I’m So Excited: Pedro Almodóvar’s Most Political Movie?

In I’m So Excited we were made the implicit promise of a hilarious throwback to the movies Pedro Almodóvar used to make in the 1980’s, his early films that are considered to be modern comedy classics, in the best Woody Allen sense.

The director himself has said that with this, his 19th feature film, he intended to make a “light” movie, something that was simply meant to entertain and make us laugh after such recent heavy fare as Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In. His brother/producer Ahgustín called it a “witty comedy with spicy dialogue” when he was interviewed by Spanish press before production began. During most of its brisk running time, the movie does just that, as nary a single scene passes without having the audience around you explode into raucous laughter. It’s only when you return to the movie that you might uncover its darker layers, something that seems unexpected even for its legnedary creator.

During a visit to New York City a few weeks ago, Almodóvar spoke to us once again about his creative process and how his movies take on a life of their own after he’s made them (for an extensive look at the director’s life and career, please check out our inaugural Director Spotlight on him). “Whenever I discuss the thesis behind my movie, I do it only after I’ve finished making it,” he said, adding that he is often surprised by what he finds in his own screenplays. In the case of I’m So Excited, he realized he had based his entire plot around a famous Greek myth: that of the Minotaur and Ariadne.

The movie has a simple premise: an assortment of characters find themselves trapped in the business class section of an airplane while the pilots try to find an airport to make an emergency landing. The passengers in coach have all been drugged and put to sleep by the airplane’s crew. During one crucial moment, one of the passengers (Guillermo Toledo) gets in touch with his lover (Paz Vega) in the ground. “In this movie we have one mythological narrative, Ariadne’s string. When I was writing the story about the falling phone that connects the two women with the lover in the air, I was thinking about Ariadne” he said, adding that the way the plot is framed contributed to the mythological feeling, “that very same thread is used to prevent getting lost in the Minotaur’s labyrinth and the labyrinth is similar to the flight because they’re not going anywhere…”

Comedy and Sex As Politics

“This movie is a return to the kind of comedy I used to do in the ’80s,” said Almodóvar “but it’s also an homage to ’80s Spain, which saw an explosion of freedom after Franco’s death” — freedom that was expressed in a myriad ways including welcoming more tourism to the country as well as loosening up their conceptions on sex and contraception (by the late 1970s Playboy magazine was outselling national publications). Some of his funniest films during this era, including Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Law of Desire, deal with these changes but express them mostly through hyper-sexualization. None of the characters in the early Almodóvar movies seem to have any restraint when it comes to going to bed with someone they desire and this is something he perpetuates in I’m So Excited, where we see men and women engaged in affairs with royals, killers and married “heterosexual” pilots.

During one of the film’s funniest scenes, we see an air steward played by the hilarious Carlos Areces praying in front of an altar filled with saints asking them why is he so unlucky in love. “I’m the only devout one and the only one who doesn’t get to screw,” he says. Almodóvar confessed this was one of his favorite lines in the movie and that it had been improvised at the very last minute. When I asked him about how he felt linking sex to religion he replied “at least in Spain, Saint Anthony is exactly for that. More than for sex though it’s to find a boyfriend, but we can assume that once you have a boyfriend, you’ll start having sex with him.”

In I’m So Excited we find all the characters trying to have sex with each other, “the characters’ freedom — regarding sex, alcohol, drugs — can be scandalous and there’s a dictatorship about what’s politically correct that I always seem to violate” he expressed, but for him “there’s always people that can feel offended for anything and scandal is in the eye of the beholder.”

I wondered if he felt that his movies had made sex become part of the regular conversation in his society, but he added “in Spain we’ve always talked about sex”, he gave a wicked smile and continued “we talk about it more than we do it.” He proceeded to share a hilarious anecdote; the story goes that when famous matador Luis Miguel Dominguín (father of Miguel Bosé who starred in Pedro’s High Heels) first had sex with Ava Gardner, he proceeded to put his clothes back on right after they’d reached climax. Surprised, Ava asked him where he was going and the matador replied “I have to go tell people about it!”

But the ’80s weren’t all fun and games in Spain; in 1979 he met actress Cecilia Roth who had just fled Argentina when Jorge Rafael Videla overthrew Isabel Martínez de Perón’s government. “I hope he is in hell,” he said about the dictator, before continuing saying how much he loved Roth and how many key people he met during these years. The sexual revolution also sent the country into panic as the AIDS epidemic began and we see his movies take a shift towards darkness in the last part of the ’80s. Films like the tongue-in-cheek Matador brought on a sense of dread, relating sex to death.

It’s impossible to discuss his movies without mentioning their contribution to queer cinema and how being raised Catholic actually exposed him to homosexuality: “it’s kind of paradox, I was educated in a Catholic school and with the priests it was a big gay club; even if you didn’t want to, you saw everything.” While Spain has changed and become more accepting of sexual diversity — they were the first European country to legalize gay marriage; “something we should feel very proud of” as the director says — there is still a gap between public and religious opinion. “The church’s hypocrisy — in Spain and Italy — is incredible, the Episcopal Conference continues being obsessed with homosexuality, even if it’s legal they can’t understand gay marriage,” he added.

His Most “Spanish” Movie Yet?

The more you think about I’m So Excited, the more obvious it is that the film isn’t just a comedy; look closer and you find an infinite amount of references about the political situation in Spain that actually make it feel more bittersweet and less “light”. I asked the director if he intended to make it a political metaphor but he replied “I wanted to make a comedy that people would enjoy and that would them escape reality — this is why the movie takes way up in the clouds — I wanted them to be as far away from reality as possible, but as I kept rewriting the screenplay, especially during the last months when the economy in Spain had entered a period of crisis, I couldn’t avoid reality from seeping into the cracks.”

Actor Miguel Angel Silvestre who plays an object of desire in the movie agreed: “now I see similarities between reality and the plot that I didn’t see when I read the script.” The film’s very setting turns into a harsh political metaphors as we see middle class people in deep slumber while the rich stay up in business class, plotting a way out of their strange voyage. “They are in purgatory and when they land, they arrive to limbo,” said Almodóvar, making reference to the airport used in the movie, the Ciudad Real Central Airport in his home region of La Mancha. This ghost-airport is a symbol of embezzlement “when Spanish viewers see the airport they are reminded of who caused this crisis — the bankers and politicians — who are responsible for it” and it is here where he chooses his characters to arrive.

“I saw Airport years ago,” he said, “but thinking about this particular movie, I am mostly reminded of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and it’s probably an unconscious influence, we see many characters condemned to share the same space…” Buñuel’s cinema of course was highly condemned by Franco’s oppressive system, making for a fascinating comparison when measured against the current state of Spanish society. “Right now Spain can be summed up in two words: fear and uncertainty. There are homeless people, over six million unemployed…,” he continued, “it’s good that a comedy also talks about reality.”

With this said, it seems even more interesting to think that this is his most recent movie with a title that loses all its nuisance and charm when translated. The film’s Spanish title Los amantes pasajeros is literally translated as The passenger lovers but in Spanish, “passenger” also means “fleeting”. By making something as innocuous as the title, lose some of its power when being sold to non-Spanish speakers, we can see that this is after all a true love song to his country, not to mention that the movie offers endless inside jokes about the monarchy and key political figures in Spain.

“Even if these elements are very obvious to the Spanish audience, I hope that American viewers — who probably don’t know much about what’s happening in Spain — will still be able to be entertained by the movie,” he said with a sigh, before continuing “I hope and wish this is true, if not I’ve failed.” Previously he’d said, “I am not politically correct and I never try to be… for me, every reaction provoked by a movie, actually makes the movie richer” in a way preceding where our conversation would lead. “A movie can be seen a thousand different ways and it turns into a thousand different movies. Even if as its author you don’t always agree with the way they’re interpreted as, it reminds us that movies are alive.”

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I’m So Excited, from Sony Pictures Classics opens in select theaters this June 28.