Vote for Pedro!
Almodovar’s Brilliant Career
The name of Pedro Almodóvar’s production company is El Deseo: Desire films. It’s a quality much in evidence in the vividly carnal, erotic, outrageous and anguished melodramas in which he specializes. Desire – a word that contains lust, love, venality, revenge and ambition – propels his characters as they careen from crisis to crisis, which must be why Almodovar’s heroes and (more often) heroines are almost always in a state of heightened agitation.
If we had an instrument to take the emotional barometer of these films, we’d surely find them running several degrees hotter than most, even if, over the years, Almodovar has honed his style to an effortlessly cool and unflappable counterpoint.
It wasn’t always like that. As a young turk in the 1970s the former phone company employee emerged as Madrid’s answer to John Waters, a shock artist intent on scandalizing a culture stultified by the repressions of the Franco dictatorship, when strict censorship preserved a hard line Catholic morality in Spanish films.
Almodovar came along at the right time, a couple of years after Franco’s death when his regime was crumbling and audiences were hungry to see what they had been missing. His first films were underground “punk” super-8 shorts, followed by a series of taboo-breaking madcap sex comedies (Pepi Luci Bom 1980; Labyrinth of Passion 1982; Dark Habits 1983) culminating in the lacerating Law Of Desire (1987) – a must for Antonio Banderas fans.
By Matador and Law of Desire, Almodóvar’s interest in eroticism had extended to the way he fashioned his films, gleefully mix-and-matching melodrama and farce with a glamorous pop aesthetic that was kitsch, colourful, and subversive.
The super-slick Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987) made him an international figure – he’s responsible for half of the dozen most successful Spanish films at the US box office. In the films that followed (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! 1989; High Heels 1991; Kika 1993… this was the Victoria Abril period) he became something of a slave to his own image, never quite squaring edgy psychosexual material with his flamboyantly flip style. Still, he persisted in his own perverse, erratic-erotic way, reveling in the unthinkable, and showcasing an extraordinary galaxy of female stars: Carmen Maura, Rossy de Palma, Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, Veronica Forqué, Julietta Serrano, Cecilia Roth and more recently Penelope Cruz, to name but a few.
Since the mid-90s (and The Flower Of My Secret) Almodovar’s been on a heck of a roll, revealing emotional depths only hinted at in the earlier provocations, and showing a fluid, fluent mastery of cinema that has made him arguably the preeminent popular filmmaker in Europe.
Live Flesh (1997) was a superb translation of a Ruth Rendell thriller into a Spanish context. All About My Mother (1999) was a very moving tribute to sisterly solidarity. Talk to Her (2002) was a strange and tender love story, even if two of the main characters spent most of the movie in a coma… Volver (2006) a most beguiling and original ghost story.
Despite many offers, the director refused to compromise his freedom in order to work in Hollywood, and it’s hard to imagine any of these movies coming out of the American system. The stories are too tangential, the genres too confused– the genders too. America isn’t liberated enough to handle him yet. On paper they shouldn’t work, but in his hands, even the wildest, most unpredictable twists and turns feel organic to the characters.
Broken Embraces – which opens this week – is Almodovar’s seventeenth film and his fourth with Penelope Cruz. You only have to compare her wan and uninteresting work in American movies (Vicky Cristina Barcelona excepted) with the performances in All About My Mother or Volver to appreciate how restrictive Hollywood can be. At the same time, against expectations, Cruz has turned out to be the most complex and complete of the several female muses who have inspired him. She’s more sensual than Carmen Maura, more grounded than Abril, more soulful than either…
Pedro turns 60 next month, and you couldn’t find a better way to celebrate than to watch one of his movies – be it an old favourite or one that’s new to you. Whichever you desire – a deeper connection or a casual pick up – with Almodovar the chances are you won’t be disappointed.
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