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The Films Of Pedro Almodóvar: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
October 14, 2011 5:50 AM
7 Comments
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"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affections, a dissatisfied book agent suing her for writing an anti-Gris novel, and eventually the theft of that unpublished book, which she discovers is being turned into a screenplay that will soon go into production.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]

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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.

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