel, a master manipulator, cunningly using a professional lip reader and exploiting his prostrate son’s unconditional devotion with an eye to surveilling his lover. With the available technology, they are the eyes and ears of this diminutive, ineffectual man behind the curtain.
With all his wealth, he can’t persuade Lena to stay or abandon Harry. He can’t have this rare bird, so he attempts to keep her in captivity (the “caged woman” being one of those potentially tired noir themes which Almodovar imbues with fresh life).
The director, like Brian dePalma, David Lynch and Dario Argento before him (albeit in more of a pure thriller element) has steeped his film in Freudianism, employing favorite Hitchcockian tropes of the voyeur, the blond, the double and the über-mother (represented here by the benign but somewhat sinister-appearing Judit, who allows herself to be ruled by baser impulses which nearly destroy Harry).
However, Almodovar never encroaches on homage territory. He subtly integrates the Master’s themes into his own work, updating them, making them his own and, adding his own ironically tossed off bromides and throwaway lines, renders them timelier than ever.
Cruz herself admits in the accompanying Variety interview that describing or pinning down her character is nearly impossible given Lena’s elusive, tripartite personality. She is given multiple identities, her own wig, wardrobe and makeup artist. She is Audrey one minute, Marilyn the next, Kim Novak in Vertigo the next (in one striking “real world” sequence, she even channels Bette Davis in The Little Foxes, coldly puffing on a cigarette while her one of her lovers seems to be dying of a heart attack.
True to form, Almodovar inverts the cliché, simultaneously puncturing it, while Cruz maintains her arresting vulnerability). However, Harry is no James Stewart, obsessed to the point of self-abnegation. Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a cynical portrayal of male desire and expectation as illusory at best and all-destroying at worst, a sort of hetero inversion of Quentin Crisp’s old saw “There is no great dark man.” (“There is no blond-brunette/Madonna-whore dyad?”)
Instead, Almodovar strips away all the masks, except for what Lena has created with Harry (and by extension, what the director has created with Cruz). Their artist-muse relationship is symbiotic, but their love relationship is not codependent. The quotidian world attempted to obliterate it, but Harry gives Lena a new life, by re-editing the film they made together, fashioning it into a comedic masterpiece.
This remaining identity, life as a work of art, is Lena and Harry’s celluloid legacy. It’s a classic Wildean paradox of artificiality and genuineness. The film which survives is the lie that tells the truth.
The DVD extras are a treat, including scenes from the satirical film-within-a-film, The Cannibal Councillor, the title character of which is a gleefully amoral, cocaine-addled and sexually omnivorous combination of Patsy Stone of Absolutely Fabulous and Samantha from Sex and the City. There are insights into the director-star relationship in with red carpet interviews from the New York Film Festival, theatrical trailer, the aforementioned Variety interview with Cruz and a “Pedro Directs Penelope” clip. In all, great supplements to an instant classic.