Carmen Herrero, of Manchester Metropolitan University, casts a spotlight on Pedro Almodóvar’s cinematic obsessions
Pedro Almodóvar is the most celebrated Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel. His 18 films have made him a celebrity auteur, renowned internationally. With a vast collection of awards and prizes from festivals around the world, Almodóvar can be considered one of contemporary cinema’s most accomplished and engaging filmmakers, who is often controversial and paradoxical.
Almodóvar‘s first films appeared during the ‘Movida’, a wild outpouring of creativity in Madrid which followed the end of dictatorship in Spain. His first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (1980), is full of sex, drugs, violence and black humour that encapsulate the outrageous, sleazy word of Madrid at the end of the 70s.
The films that followed explored similar themes with complex melodramatic stories and developed links with some of his favourite actresses, including Cecilia Roth and Carmen Maura, the protagonist of What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984). This film, a darkly humorous melodrama with touches of neo-realism ‘a la española’, is one of the most celebrated of his early works. His breakthrough in European art-house cinema was the frenetic comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), the success of which allowed him to establish his own production company, El Deseo.
By this stage, the visual style of his movies had become one of his most recognisable trademarks: the look of the films is gaudy, matching the melodramatic plot of his films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, High Heels (1991) and Kika (1993). The use of vivid colours, whether in designer clothes or kitschy décor, matches the flamboyant characters of his films, such as the protagonists of The Law of Desire (1987).
To some critics, his most accomplished films were the three consecutive releases starting with Live Flesh (1997), which was the first time he worked with Penélope Cruz, followed by All About My Mother (1999) and his most critically acclaimed film, Talk to Her (2002). Live Flesh is one of his few films in which the male characters and their interactions are more important than their female counterparts. It is also the first of his films where Spain’s fascist past is revisited. Talk to Her also features an unconventional male friendship involving the terrifyingly simple Benigno, perhaps Almodóvar’s most fascinating character. It is his most ambitious film, from a narrative point of view, but also for the richness of the cultural references.
Death and loss are the most vivid of Almodóvar’s recurring themes with murder, bullfighting and the cold drama of hospital high-dependency units being staple ingredients of his films, particularly from The Flower of My Secret (1995) to Talk to Her. His obsessions reappear in his films with the same regularity as his favourite actresses. Gender and sexuality as a matter of performance, as exemplified by Letal in High Heels and Agrado in All About My Mother. Motherhood, sisterhood and friendships between women are central in All About My Mother, a film completed a few months after his mother’s death, but these are themes that he has visited before and since. The return to rural roots is present in Volver (2006), an homage to village traditions and superstitions and a fond portrayal of supportive neighbours. Religion is an area treated with ambivalence in his films from the parody of Dark Habits (1983) to the darker portrayal of seminary education in Bad Education (2004).
Complex narratives and stories marked by coincidence and chance encounters are motifs in virtually all his films. References to other films and literature are often found in Almodóvar, with his more recent films tending to reference his own work: Broken Embraces (2009) included a director shooting a film very similar to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
In Almodóvar’s film, music is a key feature. The soundtracks of his movies can be characterised as eclectic, from the punk versions included in Pepi, Luci, Bom… and Labyrinth of Passion (1982) – including the song ‘Suck it to me’ performed by Almodóvar & MacNamara – to the original and more ‘classical’ compositions by Alberto Iglesias. More recently he has included songs by Brazilian Caetano Veloso and Carlos Gardel’s tango ‘Volver’ in a flamenco version sung by Estrella Morente. The sentimentality and excess of bolero have been used to great effect by Almodóvar in several films. Spanish singer Luz Casal interpreted ‘Piensa en mí’ and ‘Un año de amor’ in High Heels; and Chavela Vargas (a gay icon in the Hispanic world) underlined the feminine irrationality and emotion of the protagonist of The Flower of my Secret. Bolero speaks the language of desire and the impossibility of achieving it, an idea expressed in The Law of Desire through Los Panchos’ bolero ‘Lo dudo’.
His body of work – covering a variety of styles, including silent film, musical, comedy, and noir cinema –underlines the quality of this the unique director who represents a unique blend of popular filmmaker and art-house auteur. With his latest release, The Skin I Live In (2011), Almodóvar opts for a thriller as a perfect vessel for this interest in mixing cinematographic genres bringing back one of his most charismatic actors, Antonio Banderas.
The Skin I Live In screens at Cornerhouse from Thu 25 August