The Films Of Pedro Almodóvar: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
October 14, 2011 5:50 AM
7 Comments
  • |

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]

You might also like:
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

7 Comments

  • Manu | November 16, 2011 7:03 PMReply

    Shocked to see Matador´s grade... In Spain it´s almost unanimously considered his worst film by far... As Carmen I´m missing Dark Habits but also Laberinto de pasiones...

  • tom | October 15, 2011 5:55 AMReply

    Feature posts are so good, please keep them coming!

  • Carmen | October 15, 2011 4:54 AMReply

    I love the features posts, and you should watch “Dark Habits”! It's crazy Almodóvar at his best! But may I give you a suggestion as a reader? I think you should abolish the grades, it's distracting because the reader gets right on it and maybe some things tha for you is a defect, for those who read may sound like a quality. And many times you see rating and you end up not reading the rest.

  • Ryan Sartor | October 15, 2011 3:49 AMReply

    So glad ya'll gave Volver an A+. Excellent.

  • rotch | October 14, 2011 8:52 AMReply

    Great retrospective, thank you very much!

    Also, I believe Hable con ella, and not Volver, is the true A+ of the bunch.

  • Michael | October 14, 2011 7:37 AMReply

    P.S.

    http://www.reverseshot.com/article/skin_i_live

    A (spoiler-heavy) takedown, just for a counterpoint.

    And don't fret too much about Dark Habits. Almost all of its plot and comedy comes from the spectacle of nuns behaving badly, which I've come to conclude is irresistibly hilarious to Catholics and mildly amusing to the rest of us at best. Not his worst, but certainly not his best.

  • Michael | October 14, 2011 7:34 AMReply

    http://www.filmquarterly.org/2011/10/escape-artistry-debating-the-skin-i-live-in/

    A great little piece on Pedro's newest and where it fits into his filmography. The discussion I linked basically posits The Skin I Live In as the most hermetic and self-referential of Almodóvar's films, though I don't know if it gives it enough credit for tackling the horror genre, hitherto unfamiliar to Almodóvar. Building off of that, I think Pedro's either going to continue getting worse or continue getting better. Broken Embraces, more than what I'm reading about The Skin I Live In, seemed like a lowpoint in his career. It had all the elements of his usual films without the ineffable alchemy. I don't know if Almodóvar realized that at any point during or after the production, but I feel like his new film has to be at least somewhat a reaction to the accusations of burnout. The Skin I Live In does seem like another case of heedless self-reference, but it also seems to bring a few promising additions to the usual 'formula.' I haven't seen it yet, so this is all conjecture, but that does seem to be the gist I'm getting.

    So, as said, from here it's all downhill or uphill. Late career renaissance or old master cannibalizing himself? Guess we'll find out. I'm a longtime Almodóvar fan, so I certainly hope for the former, but I have my doubts.

Email Updates