On Monday night, AFI Fest Guest Artistic Director Pedro Almodovar presented his 1987 film “La Ley del Deseo” (“Law of Desire”), a dreamy, melodramatic noir about lust, jealousy and violence, starring Antonio Banderas, Carmen Maura and Eusebio Poncela. The presentation at Grauman’s Chinese Theater began with a series of clips from the past 25 years of films from El Deseo, the film company operated by Almodovar and his brother Agustin that has produced all of their films to date. During an entertaining Q and A with festival director Jacqueline Lyanga, Almodovar talked about the themes of his work, his influences, his working partnership with his brother and his longstanding relationships with actors. He also promised (and failed to deliver) on word that Antonio Banderas would “dance a tango almost naked for you.”
It was appropriate to start with questions of the themes of melodrama and noir that pervade Almodovar’s work, particularly in regard to “Law of Desire,” which invokes both themes, while at the same time mixing, deconstructing and upending the genre traditions. After struggling a bit with the word for “genre,” explaining that in Spanish, the word “genero” refers to both “genre” and “gender,” Almodovar explained that, “Melodrama was the first genre I saw as a child, housewives would listen to it on the radio. I also loved musicals. I’ve been a moviegoer since I was a child, and I started making movies as a projection of my life… I mix genres because during the day I pass through a lot of genres. Sometimes even science-fiction! Comedy, noir. These are mixed in life, so they are mixed in my movies.”
He also spoke about the guest curating of several noir films he put together for AFI Fest, saying about noir, “Melodrama and musicals were the genres of my youth and I’ve arrived at noir and even the Western in my growing older. It has something to do with growing older and recognizing something in the noirs and thrillers about growing older… it is the genre that moves me the most, it’s what I watch the most.” He also discussed the importance of the theater experience in events like these, “the young spectators get to see these films on the big screen, it’s a big experience. Perhaps I’m old fashioned and nostalgic but movies are supposed to be bigger than furniture… it affects their capacity for hypnosis.”
Power and desire also play huge narrative and thematic roles in all of Almodovar’s films, from ‘Desire’ to his most recent work, “The Skin I Live In.” He stated, “desire and passion are important motifs and topics in all of my films, in real life it is one of the biggest driving forces we possess… there’s a high price to pay for it and it’s worth paying the price.” But it goes beyond just narrative and formal function for Almodovar’s cinematic storytelling; his work expresses his deepest beliefs about life and love and this power/desire motif is no exception. He explained, “One needs the experience of desire and being desired — I can’t conceive of life without it…all these feelings are part of life and give it sense, but life doesn’t make much sense. It does have enormous power to give us breath to show us to continue living.”
Of course, he is known for the unique families that make up the characters in his films, and he explores the notion of family in unconventional ways, returning again and again to brothers and mothers as significant relationships, no doubt something from his own life that he yet again injects into his work. In discussing ‘Desire,’ he said, “In the film, we’ve got brothers, fraternity is a reoccurring element, also maternity…I am much interested in mothers — sacrificing mothers and ferocious mothers, because kids of my generation have been educated by our mothers and our neighbors, our mother’s friends. One of the things I love as a dramatic element with mothers is their capacity for fighting for their children…you can make a thousand movies about mothers.” And in laying out his thoughts about his unconventional family units on film, he said, “Family is composed of the emotional necessity of taking care of someone.”
No doubt, Almodovar’s own family is an influence on his work, not to mention his career-long collaboration with his brother Agustin, his business partner in El Deseo and long-time producer (notice in the credits, “a film by ALMODOVAR”). Almodovar praised the fest for celebrating their company, as it is a celebration of he and his brother. Ultimately he praised his brother as the person who “understands me the best and understands my cinema the best. He is the only person present from the first word I write and who I give the first version to… My brother’s here to protect me and help me the best he can. I can consult him on any topic, he protects me from aspects of the industry, and he is more conscious of what I want to do because that’s his only mission. When we were small, we would go hand in hand to the cinema. I am almost happier for him than me. When we started this 25 years ago it was a very different task. We’re not complaining, life has been quite generous with us.” He also added that the brothers still go to the cinema together twice a week.
The bright and sumptuous color palette of ‘Desire’ is truly spectacular, as is the treatment of color in all of Almodovar’s films. In discussing his visual style, he said, “Given that I was educated in the 60s and 70s one of the greatest influences is Pop Art. Some of the first films I saw were in Technicolor, and I’ve tried to recuperate some of these colors. My films are full of brilliant colors but over time they have darkened.” He also cited Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk as inspirational in his use of color, and that for black and white he looks to Fritz Lang and all the German Expressionists. He also mentioned Edward Hopper and Velasquez as painters who’s work he always gives to art directors for reference, stating that Velasquez is a “master of light.” A Hopper print even appears on the wall of Pablo’s apartment in “Law of Desire,” another way in which Almodovar pays homage to his influences. He mentioned the Tiziana nudes on the wall in ‘Skin,’ as lending meaning to the characters and story: “The art and music always has an organic function and a narrative function… everything that appears on film and references that I cite always have a dramatic function.” He not only uses art to inspire his own filmmaking, but to inspire his characters, saying “Artists have inspired me and inspired my characters, it gives them something to live…art’s function is to help you survive, help you live.”
He reminisced about the making of ‘Desire,’ saying his only goal with the film was, “I just wanted to shoot enough to edit the film, and pay the actors, we had to postpone their salaries.” He added, “When we were making ‘Law of Desire,’ it wasn’t the kind of film the Spanish industry wanted us to make or the Spanish public wanted us to be making.” Almodovar has defined Spanish post-modern cinema since then, and he treasures the role he was able to take in nurturing a generation of Spanish actors, saying “I almost feel like the mother of all of them, Antonio, Penelope [Cruz]. Of course I miss them but I feel really grateful and so proud…at least until the 80s, Spain was a kidnap country, no one knew our actors…unlike France, Italy and the UK. In the 80s, we opened to the world. I am fortunate to have worked with all of them. All of the elements of cinema are important to me, music, colors, but actors are the alive thing, you see the story through them…I act like a tailor for them. It can be a nightmare. But I ask of them, that they believe they are the best actors in the world to play that character, and that they believe I am the best director in the world to get them to play that role.”
Antonio Banderas helped Almodovar to wrap up and introduce the screening, first thanking him for teaching him lessons about life and art, and commending his bravery. Banderas mentioned the hypocrisy in the reception of the film when it came out, that he was playing a gay character was more shocking than his killing a character, illuminating the anxiety about homosexuality at the time. He praised Almodovar for making him “walk in new territory — dangerous, exciting and painful…he broke the rules of Spanish cinema.” And Almodovar was equally as complimentary, saying about ‘Desire’ “I remember every single day of this shoot. The director is the first witness of this work, to see Antonio Banderas and Carmen Maura in front of the camera, it is a privilege to be the first witness of that material.”
“Law Of Desire” is available on DVD. “The Skin I Live In” is in theaters now.