A Beginner’s Guide to… Pedro Almodóvar

To quickly explain these series of articles again, I want to be able to give a brief history of the director and then choose three of their films to discuss.The Beginner film would be for viewers who haven’t ever watched a film by this director (a good introduction, some may say), the Intermediate would be for those viewers who have a little background but still want to learn more about the director before coming along to Advanced, which would be the films by the directors which may be the least commercial or well known, but die hard fans of the directors would have watched.

Week Three: Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar is arguably the most successful and internationally known Spanish filmmaker, screenwriter and producer of his generation. As a director who made his first short film in 1974 (Dos putas, o, Historia de amor que termina en boda or Two Whores, or, A Love Story that Ends in Marriage) and his first feature length in 1980 (Pepi, Luci, Bom), he has been creating films marked by a complex use of non-linear timelines, which span a vast number of genres including crime, melodrama and comedy as well as relying on a stylised use of pop culture and dark humour.

An Almodóvar film can usually be noted for it’s striking mise-en-scene; its bold colours, glossy décor, sometimes unusual camera angles, beautifully authentic costuming and his prevalent use of LGBT themes and exploring the boundaries of sexuality and sexual chemistry between different sets of people, this can especially be seen in films such including Pepi, Luci, Bom, Law of Desire (1987) and Bad Education (2004).

As well as sexuality and desire, family is another very prevalent theme throughout his films where he discusses the different forms of family and how sometimes your relationships with friends could be more influential and important than your blood relations. One only has to watch 2006’s Volver to understand how important family are to these films. There is a sense of community between the families and those families around them; as well as this, many of the older characters talk of returning back their villages where their families came from and this is represented in Volver by basing it partly in La Mancha, which is where Almodóvar was born and brought up with a brother and two sisters. Family is also important to Almodóvar as he founded Spanish production company El Deseo S.A. with his younger brother, Agustín Almodóvar who has produced almost all of Pedro’s films as well as receiving a cameo in most of the films (in a similar vein to Hitchcock).

Like with previous directors I have discussed within these articles, Almodóvar was not brought up on a film education and his parents discouraged him from moving to Madrid where he wanted to become of the faster moving, contemporary world. His film life began in watching and observing them and their makings but at the age of 22, he bought his first camera, a Super-8, which he used to make short films that were shown in Madrid’s night circuit and in Barcelona by the end of the 1970s. These shorts had overtly sexual narratives and tended to have no soundtrack;  “I showed them in bars, at parties… I could not add a soundtrack because it was very difficult. The magnetic strip was very poor, very thin. I remember that I became very famous in Madrid because, as the films had no sound, I took a cassette with music while I personally did the voices of all the characters, songs and dialogues.

After four years of working with shorts in Super-8 format, in 1978 Almodóvar made his first Super-8, full-length film: Folle, folle, fólleme, Tim (1978) (Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Tim), a magazine style melodrama.

This week, I am going to present my three film choices a little differently. Rather than a general analysis of the entire film and their backstory, I am going to look a one specific feature of each film and explain why I feel this particular point is an important technique of Almodóvar’s and why it is a good representation of his entire filmography. The three films, like many of Almodóvar’s, focus particularly on women as the main characters and what they are going through in life and in their heads. Just looking at the introduction of E.A. Barrera’s Death and the Secret Lives of Women – Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” briefly Almodóvar was brought up in, a world of family, a world of community and a world of women.

“The family in “Volver” is a family of women,” noted Almodovar. “My mother used to take me with her when she went to wash clothes … there were always several women washing clothes and spreading them out on the grass.”

He said that for a great part of her final years, his own mother was helped by her closest neighbors and described his film as a tribute to the women of his village and what he termed the “female universe” and “the solidarity of neighboring women … the supportive neighbor who lives alone and makes the life of the old lady next door her own life.

“The women in the village spread out (their) problems, they share them … and they manage to make life much more bearable,” said Almodovar.

Beginner

Volver, 2006

Starring Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura and Lola Dueñas

Volver, or in English “to come back” is an ensemble comedy drama revolving around the women and their slightly odd ways in one family in the wind swept region of South Madrid and their return to their village of La Mancha. Cruz plays Raimunda, a working-class woman forced to go to great lengths to protect her 14-year-old daughter, Paula who has murdered her stepdad after he tried to rape her. This tangent in the story is reminiscent to that of The Freezer, the novel written by the main character in earlier picture, The Flower of my Secret (1995). To top off the family crisis, her mother Irene comes back from the dead to tie up loose ends in the family and throughout the village.

What is instantly noticeable about Volver, is it’s inspiration from Italian Neorealism of the 1940’s and 50’s, looking at the everyday life of those in the lower classes living on the outskirts of modernism by addressing themes of sexual abuse, loneliness, money, community and death but blurring the generic conventions of melodrama, tragedy and magical realism (see de Sica’s 1951, Miracle in Milan).

Volver was one of the films competing for the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. It eventually won two awards: Best Actress (shared by the six main actresses) and Best Screenplay. The film’s premiere was held on March 10, 2006, in Puertollano, Spain, where the filming had taken place. Penélope Cruz was nominated for the 2006 Academy Award for Best Actress, making her the second Spanish woman ever to be nominated in that category.

My reason for choosing to speak about Volver, is to highlight Almodóvar’s stylised mise-en-scene. In particular I would like to concentrate on the first section of the film leading up to Paula stabbing her stepfather. Almodóvar is very good at using colour to push his audience towards a certain direction. The colour in the film is very bright and bold despite the sometimes, quite dark, subject matter and especially in the first section of the film; the red’s in the picture stick out, that on Cruz’s jumper and around the flat lead the audience to believe that the colour red will be important to the picture. This leads up to the image of Raimunda holding the knife with blood on it and the following sequence of the cleaning off the blood from the knife in the sink and merging with the water, something so everyday and normal like cleaning in the kitchen with something so out of the ordinary like murder is something that Almodóvar is trying to put across in his picture.

The reason for picking Volver as the beginner film is because it is possible the most well known and accessible film in Almodóvar’s filmography whilst at the same time allowing the audience into the full nature of the types of films that Almodóvar makes. The story (for the most part) is easy to follow and although the circumstances are very out of the ordinary, everyone can understand the lengths you would go through for your family and the community; the world you live in.

Intermediate

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988

Starring Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and Rossy de Palma

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a black comedy that brought Almodóvar to international acclaim. It was nominated for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign-language film, and won five Goya Awards including Best Film and Best Actress in a Leading Role for Maura. The actual title refers in Spanish to “un ataque de nervios,” which are culture-bound psychological phenomena during which the individual, most often female, displays dramatic outpouring of negative emotions, bodily gestures, occasional falling to the ground, and fainting, often in response to receiving disturbing news or witnessing or participating in an upsetting event. Historically, this condition has been associated with “hysteria” and more recently in the scientific literature with posttraumatic stress.

The film follows Maura’s character, Pepa Marcos, as a popular voiceover and television actress who’s ambivalent boyfriend (or ex) leaves her at the start of the film and what follows is an interior journey during which she realises that it is not the end of the world that he has left and that she can lead an independent life of him. Along the way, she meets Ivan’s ex-wife, Lucía and his son, Carlos who Pepa didn’t know existed until he comes along to look at the apartment Pepa bought with Ivan to rent with his fiance, Marisa. Confused? It’s not very difficult to follow, even when you throw in the mention of Shiite terrorists…

The reason for picking this film is to discuss Almodóvar’s blurring of boundaries; the film manages portray the drama of Pepa’s situation, it’s looks at her loneliness and how her hysteria manages to get the better of her in more ways than one. She finds it difficult to wake up in the morning and get to work and once there, she places importance of her life with Ivan before the film that she is placing the Spanish voiceover for and even manages to let the narrative of the film mirror her life. There is a dramatic sequence where she accidentally sets alight her bed, the bed she shared with Ivan and her interior hated and fear of her future is seen visually via the burning fire in her room. In spite of the fact that she places a packet of sleeping tablets in her gazpacho when she is feeling a low moment, she reveals that the drink was actually for Ivan, even though Marisa is asleep on the patio after drinking some of the concoction during the film. Things start to spiral out of control when you add Ivan’s ex-wife, the police officers, Pepa’s friend, Candela who has unknowingly been dealing with Shiite terrorists and a whole lot of gazpacho. Almodóvar actually manages to blur the boundaries between what could have been quite a deep drama with comedy of a completely farcical nature. He plays with sexual politics and feminist independence along with characters who are great at wordplay.

The reason I have chosen this film for the intermediate amongst us is because simply, this is possible one of Almodóvar’s best films. This is deep and comical, bright and fancy, stylised and brilliantly acted all at the same time. He manages to bring out the best in his actresses by admiring them visually on screen, they are simply beautiful women in looks, in costuming and in speech, it doesn’t matter of their actions except for the fact that they are mesmerising on screen. The film is simply one of Almodóvar’s funniest, enjoy it and remember to laugh out loud!

Advanced

Kika, 1993

Starring Verónica Forqué, Peter Coyote and Victoria Abril

Kika, a young cosmetologist, is called to the mansion of Nicolas, an American writer to make-up the corpse of his stepson, Ramon. Ramon, who is not dead, is revived by Kika’s attentions and she then moves in with him. They might live happily ever after but first they have to cope with Kika’s affair with Nicolas, the suspicious death of Ramon’s mother and the intrusive gaze of tabloid-TV star and Ramon’s ex-psychologist Andrea Scarface.

This is quite a hard film to talk about as this is one of Almodóvar’s least known films for a couple of reasons. The film is quite concerned with sexual independence of the main character, Kika, and the various games that she plays to get into bed with either Nicolas or Ramon. The audience are constantly questioning the morals of her characters that are always rather ambivalent throughout the film and this is visualised during the final sequence when she picks up a man on the roadside whose car has stopped, he needs help to get to a wedding and she invites herself along for something more than just a wedding invitation; she doesn’t admire the man, she admires what she can get from the man.

A specific sequence that I would like to particularly look at here is the rape of Kika by escaped prisoner, Paul Basso (a pun on polvazo, which means “great fuck” or “big ejaculation” in Spanish slang). Rape is never anything to be laughed at unless it’s Almodóvar sequence in this film. In the next room, Paul’s sister, Kika’s maid, played by Rossy de Palma is tied to a chair and she has told him to simply steal the cameras so that he can get money whilst on the run but his sexual deviance and obsessions lead him into Kika’s bedroom where she lay sleeping. She wakes and at first reacts by screaming and is horrified but soon after simply becomes part of the masquerade of the film, Paul wants to achieve his greatest number of orgasms without pulling out (this is at least four) and so she constantly asks, “Have you come yet?” This is followed by a rather comical set of policemen breaking into the apartment after receiving a phone call from a voyeur that they didn’t originally believe and trying to physically rip Paul from Kika. Some may call it an example of gymnastics, other pure farce, but whatever it is, one of the policemen end up on top of Kika in the place of Paul. He then stands on the balcony to finish himself off and comes straight onto the face of journalist, Andrea Scarface. Almodóvar perfectly takes something deadly serious and turns it on it’s head, there is always something else beneath the surface and in the head of Kika, it certainly isn’t her worry about being raped.

The reason for picking Kika for the advanced film is that it is not an easy film to watch and certainly is not an easy film to follow. It doesn’t seem to follow many conventional thoughts in film narrative or linearity and certainly does not fulfil audience expectation of narrative or character archetypes. The rape sequence was the reason that the film did not do particularly well, especially in the USA where they found the mockery of rape completely distasteful but if you can put up with it, you certainly feel like you have achieved something by the end of Kika and understand Almodóvar somewhat more than most of his other films, especially when looking at his prevalent themes of passion and sexuality.

I would like to thank E.A. Barrera for a reproduction of his article here as well as Jose Arroyo for his introductory commentaries on many of the Almodóvar DVD’s.

By no means is this list extensive, the rest of Almodóvar’s filmography is also just as beautiful and should be viewed but rather I aim to just give a brief picture of where the director is coming from and hopefully will get a few more audience member’s interested in said director.

Keep following Front Row Reviews for the latest on Almodóvar and his newest release, The Skin I Live In, which has recently come out and starring Antonio Banderas.

About The Author

Reviews Editor, Contributor and Festival Coordinator

Ollie has written for Front Row Reviews pretty much since its inception about seven years ago whilst still studying Film & Television. Since then, he was trust into the world of independent film distribution and has recently started working with Picturehouse Entertainment in their Marketing Department. Having written and produced two radio series, he is moving hoping to (one day) write a web series/short film/feature (delete as appropriate ;)). His favourite director is David Lynch (which makes him make a lot of sense!) and his favourite films are The Hours, Mulholland Drive, Volver, Blade Runner and Bridget Jones Diary.

3 Responses

  1. E.A. Barrera

    Hello Oliver – thank you for mentioning my review of “Volver” in your essay. Well done piece.

    Reply

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