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The Films Of Pedro Almodóvar: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com October 14, 2011 at 5:50AM

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.
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"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+]

This article is related to: Foreign Films, Feature, The Essentials, Foreign Directors, The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar


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