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The Films Of Pedro Almodóvar: A Retrospective

The Films Of Pedro Almodóvar: A Retrospective

Pedro Almodóvar is one of the most respected filmmakers in the world, an Oscar winner whose films have become Cannes mainstays, and who’s capable of attracting almost any talent that he’d like, despite having never made a film in the English language (although he says that one is on the one way soon). But his global reputation is all the more remarkable considering just how challenging his fare can be. His violent, sexual taboo-pushing early work is the most obvious example, but throughout his career his interest in gay issues, Sirk-ian melodrama, explicit sex and obsessive behavior has hardly been the kind of thing that usually makes the chattering classes line up around the block.

And somehow, he’s managed it. And by “somehow,” we mean “because he’s a remarkable filmmaker.” Totally unlike anyone else working (there’s a reason you never really hear the term “Almodovar-esque”), his films, even when not entirely successful, are weirder, sexier, wittier, more puzzling, more moving and richer than 95% of the stuff that sees the inside of theaters.

After playing at Cannes earlier in the year, the director’s latest, “The Skin I Live In,” finally opens in the U.S. today and it is, suffice to say, a treat — a favorite of many of the staff so far this year. Not quite like anything else the director’s made, while at the same time sharing DNA with almost everything he’s done, it’s easily your best option for this weekend at the movies. And to get you prepped for it, it seemed like a perfect time to look out over the director’s career. Here’s our guide to the films of Pedro Almodóvar.

“Pepi, Luci, Bom” (1980)
Is there a better way for an emerging filmmaker to make a name for himself than with a campy, crudely-shot movie featuring a woman receiving a golden shower and thoroughly enjoying it? Trick question! There is no better way. Played by Carmen Maura (“Volver”), young Pepi is confronted by a neighboring policeman/scumbag about the budding marijuana plants decorating the window sill. Her cute demeanor doesn’t get her out of trouble, and the cop forces himself on her – taking her virginity in the process. Pepi, along with glam friend Bom, decide to corrupt his wife Luci for revenge but actually end up enjoying her company. Poppy, trashy and completely amateur (the unskilled crew frequently clip characters and employ very harsh lighting), there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be had out of this extremely weird world. It’s definitely different from his more well-known contemporary work, but the regular Almodóvar elements – such as strong, complex female characters and explorations of sexuality — are front and center, even if they are less seriously considered and scrutinized. Still, the director would have plenty of time to polish these things and establish his formal style. At 30 years old, he was more interested in making an off-beat culty feature where people forced others to eat boogers. And hey, we won’t lie, it’s kind of fun. [B]

“What Have I Done To Deserve This?” (1984)
Almodóvar is nothing if not a passionate cinephile. He stands apart from most film literate contemporaries, though, mostly through difference of taste. Whereas the Tarantinos of the world tend to love, say, the crime genre, Almodóvar goes for high melodrama and soap operatics. For some viewers, that’s might be the kiss of death, but not so with Pedro at the helm. His control and mastery of tone is evident even in his fourth film, the first of his to get international distribution (and thus setting him on the path to where he is today), as is his love and understanding of women. ‘What Have I Done’ is in debt to Spanish dark comedies of the ’50s and ’60s. It concerns housewife Gloria and her pretty fucked up family: an abusive husband who drives a cab, her oldest son is selling coke, the youngest son sells his body to older pervs in town, and a grandmother sick of the city who just wants to go back to her old, more rural, home. Wives and mothers struggling to deal with everyday shit and searching for some semblance of independence? Wrapped around a fairly convoluted plot? A little twisted, but still a lotta fun, and funny? Yep, sounds like classic Almodóvar. [B+]

“Matador” (1986)
In this wild tale, swirling with Almodóvar‘s regular thematic concerns of sex, death, and Catholic guilt, Antonio Banderas plays a matador-in-training who, after accusations of homosexuality by his boss (Nacho Martinez) and continued harassment by his violently repressed mother, attempts to rape a sexy neighbor (Eva Cobo) and then confesses to several murders he didn’t actually commit. (In a fanciful Almodóvar touch that also factors into the plot pretty considerably, Banderas’ character faints at the sight of blood.) Whether to a priest or the police chief; a confession is a confession. “Matador” is filled with characters both fiercely turned on and hopelessly turned off by death, which makes even more sense when you consider that the film was made at the height of the AIDS crisis. (This isn’t some historic reading, either — at one point the director himself, playing a fashion designer, tells a model who is shooting up, “If you’re going to do it, do it in the bathroom.”) “Matador” is striking for its effectiveness as a thriller and its unhinged stylishness, particularly in an early montage where a bullfighting training session is snappily intercut with a sex-and-murder scene. [A-]

“Law of Desire” (1987)
All of Almodóvar‘s films have been pretty gay, even if they’re not centrally concerned with homosexuality. But “Law of Desire” was the first one to tackle the subject head-on, which is evident from the lip gloss pink title card, right through to the ending. Made directly after “Matador,” with a shift of emphasis away from the thriller aspects and more towards the oversized melodrama that has become an Almodóvar staple, it follows a homosexual film director (Pablo Quintero), his two dueling lovers (one of them played by Antonio Banderas) and the director’s transsexual sister (Carmen Maura) who is dealing with her own set of problems. While the film is admirable for its difficult subject matter and juggling of multiple plot threads, it also falls back on clunky daytime soap opera clichés (including an accidental murder and amnesia). Still, it earns points for its daring subject matter (the Berlin Film Festival gave it an honorary award for its sensitivity) and for its numerous odes to one of Almodóvar’s favorite directors, Brian De Palma. From the opening movie-within-a-movie to the expert use of split-screen, the influence is apparent throughout. [B]

“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988)
This is the film that really put the director on the map in world cinema. ‘Breakdown’ was his first huge international success. It’s a light comedy — prepare for a shocker — about women. “Women are more spectacular as dramatic subjects, they have a greater range of registers,” Almodóvar has said. The film is about two crazy days for Pepa (Carmen Maura, an Almodóvar regular). She’s a professional movie dubber, but the movie you’re watching really kicks off when her married lover ditches her out of the blue. Pepa tries to find him, and discovers more about herself as she learns more about his secrets, all escalating towards a gloriously madcap finale. This is Almodóvar’s love letter to Hollywood comedies of the 1950s, and truly laid the ground for everything that’s come since in his oeuvre. It was deservedly nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar (losing out to “Pelle the Conqueror”), and is probably still the best entry point to the director’s work. Start here, and you’re likely to become a fan for life. [A-]

“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1990)
In many ways, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” is the closest precursor in Almodóvar‘s career to newbie “The Skin I Live In.” Both films have elements of the horror film, both deal with issues of captivity and obsession, and both feature Antonio Banderas, who went to Hollywood after the release of “Átame!” (its original Spanish title), and hadn’t worked with the man who discovered him again until this year. The film also marked a new chapter for Almodóvar; he fell out with his other muse, Carmen Maura, in pre-production, after telling her she was too old for the female lead, and the two had frosty relations until she returned to the fold for “Volver.” As for ‘Tie Me Up!,’ it’s a difficult beast; essentially a rather sweet romantic comedy, but one where the obsessive behavior sometimes seen in the genre is taken to new extremes, with Banderas’ mental patient kidnapping a porn-actress-turned-horror-starlet (Victoria Abril), with whom he once slept with. There are troubling aspects — the film was derided by feminists on release — but the film’s sweetness, provided by vulnerable, big-hearted turns by Banderas, Abril and Loles Léon, makes it work. It’s also genuinely sexy — a couple of eye-opening scenes earned it an X-rating from the MPAA, leading to a lawsuit from Miramax that while it failed, paved the way for the creation of the NC-17 (even if, let’s face it, it didn’t really improve things). Ennio Morricone provided the score, but it’s not his finest hour — even Almodovar didn’t think much of it, and only used half of what was provided. [B]

“High Heels” (1991)
Almodóvar describes “High Heels,” or in its more literal — and appropriate — English translation “Distant Heels,” as a “big melodrama with a parallel film noir story,” made by a man “less neurotic than Lynch, with a more Catholic education.” It’s not a bad estimation of this overlooked 1991 work, which combines the beyond-convoluted plot turns of a James M. Cain adaptation with the maternal yearning of the best Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder melodramas. That said, for a film about the daughter of an aging singer who may or may not have murdered her estranged mother’s former lover (and her now husband) in cold blood, shortly after being impregnated by a drag queen who imitates Mommy on-stage; it’s surprisingly well-behaved. Like much of his work, it’s explicitly cineliterate (lead character Rebeca is sure to mark the parallels between her own travails and Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata”) and the narrative is effectively a kaleidoscope of the thematic concerns that will come to dominate his more ‘mature’ works in later years. Certainly it’s a great leap forward from the thin conceit at the heart of “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and the guilt-ridden mother in this film (Marisa Paredes) would re-work a similar role a decade later in “All About My Mother.” Sometimes certain elements of the story, like a sudden bout of heretofore unannounced angina, threaten to tip over the wrong side of “Stella Dallas” and end up in overcooked “Dynasty” territory, while keeping the murder at the heart an act committed off-screen dictates the final judgement is essentially anti-climactic, and the strained mother/daughter dynamic less than thrilling. But it’s otherwise stuffed full of gorgeous imagery and thrums with the throbbing undercurrent of inescapably failed, or failing, romance. [B+]

“Kika” (1993)
After the drama of “High Heels”, “Kika” sees Almodóvar return to more familiar territory of oddball sex and death, mostly ditching the melodrama for a screwier-than-most comedy, with a dose of heavier social commentary that doesn’t really wash under it all. The somewhat absurdist storyline of the well-meaning Kika (Veronica Forque), a make-up artist, and her involvement with the possible wife-murdering expat writer Nicholas (Peter Coyote) and his thought-to-be dead son Ramon (Alex Casanovas) (who comes back to life under Kika’s blush brush) is just the beginning of cluttered narrative. There’s also the lesbian housekeeper Juana (Rossy De Palma), and her maniacally perverse brother Paul, as well as Andrea “Scarface” (Victoria Abril) who hosts a reality-type show called “Today’s Worst,” who used to date Ramon, and is after them all in a bid to air their dirty laundry on set. Voyeurism and incest, are both given a turn in the kinky plotline — there’s even a seemingly comical yet graphic rape scene, the ever irreverent Almodóvar doing his best to turn the serious into slapstick — which caused massive public outcry in the USA and the usual NC-17 rating threats. The casualness of the rape perhaps is what caused the greatest offence – Kika complains she needs to pee and blow her nose, and all but slaps her forehead as her rapist heads into his 3rd orgasm, his record being 4. “Kika” looks fantastically vibrant and whimsical, with not shortage of kitschy colourful sets and campy costumes — the best of which (dominatrix spycam onesies) are provided by Jean-Paul Gaultier. So it all works until it doesn’t, and that happens in the final third of the film, where it suddenly turns from offbeat sex and death laughs, into a cynical crime thriller, and winds up feeling flat and nasty. [C+]

“The Flower of My Secret” (1995)
Perhaps best remembered by long-time Almodóvar disciples as the film that begat the storyline in “Volver” — it’s the plot from the protagonist author’s new book — “The Flower of My Secret” centers on Leo (mainstay Marisa Paredes, who’s appeared in five of his films), a successful, but unhappy writer who masquerades under the pseudonym Amanda Gris, a very popular trashy romance novelist (an element off the top of the film is also appropriated for “All About My Mother”). Facing a personal and spiritual crisis, Leo can no longer stomach what she believe is the shallow sentimentality she writes and instead of delivering another tawdry Amanda Gris novel, she pens the gritty and sordid story that eventually became the aforementioned Almodóvar film. So discontented, she pitches herself as a book critic – to an editor named Angel who has eyes for her — and then tears her own Amanda Gris novels to shreds. But Leo has myriad problems as well, including the dissolution of her marriage to a military officer husband stationed in Brussels, Angel’s growing affections, a dissatisfied book agent suing her for writing an anti-Gris novel, and eventually the theft of that unpublished book, which she discovers is being turned into a screenplay that will soon go into production. While this is a pre noir-Hitchcock affinity for Almodóvar, as you can tell by its title ‘Flower’ has many secrets and plenty of unveiling twist and turns. A diverting film with melodramatic flourishes (the family stuff with Leo’s mother is hilarious), ‘Flower’ is also subdued and mature and often looked at as the gap between Almodovar’s earlier NC-17 heavy work and campy comedies and his richer, elegant dramas that would blossom in the late 90s and early aughts. Because of its position as a transition film, it wasn’t beloved at the time, but it still holds up well as an exploration of denial, loss and personal growth. [B]

“Live Flesh” (1997)
The director’s 12th film, and superficially his most “male” effort by some distance, “Live Flesh” strips away the frankly wackadoo plotting of the Ruth Rendell source novel and retools it to fit the director’s idiosyncratic concerns, mimicking his treatment of Thierry Jonquet’s “Tarantula” for “The Skin I Live In” over 10 years later. Maintaining only the dramatic nub of the story, and not nearly as salacious as its risqué poster and title would suggest, it concerns Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal), a man inadvertently responsible for paralyzing one of the police officers who mistook his harassing of a would-be paramour, Elena (Francesca Neri), for a criminal act. Imprisoned for a spell of several years, Victor adds insult to injury by shacking up with the wife of the other arresting officer upon his release and tracking Elena down, throwing the lives of everyone involved into disarray. The film’s preface is notable for Penélope Cruz’s first performance for the director as Victor’s mother, who gives birth to her son on a bus, whilst Javier Bardem, who spends most of the film confined to a wheelchair, is gifted with a complicated leading role. Bookended by some on-the-nose political statements, at times it feels self-consciously like a film straining desperately to be “about Spain” — a feat the director would accomplish better later in his career, with less of the ham-handedness — it’s nonetheless alarmingly self-confident picture, and an indication of the overwhelming international acclaim that was shortly to follow. [B+]

“All About My Mother” (1999)
Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother” is not an easy film to watch. One of his best films, ‘Mother’ is also one of Almodóvar’s most painful. Early in the film, Manuela (Cecilia Roth) loses her only son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), when he is hit by a car while chasing after actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) for an autograph. Once she is able to sufficiently compose herself, Manuela travels to Barcelona to tell Esteban’s father what happened. For 17 years, Manuela hid from Esteban the truth about his father, but we, the audience, are brought along on Manuela’s visit to her past as a kind of substitute for the young man who never knew his father. Almodóvar’s heartbreaking story begins with Manuela as the central character, but she quickly falls into a supporting role alongside the many women with whom she comes into contact. A natural caregiver, Manuela helps one of her old friends, a transvestite prostitute named Agrado (Antonia San Juan) get her life out of the gutter; she becomes a surrogate mother to Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a nun who is pregnant and too embarrassed to tell her real mother; and, even though it pains her every second, she becomes an assistant to Huma Rojo. The film is at once comedic and tragic. Though his style is intrusive at first, Almodóvar rarely interferes with the story, practically disappearing in the second half of the film and letting the story tell itself. In his absence, he leaves myriad metaphors and imagery which can be read many different ways. Most notably, the splashes of red throughout reflect both the passion and violence experienced by every character. His actors are all superb, especially Roth, and every new revelation in the story is a surprise but perfectly weaved into the overall fabric of the film. [A]

“Talk to Her” (2002)
For this film, which turned out to be one of his most popular worldwide especially in America, Almodóvar won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for Achievement in Directing — both remarkable achievements for a foreign-language film. It success must reflect the amazing skill with which the director coaxes universally recognisable emotions and responses from an unusually specific set up: “Talk to Her” follows the dual stories of two now-comatose women, Alicia (Leonor Watling) and Lydia (Rosario Flores), and the two men who love them, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti). Lydia is a bullfighter whose relationship with Marco isn’t going as well as he hoped, while Benigno takes care of Alicia as her nurse and fantasizes about her when he can’t be with her. Here, Almodóvar once again balances melodrama with black comedy, but despite all the craziness going on — there’s an extremely long segment, for example, where Benigno re-imagines a psychosexual silent film for a sleeping Alicia — the real heft of this film is firmly, and touchingly, grounded in real-life emotions like loneliness and love. The intimacy between a man and a woman, even across borders of consciousness, is beautifully drawn, despite the fact that perhaps these relationships are among the most dysfunctional relationships in the history of film. We ache for Benigno as he longs for Alicia despite her condition, and really feel the effect of certain revelations about Lydia on Marco. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that, long championed for creating unforgettable portraits of women, here Almodóvar makes our hearts break for these two male protagonists. Small wonder Time Magazine included it in their Top 100 Movies of All Time list. [A]

“Bad Education” (2004)
In between two of his very best, “Talk to Her” and “Volver,” Almodóvar made arguably one of his most personal pictures, the meta-noir “Bad Education,” which was chosen as the first Spanish film to open Cannes. The film was well-received at the time, but on reflection, in the context of his subsequent work, it feels like a rather minor picture in his ouevre. Not that it’s lacking in ambition. If anything, the layered story, of a film producer (Fele Martinez) approached by a man (Gael García Bernal) claiming to be his childhood friend, and first love Ignacio, with a short story that delves into Ignacio’s abuse by a priest at their boarding school (a synopsis that barely scratches the surface), has a surfeit of it, the tricksy levels of narrative dulling any potential emotional impact the tale could have, and the film noir plot contrivances don’t help. But minor Almodóvar is still more interesting than major films by most directors. The depiction of gay life in immediately-post-Franco Spain is deeply felt, as its investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, although the director is careful not to paint Father Manolo (an excellent performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho) as a monster. There’s something firmly Fassbinderian about the structure, making it as difficult a film as the director has ever made — as such, it’s even more remarkable that it performed so well as it did at the box office, although in the U.S. it had to be edited down from an NC-17 rating from the MPAA to get there. But judged against some of his other masterpieces, it can’t help but feel a little hollow by comparison. [C+]

“Volver” (2006)
Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz have had one of those incredibly fruitful director-actor relationships that viewers love to see, and more than most it seems to have been pretty symbiotic and mutually beneficial — the director has benefited from Cruz’s higher profile of late, but Cruz has never forgotten that she owes a lot of the cachet to the roles the director has given her. In many ways, the part of Raimunda in “Volver” is the apotheosis of this relationship; never has Cruz been better, with Almodóvar or any other director, than she is here. A story spanning grand themes of sickness and death and forgiveness, yet bursting at the seams with life and sex and food as well, the plot follows Raimunda and her sister Soledad (Lola Duenas) as they return to the small village where they grew up for their aunt’s funeral, and Soledad encounters the ghost of their mother Irene (Carmen Maura, finally reuniting with the director after 18 years) and brings her home to live in Madrid. While Raimunda’s life takes a (melo)dramatic after a terrible incident between her lazy, abusive husband and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) Soledad tries to keep their mother’s ghost a secret, but all the various tangled strands begin to unravel. It’s a wonderful showcase for Cruz’s acting, and though the storyline itself sometimes becomes convoluted and confusing, (it just has so much to say!) Almodóvar juggles everything like a pro, and in fact turns in one of his most stylistically restrained and mature films. Perhaps because of this, “Volver” turns out to be one of his most accessible films in terms of allowing us to understand and connect with the characters. And as the culmination of the director’s career-long fascination with women and female relationships, “Volver” is everything we could hope for, boasting a pulsating heartbeat in every scene, and brought to life by an abundance of terrific actresses all on top form. [A+]

“Broken Embraces” (2009)
Proving that the knot is always much more fun than having the untangled string, this colorful neo-noir unloads various character details and mysterious relationships in its first 15 minutes, jumping back and forth between two time periods to make things even more confusing. Blind screenwriter Harry Caine (formerly filmmaker Mateo Blanco until an accident took his eyesight, both are played by Lluís Homar) is courted by a director to compose a script based on his recently deceased millionaire father Ernesto Martel. He declines, suggesting something heavier than disinterest, and eventually reveals his tortured past. During his Mateo days, the protagonist had a deep romance with actress Lena (the always ravishing Penélope Cruz) whose life ended tragically in the same hit and run that took our hero’s sight. As a thriller it’s engaging and creative (one subplot involves Martel viewing silent video footage of the couple taken by a spy — and as he watches it, a lip reader recaps their private dialogues) but once the puzzle completes, the filmmaker opts to ruminate on Harry’s lost love. Here Almodóvar misses the mark: this kind of emotional audience commitment can’t come so late in the game, and the results are much less interesting and rather empty. We won’t go so far to call it maudlin as the seasoned vet is careful not to overdo things, but it does lack the power contained in the first half. [B-]

“The Skin I Live In” (2011)
People are likely to chide “The Skin I Live In” (adapted from the Thierry Jonquet novel “Tarantula”) for not having the humanity of Almodóvar‘s previous few films. And, truthfully, it does lack the tenderness of “Broken Embraces” and luminous warmth of “Volver” (it even falls short of emotional knottiness of “Bad Education”). But honestly – who fucking cares? “The Skin I Live In” is the most electrically alive Almodóvar film in ages, a balls-to-the-walls high camp thriller about a deranged plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas, for the first time in two decades) who is keeping a very comely captive in the form of Vera (Elena Anaya). Almodóvar, who has never shied away from narrative complexity, folds the narrative back on itself, stretching it apart like warm taffy, letting the multiple mysteries slowly reveal themselves. There are some that will be turned off by the film’s truly outré plot twists and somewhat hammy double entendres. It’s great to see Banderas back with Almodóvar and if Penélope Cruz is too busy doing “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies from the next few years, we at least know he’s got an ace leading lady in magnetic Anaya. [A]

Not To Forget: Eagle-eyed Almodóvar watchers will have spotted that there are a couple of gaps in this list; namely, his second and third pictures, which for a variety of reasons we weren’t able to check out before deadline. 1982’s “Labyrinth of Passion” isn’t, at present, available on Region 1 DVD and as a manic, Billy Wilder-influenced comedy about the affair between a pop star and a gay Middle-Eastern prince, it’s not terribly hard to see why. The film wasn’t one of his best-received by any means, but we’d certainly like to check it out at some point.

Meanwhile, 1983’s “Dark Habits” is like a bonkers “Black Narcissus,” following a cabaret singer hiding out with a group of fallen nuns. It was the director’s first brush with real controversy — it was turned down by Cannes, and kept out of the official selection at Venice thanks to apparently blasphemous content, which really only makes us want to see it more…

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