The Auteurs: Pedro Almodóvar (Part 1)
Pedro Almodóvar is one of the well-regarded filmmakers to emerge from the post-Franco Fascist-era of Spain. He is one of the towering figures in international cinema for the way he redefines how gender and sexuality are depicted on-screen. Almodóvar routinely brings a unique sense of style to his lavish stories of female empowerment. Though his films teeter between absurd melodrama and touching tales of humanity, they still managing to speak to a wide audience.
Born in Calzada de Calatrava, Spain on September 25, 1949, Pedro Almodóvar was one of four children in a family that lived in a rural town that largely consisted of women. At the age of eight, he was sent to a religious boarding school in Cáceres which had a profound effect on him. It was in Cáceres where Almodóvar discovered the films of Federico Fellini, George Cukor, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Luis Bunuel. Moving to Madrid in 1967, Almodóvar self-taught himself the art of filmmaking after Dictator Francisco Franco Bahamonde closed the region’s only National School of Cinema.
In the 1970s Almodóvar discovered the works Rainer Werner Fassbinder and John Waters, two openly gay directors who were creating daring films. They proved to Almodóvar that he did not need to hide his sexuality in order to make it in the film industry. It was also around that time that Almodóvar met a young actress in Carmen Maura. Both Almodóvar and Maura were part of the Madrilenian Movement which brought a cultural renaissance back to Spain. The movement allowed Almodóvar to hone his craft as a filmmaker through a series of short films. Along with Almodóvar’s younger brother Augustin, who produces all of the director’s films, Carmen Maura became a key collaborator in his filmmaking career.
Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (review)
For his first feature film, Almodóvar showcases the world of Madrilenian Movement, and its sense of community, at its most bawdy. The film revolves around the unlikely friendship between Pepi (Carmen Maura), who was raped by a cop and is seeking revenge, a masochistic housewife named Luci (Eva Siva), and Bom (singer Olvido “Alaska” Gira), a lesbian punk rocker. Inspired by the campiness of Hollywood melodrama, and the twisted humor of John Waters, Almodóvar’s film does not hide its desire to be outrageous.
Shot in 16mm, and later blown up into 35mm, the production had its fair share of issues related to financing. This did not stop Almodóvar from presenting his own uniquely feminist view of Spain. Despite the absurd humor, the film is really about three different women working together to help each other out. The film features appearances from several actresses (Cecilia Roth, Kiti Mánver, Julieta Serrano) who became staples in Almodóvar’s works years later.
The film premiered at the 1980 San Sebastian Film Festival. Though it got a lot of negative reviews from conservative critics, the film became a cult hit in Spain. The midnight showings generated a nice buzz for Pedro Almodóvar to start his career off with.
Labyrinth of Passion (review)
The cult success of Almodóvar’s debut film gave him the chance to make another low-budget feature. Once again adhering to the aesthetics of the Madrilenian Movement, Labyrinth of Passion focuses on a nymphomaniac pop star, Sexila (Cecilia Roth), who falls in love with a gay Arabian prince, Riza Niro (Imanol Arias), on the lam. Paying tribute to smart Hollywood comedies similar to the type Billy Wilder made, Almodóvar added an edgy spin on his tale of two vastly different individuals being pulled together within a crazy world.
Bring in cinematographer Ángel Luis Fernandez into the fold, Almodóvar’s film also marks the first of several collaborations with actors such as Helga Liné and Antonio Banderas. Making his film debut, Bandera plays a terrorist who manages to heighten his sense of smell while seducing Riza. Labyrinth of Passion premiered at the 1982 San Sebastian Film Festival. While the film received better reviews than its predecessor, Almodóvar later acknowledged that the film could have been both shot and written better.
Dark Habits (review)
After the release of his second film, the director soon found himself in the presence of multi-millionaire Herve Hachuel. Interested in starting his own film company, Hachuel was eager to work with Pedro Almodóvar. Though Almódovar had a script ready for Dark Habits, he had some misgivings regarding Hachuel’s request to have his girlfriend, Cristina Sánchez Pascual, cast in the lead role. Almódovar ultimately had to re-write the script and strengthen his supporting cast in order to compensate for Pascual’s limited acting experience. As a result, the film became the first of several female driven ensembles that Almodóvar would make.
In the film Pascual stars as Yolanda, a nightclub singer who seeks refuge in a convent filled with eccentric drug using nuns. With Julieta Serrano playing the role of a Mother Superior, the rest of the supporting cast included Carmen Maura, Marisa Parades, Chus Lampreave and Cecilia Roth. Creating a dazzling and exotic feel to the convent, Almodóvar was able to use the setting to explore the emerging decline of morality in Spain. His quirky and sinful representation of the nuns allowed Almodóvar to infuse a good dose of satire into the film.
Dark Habits premiered in Spain in March of 1983 where it garnered a lot of debate due to its subject matter. The film’s controversy was rumored to be one of the reasons that Dark Habits did not get accepted into the Cannes Film Festival that year. Dark Habits eventually received modest critical and commercial success after it played the Venice Film Festival. Gaining a reputation for being the bad boy of Spanish cinema, Almodóvar was quickly becoming a director that people were taking note of.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? (review)
Inspired by the Spanish black comedies of the 1950s and 1960s, Pedro Almodóvar’s fourth film involves a housewife, Gloria (Carmen Maura), living within an extremely dysfunctional family, whose quest for normalcy takes some unfortunate turns. Gloria’s only source of solace is her neighbor Cristal (Veronica Forque), who happens to be a prostitute. Mixing melodrama with campy humor, What Have I Done to Deserve This? offers an interesting look at Gloria’s search for happiness within her complicated life. Almodóvar fills the film with various subplots that range from a mother abusing her telekinetic child to the sexual exploits of Gloria’s homosexual son.
Composer Bernardo Bonezzi, who was working with Almodóvar’s for the second time, crafted an orchestral score that brought a lot of flourish to the melodrama. All of which helps to emphasize not only the craziness of Gloria’s life, but also the stress it is causing her. What Have I Done to Deserve This? was a commercial hit when released in the fall of 1984. The success in Spain led to a limited international release the following year. As a result, Almodóvar became a director who was generating some buzz within the American LGBT community.
Almodóvar’s growing success caught the attention of emerging Spanish film producer Andres Vicente Gomez. The producer was making quite a name for himself having both brought an eclectic array of films to Spain in the 1970s, and producing some of Orson Welles final films. Gomez and Almodóvar decided to join forces on one of the director’s most daring pictures yet. The premise of Matador involves a young bullfighting student who finds his life intertwined with a former bullfighter and a female attorney who both find sexual fulfillment through acts of murder. The film ultimately set the blueprint for the type of works that Almodóvar would make for years to come.
In order to bring Jesus Ferraro’s screenplay to life, Almodóvar cast several of his regulars in key roles. Antonio Banderas was hired for the role of Ángel, the bullfighting pupil who, after an attempted rape incident, falsely confesses to a series of murders that he didn’t commit. Julietta Serano appears as Ángel’s very conservative mother, while Carmen Maura, Chus Lampreave, Veronica Forque, and Eusebio Poncela also show up over the course of the film. Of the newcomers to Almodóvar’s brand of filmmaking, Nacho Martinez and Assumpta Serna were cast in the integral roles of Ángel’s sexually charged bullfighting teacher and lawyer respectively.
Matador marked the first time Almodóvar infused notable cinematic references into his film to showcase his love for cinema. In one memorable scene, that is key for establishing what is to come, Diego (Martinez) and Mari (Serna) are in a theater watching the end of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun. Matador made its premiere in 1986 and received a lot of attention for its subject matter. The word of mouth about the film’s blending of sex and violence helped to further raise Almodovar’s profile on the international stage.
Law of Desire (review)
The buzz Matador generated provided Almodóvar and his brother Agustin with the ability to form their own production company, El Deseo, and gain greater independence over their work. El Deseo’s first major release was Law of Desire, a tale about a complicated love triangle between a homosexual filmmaker (Eusebio Poncela), his transsexual sister (Carmen Maura), and a stalker (Antonio Banderas). Considering the way it tackles themes of sexual desire and obsession, the film is a companion piece of sorts to Matador.
Taking more risk from a visual standpoint, Almodóvar’s growth of as a filmmaker is clearly on display in Law of Desire. His use of Spanish ballads and classical music only accentuated the beauty of Ángel Luis Fernandez’s photography. Another aspect of the film that stood out was the way Almodóvar approached the sex scene between Pablo and Antonio. Though it was not explicit, he shot it in a way that felt very taboo and daring for the time. The same can be said for the complex way he depicted transgendered individuals on screen.
Law of Desire made its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 1987 where it won the festival’s first ever Teddy Award. The award recognizes the best in LGBT cinema. The Teddy Award not only broadened Almodóvar’s name internationally but also cemented him as major figure in the LGBT community. The film went on to be a hit in art-house theaters and received much praise from critics.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (review)
Almodóvar’s first taste of true critical and commercial success on a major scale came with the release Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The melodrama focuses on Pepa (Carmen Maura), a woman who has just broken up with her married boyfriend Ivan (Fernando Guillén). Over the course of a two-day period, Pepa struggles to make sense of her chaotic life and the strange situations she finds herself in. With the lines between reality and fiction beginning to blur, Pepa’s own purpose in life becomes muddled as well.
Shooting the film in Madrid, Almodóvar filled out his supporting cast with familiar actors such as Antonio Banderas, Chus Lampreave, Rossy de Palma, Kiti Mánver, Julietta Serrano and newcomer María Barranco. In many ways the film was the perfect culmination of everything that Almodóvar had done to that point. There was a confidence in the way the film portrayed its female lead. He took bold risks in his storytelling while still showcasing his deep cinematic knowledge. An example of the latter can be found in the scene involving Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Western Johnny Guitar.
The film was released in March of 1988 in Spain and became a hit in the U.S., raking in $7 million, when it was released later that same year. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown won five Goya Awards, Spain’s top film honors, for Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Editor to Jose Salcedo, Best Actress for Carmen Maura, and Best Supporting Actress for María Barranco. The film also won two major prizes from the European Film Awards and was named Best Foreign Film by the New York Film Critics Circle. Pedro Almodóvar even received his first Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Despite all of the accolades and success the film had, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown marked the Almodóvar’s last collaboration with Carmen Maura. After 18 years of working together, the two had a falling out shortly after the film was released.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (review)
Deciding to switch gears a bit, Pedro Almodóvar’s next film was a genre picture about a mental patient, Ricky (Antonio Banderas), who kidnaps a porn star, Marina (Victoria Abril), with hopes of convincing her to marry him. Inspired by American comedies, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! featured a brilliant mix of dark humor and melodrama. Almodóvar played provocateur in the way he composed the strange relationship between Ricky and Marina.
Featuring elements, such as a scene where a bathing Marina is penetrated by a scuba diver toy, Almodóvar was not afraid to embrace moments that he knew would be considered shocking. Working with revered Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and inspired by the works of Bernard Herrmann, the film’s music was an integral part of the film. It not only enhanced the suspense, but also played into Marina’s loneliness and Ricky’s abandonment issues.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! made its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival to a polarizing critical reaction. Some were appalled by the film’s premise, while others praised Almodóvar’s ambition. The film originally received the dreaded X-rating in the U.S. but was eventually re-rated as NC-17. Despite the rating, the film did respectably well in its art-house release.
High Heels (review)
During the production of Law of Desire, Almodóvar had many projects in development that did not come to fruition. One of them was High Heels a story that was partly inspired by the Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s. While the film was based on Garcia Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba, Almodóvar’s love for the works of Ingmar Bergman was a clearly evident in the film. Bergman’s 1978 film Autumn Sonata severed as a key reference for understanding the troubled relationship at the film’s core.
The story follows the fragile and distant relationship between a torch singer, Becky (Marisa Paredes), and her news reporter daughter, Rebeca (Victoria Abril), as the pair get caught up in a murder mystery. Much of Almodóvar’s film focuses on Rebeca’s struggles of constantly being in her mother’s shadow. The fact that Rebeca is married to Becky’s former lover only adds to the tension between the two. With production taking place in 1990, Almodóvar enlisted Alfredo Mayo to shoot the film as Jose Luis Alcaine was unavailable. Renowned Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamo’s created a score that infuses everything from classic boleros to a couple of cuts from George Fenton’s Dangerous Liaisons score. Music fans were also pleased to see world music singer Miguel Bose cast in a variety of supporting roles.
While High Heels was a box office success in Spain, the film received poor reviews from Spanish film critics due to its melodramatic approach and unsuspecting tonal shifts. The film got a better critical reception in Italy and France and won France‘s Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film. In the U.S., Miramax’s lack of promotional effort was blamed for the film’s underperformance upon its release.
For his next collaboration with actress Victoria Abril, Almodóvar decided to make a comedy about a good-hearted, but clueless, makeup artist named Kika (Verónica Forqué) who gets herself tangled in the lives of an American writer (Peter Coyote), his stepson (Àlex Casanovas), and a fashion conscious TV reporter (Abril). Almodóvar used Kika to explore the sensational world of tabloid media. Though the film is a satire, this did not stop him from flirting with situations that toed the line of controversy.
This is particularly evident in the most talked about moment in the film. Without getting into too much detail, the sequence begins with Kika being raped and ends humorously with semen landing on the face of Abril’s unsuspecting tabloid journalist. While other directors might incorporate moments like this merely for shock value, Almodóvar uses the outrageous scenes a tool to set up scathing commentary on the selfish and ruthless nature of media.
Kika made its premiere in the fall of 1993 and received very negative reviews from film critics worldwide. Not just for its rape scene, but also for its overall sloppiness. Almodóvar would later refer to the film as one of his weakest works. Kika marked a turning point for Almodóvar as a more serious side of the director’s career was about to commence.
Part 2 of our Auteurs feature on Pedro Almodóvar, covering 1995 to present, can be found here.
© thevoid99 2014