Those who like their Pedro Almodóvar more bad boy than teddy bear might wrinkle their noses at a new retrospective of his films. Essentially a rerelease by Sony Pictures Classics of eight Almodóvar titles (DVDs have been pulled from the shelves) in anticipation of the November opening of his new film, Volver, this frankly commercial selection reaches back no further than 1986, just before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) took the Spanish director in search of a broader audience. It’s unlikely that purist fans of the exuberantly transgressive works that established Almodóvar as the enfant terrible of post-Franco Spanish cinema in the early 1980s — Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom, Labyrinth of Passion and Dark Habits — will be mollified by the inclusion of Matador (1986), a bitterly funny tale of sadomasochistic torment, er, pleasure, stuffed with harridan women and crippled men, among them a breathtakingly beautiful Antonio Banderas; or Law of Desire (1987), a typically gender-bent romp in which Almodóvar’s early muse, Carmen Maura, plays the transsexual sister of a porno film director.
It’s true that since the mid-’90s Almodóvar’s work has smashed fewer social taboos. Comparisons to Buñuel have dropped away. And what some see as a softening in the films of the past decade surely came, at least in part, as a response to the lukewarm reception of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), High Heels (1991) and Kika (1993) by critics who felt that the director was coasting on style and shock. Kika was a bust, but I for one enjoyed the other two. As for what followed, it’s far from clear that Almodóvar has lost his bite or his countercultural spark.
Notwithstanding a misbegotten speech lambasting the Spanish government for its incompetence and neglect right after the Madrid bombings of 2004, Almodóvar has never been a political animal in the strict sense: Though AIDS plays a major role in the terrific All About My Mother (1999), it’s placed in the context of his obsession with the death of the body. Now and then he carelessly tosses in background topical issues, like the Shiite-terrorist plane-hijacking plot in Women on the Verge, but they’re usually played for laughs, or as crude devices designed to up the ante of hysteria. A gay provincial enchanted with the seamy underbelly of city life, he began his film career making underground shorts while working for the telephone company right after the death of Franco in 1975. From then on he blossomed into a scabrous advocate of the sexual revolution, who filled his frames with lowlifes — pimps, hookers, drag queens and transsexuals — preening against the brilliant reds, oranges and hot pinks of his gorgeous sets and staking a claim for passion in all its forms, from twisted mother love to necrophilia.
With the exception of the sweet but rather anodyne The Flower of My Secret (1995), it’s not as though marginal figures are underrepresented in later Almodóvar. Transsexual hookers in various stages of reconfiguration dominate All About My Mother, with Marisa Paredes’ lesbian diva and Penélope Cruz’s pregnant nun with AIDS thrown into the mix. Even the recent Bad Education (2004), a cold, tight and programmatic film — and to my mind the least prepossessing of Almodóvar’s movies — features a pedophile priest and a tortured drag queen. And anyone who thinks Almodóvar has lost his subversive edge should take another look at the last half hour of Talk to Her (2002), which suggests that only a gay man knows how to love a woman, while implicating that same nurturing man in the rape of a comatose young woman.
What has changed is Almodóvar’s tone, which has grown sadder, more pensive, more quietly obsessed with death and, finally, full of yearning for a conciliatory return to his childhood in a peasant village of La Mancha. And why not? The bad boy of Spanish cinema is now 56 years old, and he’d look pretty dumb cutting up like the eternal teenager he was well into his 40s — a hysterical, out-to-shock rebel who grew up surrounded by hysterical, over-the-top women. Almodóvar is still enough of a schoolboy prankster to pepper his movies with arbitrary farts, poops and other bodily functions that, depending on your outlook, offer either a trenchant commentary on the primacy of the physical, or too much information. But compare his mature work with that of John Waters, a filmmaker he’s often coupled with but who, in his 50s, sits becalmed in flat mimicry of his youthful cinema of disgust.
The movies that brought Almodóvar into the mainstream — The Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother and Talk to Her — and which form the centerpiece of this retrospective, in one way or another all extend his abiding preoccupation with the body as the site of debate about fakeness and authenticity, the mutability of nature and the fluidity of gender identity. Though red remains Almodóvar’s favorite color, the new mood is also reflected in rich ochers and browns, and in his wistful musical scores. Seven years after the release of All About My Mother, I still reach for the movie’s soundtrack CD whenever I see an open stretch of freeway.
More than anything, and this is why I have yet to encounter a woman who regards Almodóvar as a sellout, the later movies extend this generous director’s ongoing redefinition of femininity within melodrama, a form that has fallen so far off the Hollywood cliff that, aside from Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), it’s hard to think of an American director working successfully in the genre. It’s harder yet to think of a director so unabashedly (and ambivalently) in love with women, however loosely defined. Almodóvar favors strong, handsome, masculine femmes with hot eyes, often middle-aged or older, elegantly dressed in potent vermilions: Carmen Maura (who, after a long absence, returns in Volver as a ghostly mother), Marisa Paredes, Victoria Abril (sadly missing from the retrospective) and the astonishing-looking Rossy de Palma. Even the petite Cruz — who, judging from her work here, would have done better to stick with her mentor rather than settle for a feeble Hollywood career whose greatest highlight has been her dalliance with Mr. Cruise — shows up in Volver fortified with a padded ass, Anna Magnani hair and an iron will.
One way or another, Almodóvar’s women on the verge are modeled on waspish 1940s Hollywood divas like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Mothers have always run a fault line through his work, and the chilly, withholding mommies dearest and bitter crones of his early career still pop up in later films, most egregiously as Antonio Banderas’ domineering mom in Matador, and Cruz’s clueless parent in All About My Mother. Yet that film, which I consider his best and which Almodóvar regards as an act of mourning for his own mother (who died shortly before it was made), is also a watershed, with the ultrafeminine Cecilia Roth as a gentle but determined bereaved mom who props up every other damaged soul in the movie.
For all their extremity, Almodóvar’s women are no trouble to identify with, because they’re instinctive creatures who support one another through the common hurts and losses of life — illness, betrayal, abandonment, death. But the finest woman in the Almodóvar oeuvre, and the one who most embodies both his style and his ethos, is All About My Mother’sLa Agrado (outstandingly played by the performer Antonia San Juan), a perennially mid-op transsexual prostitute, who delivers a giddy impromptu soliloquy to a theater full of respectable burghers who think they’ve come to see A Streetcar Named Desire. Itemizing every part of her body that’s been surgically altered, she ends by telling them, “You are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” Along with all of Almodóvar’s other real and de facto moms, she’s a loyal and natural caretaker. And notwithstanding her foul mouth, I’d take my own strong-minded mother to see her anytime.
VIVA PEDRO! | All films at Sunset 5:
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN | August 25-31
ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER | September 1-7
TALK TO HER | September 8-14
FLOWER OF MY SECRET | September 15-21
LIVE FLESH | September 22-28
LAW OF DESIRE | September 29-October 5
MATADOR | October 6-12
BAD EDUCATION | October 13-19