Film

Viva Pedro: The Almodóvar Interview

Generous, energetic and all-around amazing, Pedro Almodóvar talks with PopMatters about his new film, Broken Embraces and much more.

Pedro Almodóvar’s newest feature film Broken Embraces is a beautiful homage to cinema, an amalgam of styles that finds Almodóvar's direction as graceful and strong as ever -- there is a mature ripeness to these new images, which hold a delicately hidden eloquence and heartache in addition to a profound strength. As is his usual custom, the director toys with linear composition and symmetry in his hybridized world, filling in each space of the frame with visual interest whether it is simply a grid of lines, a close-up of an eye or the “fullness” of his flashback sequences. Every technical element the director uses here is refined, and the spectator is witnessing a master director working at the height of his powers -- whether it is the delicate mixing of film stocks to transcend and challenge conventional temporality or merely playing with dialectical montage and editing to reinvigorate one of his favorite tropes: the show within a show, the director knows the medium inside and out.

Often labeled Almodóvar’s “muse”, Penelope Cruz, in her fourth performance for the great director, gives a nuanced, vulnerable and melancholic performance. There are so many moments of chic stillness from her here as the actress Lena, and she conveys a bottomless well of sadness with one soulful glance. The actress, who has a tendency to show new colors with each new performance, shows a kind of disquieting chilliness here, which imbues the work with an ice-blue tone. Cruz’s performance is akin to a frozen bird in a gilded cage, someone coolly haunted and trapped -- she showed a similarly bruised side in Elegy last year and gets only stronger and stronger as an actress, it seems. Romantic possession, doomed love, and fatal beauty are recurring motifs in the world of Almodóvar, and their roots run deep into the canons of auteurs such as Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Ingmar Bergman, three of the director’s most-revered cinematic reference points.

Broken Embraces is a seasoned masterwork, with subtle grace notes, humor, style and mystery. Part noir, part screwball comedy, part homage to his heroes, the construction of Broken Embraces’ mood hinges on the luscious way in which Almodóvar lets his story unspool in perfect harmony with an artful image. And if you thought Quentin Tarantino referenced a lot of classic cinema in Inglorious Basterds earlier this year, just wait until you see Almodóvar’s virtual filmic tapestry that celebrates the magic of cinematic creation: Louis Malle, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Audrey Hepburn, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 8/12, Kiss of Death, Voyage to Italy, Fanny and Alexander... there are so many films referenced here, often literally, and yet the proceedings never become burdened by the rapid-fire succession of smart historical references.

This is a love letter to movie making if ever there was one and nobody can do it with the kind of authority that Almodóvar does: with tremendous attention to detail, a deep understanding of the way the medium works and, of course, a keen understanding and profound appreciation of film history. The press notes for Broken Embraces were written by Almodóvar himself (which is fairly unusual) and the way he breaks down the elements of the movie is simply brilliant -- he addresses each point of the film that he feels is important in understanding it and writes concisely about his intentions -- there is a particularly amazing section where he talks about his use of "stairs" in the film, and then, briefly, about the history of the use of stairs in Hollywood film. His love and understanding of film and film history is staggering and unexpected.

Juggling a hectic promotional schedule, I was initially told that a private interview with legendary Almodóvar was basically out of the question and that he did very few one on one interviews to promote films, in general. Thanks to the efforts of one of the best public relations teams in the business, a little tenacity on my part, and a lot of prayer, I was able to sit down in a swanky Manhattan hotel suite to talk with one of the most celebrated filmmakers of our time. Almodóvar is a man who has already gone down in the history books as one of the best (witness groundbreaking triumphs like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Talk to Her for starters). He is a director who, like his star, becomes stronger and stronger with each new venture, while still retaining his signature sense of humor, his dignity and his distinct point of view. I’m still surprised that I was able to maintain my composure sitting next to the director of All About My Mother, which for me was a landmark piece of work that changed the way I looked at film in general and made me want to take it even more seriously. Generous with his time, effervescent and irreverent, and interested in chatting about Jessica Lange -- Almodóvar was everything I imagined him to be.

What is it like travelling to all of the festivals with your film and presumably meeting all of the world’s great directors? Is it all business and no pleasure?

It’s always a mixture. One of the nicest things about festivals is that I always end up seeing actor friends or director friends who I don’t otherwise get to see. Because it’s not really the ideal location to evaluate a film. For example, at a place like Cannes, there are so many films to see, so much excitement built around it, that there is very little time for reflection. But in any case, feeling that excitement is also a lot of fun to feel. For example, another thing you get to do at these festivals, is see your film screened for the first time, for a particular audience, say here in New York at the New York film festival and it is very exciting and at the same time a little nerve-racking because you don’t know how a particular audience is going to react to your film. It’s always pleasure and business. I mean, it’s always an interesting experience.

What was the most surprising thing about Penelope in the film for you in Broken Embraces?

It wasn’t a surprise, it was a confirmation. At the same time it’s always a surprise because I am always confronted with her versatility as an actress. So it was, for example, a very different role from the one she played in Volver and I was fully confident that she would do it well, but at the same time, you don’t know whether she’s going to do it well, so you always have that mixture between confirmation and surprise.

I feel like every time I see a new performance by Penelope, there is always new shading or that there is something surprising there...

Yes! I know! This is something amazing. I mean, the four different movies we did, I cast her as something completely different. I’m very glad that people can watch that. I mean I knew the secret to it -- she has many different faces and has many different women inside her, as an actress I mean. Sometimes almost the opposite -- she can be like in the style of someone strong, like Sophia Loren, like in Volver and someone much more frail or fragile like Audrey Hepburn like at the end of this movie. These are two very different types of actresses, even physically, but she can be that and that’s fantastic.

Speaking of actresses, when I was about seven, I fell passionately in love with Jessica Lange.

(nodding enthusiastically) I can imagine!

It was because of her gaze on the poster for the film Frances!

In Frances, she was amazing! She was nominated but didn’t get the Oscar?

She won for Tootsie, for supporting actress that year.

(shaking his head) But not for Frances...

Do you remember a specific point when you were younger when you just fell in love madly with actresses?

Oh yeah! Very much! I was a child. At the end of the ‘50s, the early ‘60s, I fell in love with many. Audrey Hepburn was one of them. But Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardener. Gloria Grahame, also, in all these kind of noir movies. I always felt a lot of pity with Gloria Grahame because she died in almost all the movies I saw at that moment. It was very unfair. But it was another time, you know? I think I became a director for the possibility of directing actors or actresses. But in that particular case, I was obsessed with Bette Davis and Kate Hepburn. They were alive when I started making movies, but of course, I was a small Spanish director that couldn’t get the possibility of working with them, but it was my dream to work with these two actresses, specifically.

And also Ava Gardener, I was fascinated by her. In Mogambo, it was completely magical. Or in The Barefoot Contessa. I remember very well that period. I was just a child or an adolescent. Even in ’64, when she made Night of the Iguana, she was not so young, but I was very impressed by that movie. I know it is not, like, a perfect movie and not even the best John Huston movie, but I was so impressed by everything, but about her and the work here. I remember also that I was very impressed -- I didn’t mention this [on Saturday] because we didn’t have enough time -- if I have to talk about the seventeen movies that I did, some of it is very personal at the beginning. I identified very much with that sensibility and that is Tennessee Williams. All the movies made, the adaptations of Williams, I had a strange feeling that I belonged to that sensibility, even though I was so far away.

Next Page
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.