Tagged: Pedro Almodóvar

Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria, Spain 2019)

Salvador (Antonio Banderas) and Mercedes (Nora Navas) in a typical composition using vibrant colours

Pain and Glory strikes me as an ironic title for what I loved as the most tender Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve seen. It sometimes seems that Almodóvar oscillates between films about men (some of which are directly autobiographical) and films about women (and therefore about characters that remind him of the female stars that he adored as a child). But it’s also the case that many of the films are about Pedro’s mother and the other ‘real’ women of his childhood and adolescence. Pain and Glory is in some ways reminiscent of Bad Education (2004) in that it focuses on the childhood experiences of a man who grows up to be a film director and his relationships with other men. But whereas in that earlier film, there is much anger and even violence, in this new film there seems to be acceptance, friendship and love as the filmmaker ages. I think anyone ‘of an age’ like Almodóvar – approaching 70 – will have an understanding of some of the emotions of the central character played by Antonio Banderas.

Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) and Salvador reflected in a mirror. Is the ‘off centre’ position of the two deliberate? Mirror shots are common in melodrama.

The outline plot of the film is relatively straightforward (no spoilers here). Salvador Mallo, the Banderas character is a 60 something man with various physical ailments who has lost his creative energy but who lives well in a beautiful apartment (beautifully designed with paintings, fabrics and bold colours) with a maid (an indigenous woman from Latin America?) and his former production assistant/manager Mercedes (Nora Navas) both regularly visiting him. One day he learns from an actor (played by Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth) that one of his early films has been restored and that several cinemas want to screen it. Salvador is invited to join in a Q&A following a screening. The only drawback is that the cinema would like to invite both Salvador and the star of the film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) – and the two men have not spoken since the film was completed more than thirty years ago. Salvador decides he must meet Alberto privately before any public meeting. Having decided to resurrect something from the past, Salvador also finds a way to re-visit his own memories so that we can experience moments of his childhood in which his mother Jacinta is played by Penélope Cruz. In the present, Jacinta is played by another stalwart from Almodóvar’s earlier films, Julieta Serrano.

The young Salvador (Asier Flores) with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) and his father when they arrive in the village of ‘cave houses’ in Valencia

Almodovar’s handling of the narrative drive is so accomplished that even though the pacing is sometimes quite slow, I was always completely engaged by the ‘action’ and never worrying or wondering what might happen next. I suspect that if it was possible to tear myself away from the screen all the events of the narrative would become predictable and many would turn out to have appeared in his films before. So there are priests (bad, as in Bad Education), a village scene with the women working (as in Volver), a beautiful young man to lust after, doctor’s waiting rooms, a cinema audience, films on TV etc. But none of this matters because the mise en scène is glorious, the performances are sublime, the music (by Alberto Iglesias) is great and the cinematography is by José Luis Alcaine. And most of all, I believe in what Salvador feels and what he does.

The most extraordinary shot in the film with Salvador and Mercedes sitting in front of a photograph which is lit in an unnerving way in a waiting room

There are excellent pieces in Sight and Sound (September 2019) by Paul Julian Smith and Maria Delgado, both reliable and acute commentators on Spanish cinema. They have spotted things I couldn’t see on a single viewing and they are able to connect scenes in the film with contemporary political and social issues in Spain. I recommend them highly. For my part, I’m simply glad that Pedro Almodóvar is still making films and most of all that the films seem to get better each time. Whatever ‘blocks’ Salvador experiences as a director, they don’t seem to visit Pedro. I’ve seen friends’ enthusiasm for Almodóvar wax and wane over the years, but for me he has never failed. He is, as Paul Julian Smith, observed on the release of the film in Spain, the only filmmaker guaranteed to bring in audiences of all kinds in Spain with virtually no promotion. Penélope Cruz grows more beautiful with every film. If she and Banderas continue to be as good as this, I hope Almodóvar will be encouraged to keep going.

Pain and Glory opens in North America on October 4th. I hope it is a big hit there too:

Julieta (Spain 2016)

TheSpanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A Spanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A new film by Pedro Almodóvar is an occasion for joy in my book and I found Julieta to be utterly absorbing and thrilling. ‘Un film de Almodóvar’ is like a gourmet meal – every ingredient is rich in meaning and exquisitely presented. Gourmet meals are sometimes more about style than nourishment, but not with Almodóvar. I find his films as sustaining as the best peasant food. Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Julieta has received some lukewarm reviews alongside the majority of favourable ones, mainly I think from writers who don’t know the range of his work – or possibly from younger reviewers who don’t fully appreciate what it means to look back? I was going to write a full-blown defence of the film, but I discovered that Mark Kermode, in one of his most perceptive and informed reviews, has already done it. So I’m not going to repeat all his points – you can find Kermode’s review here. Instead I’ll expand on some of the aspects that interest me most.

Julieta is Almodóvar’s third ‘literary adaptation’, following Live Flesh (1997, based on a Ruth Rendell novel of the same title) and The Skin I Live In (2011, based on Tarantula, a novel by Thierry Jonquet). This time Almodóvar has turned to Runaway (2004), a collection of short stories by the celebrated Canadian short story specialist Alice Munro. Three stories, ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, are about the same character at different stages of her life. I read these after seeing Julieta and then found Almodóvar’s explanation of what he did. There are useful pieces in both the Guardian/Observer (interview by Jonathan Romney) and Sight and Sound (September 2016 – article by Maria Delgado, review by Jonathan Romney). In the UK Julieta is distributed by Pathé which offers little documentation in support of the film but in Canada the distributor Mongrel Media offers a Press Pack in which Almodóvar provides a delightful set of notes which are almost as entertaining as the film and I recommend them to you.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Julieta is a story about a young woman from Madrid who falls passionately in love with Xoan, a married man in Galicia, and who later marries him in difficult circumstances that to some extent mirror what has happened to her own parents back in Andalucía. She is then dismayed to find her relationship with her daughter from the marriage breaking down and bringing the past back to her as she tries to live a new life in Madrid.

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Adriana Ugarte with Pedro Almodóvar and Daniel Grao (Xoan) in the confines of a 1980s dining car

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a poster for a Lucien Fred exhibition

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a Lucian Freud portrait

Pedro tells us that he’d acquired the rights and started adapting the stories before making his earlier film The Skin I Live In and that Munro’s book actually appears as a prop in that film. He’d already switched the location from British Columbia and Ontario to New York before deciding that he wasn’t confident enough in English and transposed the action again to Madrid, Galicia and Andalucía. He suggests that in North America, the physical separation of parents and grown-up children is common but in Spain it is exceptional – “the umbilical cord joining us to our parents and grandparents survives the passing of time”. He says that the original stories are still Munro’s but that he’s had to change them for cinema and he hopes that Julieta will be seen by Munro’s admirers as “a tribute to the Canadian writer”. In fact, he hasn’t changed that much. The main thing he has done is to find a way to ‘stitch’ the three separate episodes together so that one coherent narrative can be manipulated on the cinema screen with flashbacks and the use of two actors to play Julieta at different times of her life. The transformation shot when the younger Adriana Ugarte becomes the older Emma Suárez is quite remarkable. (Both actors are very good, Agarte is well known from Spanish TV and it’s a welcome return for UK audiences to see Suárez who starred in the early films of Julio Medem in the 1990s.) Almodóvar is not the first director to adapt Munro and one of my favourite films is Away From Her (Canada 2006) directed by Sarah Polley. As a young and inexperienced director she didn’t have the weight of Almodóvar’s experience in 2006 but she does have a woman’s perspective – and an affinity with Canadian life. When I first remembered the connection I thought that the two films were very different but on reflection they are both recognisably Munro’s narratives, so Almodóvar has been ‘faithful’ to the author in one sense.

In the Press Notes Pedro makes several claims and assertions that I take with a pinch of salt:

“I’ve contained myself very much in the visual composition, in the austerity of the supporting characters. No one sings songs. Nor do I introduce scenes from other films to explain the characters. There isn’t the slightest trace of humour, or any mixing of genres, or so I believe. From the outset I had in mind that Julieta is a drama, not a melodrama, a genre to which I’m partial. A tough drama with a hint of mystery: someone who’s looking for someone without knowing why she left. Someone with whom you’ve lived for a lifetime disappears from your life without a word. You can’t understand it. It happens, it’s in our nature, but it’s incomprehensible and unacceptable. Not to mention the pain it causes.”

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

I would argue that it is a melodrama, that the visual compositions are, as usual, extraordinary and that the film refers back to various periods of Almodóvar’s filmmaking, as well as clear references. It is this which makes the film ‘un film de Almodóvar’ as well as a wonderful adaptation of a great writer’s work. Elsewhere, Pedro remarks that Ava, the woman Julieta meets in Galicia and who may be her husband’s on/off mistress is perhaps named after Ava Gardner. At the house in Galicia which will become Julieta’s home she must grapple with the housekeeper Marian, played by Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar’s ‘go to’ character actors, here playing Mrs Danvers to Julieta’s Rebecca from Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Later on a character will tell us that he feels like a character from a Patricia Highsmith story. The earliest part of the story is set in 1985 and Pedro tells us that he had to explain to Adrianna Ugarte how a young woman from Madrid on a train (Hitchcock/Highsmith again – but also in the Munro story) might behave in the sexually liberated ‘Movida‘ period when the first outrageous Almodóvar films appeared. The Press Notes finish with these lines:

“Almost all my films gain the second time they’re seen. Julieta will certainly be enjoyed more when you’ve already seen it and know the story. I’d like to persuade my brother (the producer) to offer a free second viewing to people who have already seen the film.”

 Julieta is a work of genius in which the adaptation becomes a personal exploration of grief, loss, passion and memory. I know some audiences drifted away from Almodóvar, disappointed by I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) (but not me). Julieta should bring them back – after 10 days, it had made over £820,00 in UK cinemas – on the way to perhaps making £1 million and emphasising Almodóvar’s status as the most consistent foreign language director distributed in the UK.

I’m So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros, Spain 2013)

The stewards mime to 'I'm Excited'

The stewards mime to ‘I’m So Excited’

When a subtitled film gets a wide release, I’m always torn between elation that it is going to be more widely seen and a terrible fear that there will just be two of us in the multiplex screen. The other possibility is that people will see it and loathe it. I wondered if this might be happening with Pedro Almodóvar‘s new film. It was a strange experience watching it in Hebden Bridge Picture House where it seemed to go down very well (Hebden is a very interesting and diverse community) and then to head home to discover that on IMDb it had a 5.7 rating and several damning reviews. Checking the box office figures, it has actually done OK business with £750,000 in the UK after three weeks – down on Almodóvar’s recent titles but a good result for a subtitled film. I can only assume that the poor IMDb response (mirrored on Rotten Tomatoes) is some kind of conservative backlash.

The film’s English language title refers to the Pointer Sisters’ song from 1982 which for me marked the high spot of the film. The Spanish title may be untranslatable but means something like ‘In-flight lovers’. At least this makes more sense than the using the song title. I felt that the film was a familiar camp, transgressive farce that contains some satirical elements but which was fundamentally humanist and actually quite sweet. Reading the coverage in Sight and Sound (May 2013), including a short piece by Almodóvar himself, I think that there is a general agreement about the comedy but some variance over whether the effect is satirical, melancholic or ‘light’.

The plot involves a passenger aircraft with malfunctioning landing gear that must circle losing fuel until a suitable runway can be prepared for a crash landing. In the meantime the crew attempt to divert the business class passengers with booze, drugs and a song. The economy class passengers have all been drugged/tranquilised so that they sleep through the proceedings.

Most commentators see the film as a throwback to the early Almodóvar of the 1980s and there is certainly something reminiscent of his 1987 hit Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK at least was a breakthrough film. However, I do wonder if some of those critics who attack the new fim so savagely have actually seen any of the director’s earlier 1980s work (let alone his 1970s 8mm output). Almodóvar’s current status derives mostly from the success of his mainstream melodramas/thrillers in a sequence that began with Live Flesh in 1997 and which includes the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999). It is the audiences that discovered the director through these films that is probably ‘shocked’ by the new film.

I think that the key to enjoying the film is to take it at face value as a farce, to try not to compare it with any recollections of the earlier work and certainly not to worry about any kind of ‘social realist’ commentary. Some audiences seem to have real problems with questions of sexism and other forms of moral judgement. That way madness lies in an Almodóvar film! After the screening – and perhaps after a second screening – it might be possible to analyse what the director is suggesting through satire. Spain is clearly in a mess with a banking crisis, an economy in meltdown and dangerously high levels of unemployment. The aircraft is circling above Central Spain without a landing strip ready to receive it safely when it crashes. The ordinary people are unaware of what is happening and their leaders/the rich don’t know what to do and are trying to run away to Mexico instead. Of course one of them is a banker and one of his failed schemes involves an airport that has been built but never used . . . The others have personal stories that can be exposed and possibly brought to some form of conclusion through healthy doses of sex, drugs and music. Almodóvar cites Hollywood screwball comedies as his inspiration, adds a touch of Busby Berkeley and pays hommage to Luis García Berlanga. Berlanga was one of the great Spanish directors of the 1950s and 1960s, creating satirical works that evaded Franco’s censors. I have fond memories of his satire on Francoist attempts to woo the Americans in Welcome Mr. Marshall! (¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!) made in partnership with Juan Antonio Bardem in 1952. In a tiny cameo at the beginning of the film, Almodóvar’s two biggest stars launch the film narrative in an unexpected way and then severalof the main players in the farce turn out to be familiar Almodóvar actors Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother), Lola Dueñas (Talk to Her etc.), Javier Cámara (Talk to HerBad Education) etc. – I’m sure there are plenty more in what is a ‘family affair’.

So, enjoy first and think about it afterwards!

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito, Spain 2011)

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in ‘The Skin I Live In’

As European auteurs go, Pedro Almodóvar is arguably now the master and perhaps the only consistent performer over a long period. Ever since his 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown introduced his work to an English-speaking audience, Almodóvar has produced a non-stop stream of controversial and increasingly well-made titles. At first the new titles in the 1990s ran alongside the earlier films (getting their delayed UK/Us release) with their wild plots and equally wild presentations. The more recent films have tended to turn back towards the plot ideas of the earlier films but to present them in extremely controlled productions full of exquisite design ideas – the list of brand names at the end of this latest film is longer than the cast list.

It’s relatively rare for Almodóvar to turn to a previously published property as the basis for his narrative but here he takes a novel by a French television writer Thierry Jonquet. The original novel seems to have had a complex story which Almodóvar filleted and then reconstructed as something recognisable but quite different. The still complex plot has stimulated quite a lot of discussion about who did what to whom and for what reason, but it seems to me that the machinations of the plot are the least interesting aspect of the film. Although I was engaged throughout I wasn’t really interested in the plot which for me didn’t particularly work as a thriller or an emotional melodrama. Instead the plot simply provided a narrative framework on which to hang a set of discourses about gender, genre and the work of several great filmmakers who Almodóvar admires.  The central discourse is the mark of the auteur – a reflection by Almodóvar on his own career.

There are plenty of sites out there discussing various plot spoilers. I’d ignore them and instead read the Press Pack in which Almodóvar gives his typical statement about what lay behind his decision to make the film. (Download from this page.) I don’t really want to promote auteurism as a way of approaching films but with Almodóvar I don’t really think there is any other option. As I watched The Skin I Live In, one part of my brain was struggling to understand what I was seeing and another part was reflecting on my memories of the rest of the director’s work. The third part, concerned about what the narrative might mean in terms of contextual issues was lagging some way behind. (Though it does seem to me that Spanish films – and Almodóvar’s in particular, do seem to explore medical scenarios rather more often than might be expected.)

A young Banderas with Victoria Abril playing the woman he has kidnapped in ‘Atame!’.

Let’s begin with one of the two central characters, Robert (why the English name?) Legard played by Antonio Banderas. This is Banderas’ first appearance for Almodóvar since he went to Hollywood a couple of years after starring, with Victoria Abril, in Átame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!) in 1990. There are elements of that film referenced in The Skin I Live In but now Banderas is the older figure. In his youth he appeared in several roles in which his sexual orientation was sometimes in doubt. Opposite him is Elena Anaya, a beautiful younger actress previously in smaller roles for Almodóvar and making up the central three is Marisa Paredes, another Almodóvar regular. In one of her earlier roles she plays a famous singer who returns to Spain from a long stint in Argentina and her daughter (played by Victoria Abril) takes her to a club where she is being impersonated by a drag queen. This is Tacones lejanos (High Heels, 1991), which offers several interesting family relationships and again seems to inform the new film in some way. Take the two older films together and we can see a discourse not only about gender difference but specifically about body modification, men controlling and restraining women and characters/stars ‘performing’ different roles.

Plots and genres

This is one of those Hitchcockian plots with twists that shouldn’t really be revealed, so I’ll stick with simply explaining the set-up. Vera (Elena Nayana) appears to be held prisoner in a tastefully-designed room. She is dressed in a ‘nude’ body stocking and doesn’t look particularly distressed as she performs yoga exercises. She receives her meals via a dumb-waiter sent up from the kitchen below by Marilia (Marisa Paredes). A title sets up the next location as ‘Toledo, 2012’ – the slightly futuristic setting suggesting a ‘speculative fiction’ of some kind. Banderas/Ledgard is addressing an academic audience on the topic of ‘artificial skin’ and the possibilities of genetic modification. Ledgard has a private operating theatre and research lab so the possibility here is that the narrative will develop in the direction of horror/science fiction. We seem to be in some form of ‘wealthy scientist with a dubious research goal’ territory. But this is an Almodóvar film and melodrama can only be a sumptously designed step away. If Vera is the laboratory subject (‘Vera’ is a name derived from the Latin ‘veritas’ – ‘truth’), Marilia is the scientist’s faithful servant, but we don’t expect Marisa Paredes to have a minor role and indeed she doesn’t. She is the link to the melodrama.

Dana Andrews in Fritz Lang’s ‘While the City Sleeps’ (1956)

My feeling about what follows is that it is meticulously confected, both in its presentation of the melodrama through performances and mise en scène (and with a wonderful score by Alberto Inglesias) and in the twists and turns of the thriller narrative that melds horror and science fiction. I enjoyed seeing Antonio Banderas in a performance in which at times he strongly resembled Dana Andrews, the Hollywood star who appeared in Fritz Lang’s last two Hollywood films and who might be seen as representing the disturbed male characters of film noir. This isn’t too surprising since Almodóvar tells us that :

“A story of these characteristics made me think of Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, all of Fritz Lang’s films (from the gothic to the noir). I also thought of the pop aesthetic of Hammer horror, or the more psychedelic, kitsch style of the Italian giallo (Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi or Lucio Fulci . . . ) and of course the lyricism of Georges Franju in Eyes Without a Face.” (From the Press Notes)

Georges Franju on the set of ‘Eyes Without a Face’

In the event, Almodóvar found himself trying to distil the essence of these influences without allowing the film to become a pastiche of any specific style. The result is a narrative so controlled that on a first viewing seems to me to have been drained of emotion with a resolution that is revealed too quickly. I suspect that many audiences are going to feel dissatisfied. Yet, there is so much going on in the mise en scène (especially in the large-scale reproductions of paintings that I thought I recognised, but the credits suggested not). There also seemed to be large holes in the complicated plot. The Skin I Live In is most definitely a melodrama in terms of its complex interrelationships of coincidence and its excessive use of colour, music and performance, but its cold and, yes, ‘clinical’ tone demands that we think carefully about the meanings that it produces. So, a beautifully executed exercise in filmmaking from a master – but not on first viewing a satisfying entertainment? What does everyone else think?

The ‘teaser’ trailer that doesn’t give too much away:

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces Spain 2009)

Penélope as Audrey in the film within a film in Broken Embraces

Penélope as Audrey in the film within a film in Broken Embraces

I enjoyed the latest Almodóvar film, but I wasn’t excited by it – at least initially. It is more of an investigation of filmmaking than a melodrama, more a Bad Education noir thriller/romance than a Volver or an All About My Mother. Always ravishing to look at, the film seemed clever and intriguing rather than emotionally involving. Or more precisely, I didn’t ‘get’ the emotion until the closing quarter of the narrative. Perhaps if I watch it again, I’ll get more.

The story involves a filmmaker, Mateo (Lluís Homar), who is a blind scriptwriter when we first meet him, preferring to be known by his writing pseudoynm Harry Caine. (This is an intriguing name – is Almodóvar really interested in Michael Caine/Harry Palmer or is it a film noir reference to James M. Cain?). Mateo/Harry is supported by his agent Judit and her son Diego who acts as his amanuensis and surrogate son. The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening scenes is the newspaper announcement of the death of a wealthy industrialist, Ernesto Martel. A flashback to 1992 introduces us to the other two main characters in the narrative, Ernesto and his secretary Magdalena (Penélope Cruz). I’ll say no more than that the plot involves the making of a film with Mateo as director and ‘Lena’ as star. This is a film which clearly references Almodóvar’s first ‘breakout’ international hit, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spain 1987).

There are several other direct references. At one point Mateo and Lena watch a scene from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1954). This is a film that I admire, but have also found difficult to engage with and I was at first baffled as to its significance here. Later I realised that the scene from Rossellini is possibly the basis for Almodóvar’s title. In the story, Ingrid Bergman (then married to Rossellini) plays a woman married to an Englishman (George Sanders). The couple have rented a villa in Southern Italy but their marriage is going through a very tricky time and when they visit the ruins of Pompeii, Ingrid breaks down at the image (described by the guide) of a couple overwhelmed by the lava flow that destroyed the city – and dying together in each other’s arms. Of course, this and several other references are explained in the film’s Press Pack – which I wish I’d read first and then I might have noticed a few more similar references. Almodóvar suggests in the Press Pack that the film is indeed about cinema and particularly about editing. Viaggio in Italia is also interesting in terms of the scripting process as well in that it is famously the film which Rossellini didn’t script but developed as he went along (goading and bewildering Sanders in the process, thus producing exactly the performance he wanted).

Several of the other references are obviously plot-related including Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (I think it was in there somewhere!) a genuine melodrama in which Jane Wyman falls for the man whose rash behaviour led to her husband’s death and her own blindness. Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold and several other noirs including Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven are also mentioned. Just as in Volver, Almodóvar revels in the chance to mould Penélope Cruz into visions of iconic stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Cruz is simply breathtaking in the film, even if much of the time she is playing a role within a role. The whole film is incredibly beautiful and this was one digital print I won’t be complaining about – I’m glad I got to see it on the best possible big screen projection. A lot of credit must go to Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who has now added Almodóvar to a list that includes Spike Lee and Ang Lee as well as Alejandro González Iñárritu.

I confess I do miss both the surrealism of early Almodóvar and the melodrama of some of his later films. The DVD scheduled for Broken Embraces promises some outtakes from the sequences of ‘Broken Suitcases’, the ‘film within the film’ – but perhaps I should watch Women on the Verge again?