Almodóvar and Me

17 09 2009
Penelope Cruz in 'Broken Embraces'

Penélope Cruz in 'Broken Embraces'

Everybody loves Pedro Almodóvar. His latest film Broken Embraces opened in the U.K. a few weeks ago to, if not exactly rapturous praise, then at least a respectful critical response. ‘Luxuriously beautiful,’ wrote Derek Malcolm in The Evening Standard. ‘A richly enjoyable piece of work,’ concluded Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. There was a feeling among critics that even if they were not dealing with a masterpiece here, this was at least a minor work from a great master of modern cinema.

Audiences love Almodóvar too. Over the last ten years, films like Volver, Talk To Her and Live Flesh have proved to be popular arthouse successes. Almodóvar has brought into the cinema people who may not have seen a foreign language film for years, which can surely only be a good thing. Almodóvar is the ‘world cinema’ director who your gran might have heard of. In a way, Almodóvar is ‘world cinema’ for a lot of people. 

Yep, everybody seems to love Pedro Almodóvar. Except, I’m sorry to say, me.

It’s not for want of trying either. Whenever Almodóvar has a new film out I’ll troop along to the cinema to see it, hoping this time to discover what all the fuss is about. But each time I find myself struggling anew to find anything substantial in the director’s work. Each new film seems to me to be lighter than the last, a fresh heady brew of colour, energy and melodrama, devoid of anything more than perhaps a little passing beauty. In fact, more than once I’ve left the cinema after an Almodóvar film only to realise that I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.

It shouldn’t be this way. I love all kinds of cinema, after all. I like some Fellini and some Douglas Sirk, both big influences on the Spanish director. Surely there’s room somewhere in my affections for Almodóvar?

And so, with the feeling that I Must Try Harder, I recently re-visited some of the director’s acclaimed work from the Noughties, to see if I could finally get to grips with it. 

The first film that I saw – via the miracle of DVD – was All About My Mother which, if anything, confirmed my prejudices. Supposedly the story of a woman’s grief after the death of her only son, the film is so smothered in melodrama, contrivance and its orchestrated score as to deaden almost completely any emotional impact that the viewer might be expected to feel. Even the scene where the main character’s 18-year-old son is hit by a car and killed is strangely uninvolving. Almodóvar, as is his wont, throws a few trannies into the mix, along with time shifts, a pregnant nun and references to All About Eve, but for my money the film’s a mess, and barely watchable. I’m clearly in the minority here though, as it won Almodóvar both a Golden Globe and a Best Director award at Cannes.

'All About My Mother'

'All About My Mother'

Next, I moved on to 2002’s Talk To Her. This, I thought, was much better. Talk To Her tells the story of two men and the women they love. Marco is a journalist who falls for a Lydia, a female bullfighter (another one of Almodóvar’s obsessions). After she is gored in what may be an accident or may be a suicide attempt, she falls into a coma and is taken to a clinic to be cared for. There, Marco meets Benigno, a male nurse who has an abnormally close relationship with the young, coma-bound dancer he cares for.

The plot twists in Talk To Her are no less soap opera-influenced than those in All About My Mother, but somehow it seems to rise above the melodrama far better than the earlier film. There’s a particular poignancy and drama to the story of Benigno, who, in a series of almost Hitchcockian shifts, goes from being kind, to vulnerable, to predatory before our eyes. There’s also a nice silent film-within-the-film which tells the story of an incredible shrinking man and the woman he loves. The scenes where the wee fellow climbs around on the woman’s naked, sleeping body could have come straight from a Guy Maddin film.

So, one out of two so far… Next, I re-visited Bad Education (2004) a film which, like the others, I’d seen in the cinema when it first came out and remembered being unimpressed by. Bad Education tells the story of Enrique, a successful film-maker in the early 1980s who is suffering from a bout of writer’s block. One day he receives a visit from a man purporting to be his schoolfriend Ignacio. ‘Ignacio’ brings with him a short story which he suggests might be good material for a film. The story drags up memories of the boys’ childhood in a repressive seminary and the abuse they suffered at the hands of a priest. On a lighter note, it also features Gael Garcia Bernal in a dress, so it’s not all bad news. 

‘Outstanding… a gripping mystery’ says Peter Bradshaw on the DVD case. Again, I find myself disagreeing. The structure of the film is interesting, I agree. The story is interesting too. But the problem for me is that even in this, his ‘mature’ period, Almodóvar’s instincts and his frame-of-reference still come from the world of the Latin soap opera. So for every moving moment, like where the young Ignacio refuses to score a goal against the young Enrique when they’re playing football, there’s a scene where somebody hams it up, like when the dodgy priest does everything but cackling into the camera as he leads Ignacio away for a spot of buggery.

Almodóvar at work

Almodóvar at work

It seems to me that the director can’t have it both ways. His films are intensely character-based, and we need to care about his characters, or at least feel what they feel.  But he makes this impossible by smothering everything with a layer of irony, kitsch, melodrama, call it what you will. The voice-overs, the soap opera lighting, the incessant music, the hamming; all of these his films could do without. The best scenes in Talk To Her and Bad Education are the ones where, just for a moment, Almodóvar allows himself to forget that he is Almodóvar and gets on with the business of telling the damn story.

At the same time, I can see that Almodóvar is a very good film-maker in many ways. He has stories to tell and a strong vision, and technically his work is impressive.  So, I suppose, I’ll continue seeing his films and disagreeing with his method. And maybe one day I’ll love Pedro too.



5 responses

18 09 2009

Have you tried “Volver”? I found that one to be one of Almodovar’s most enjoyable films — a lot of strong female characters, good script, and another first-rate performance by Penelope Cruz.

Still, I’ll admit that any director who refers to himself using only his last name probably has an ego that’s a teensy bit, uh, inflated.

M. Carter @ the Movies

18 09 2009

I did see ‘Volver’ and I remember very much enjoying the elaborate kissing ritual that two of the main characters employed every time they met. Beyond that, I’m afraid that the criticisms mentioned in my post apply. Like much of Almodovar’s work, I found the film to be too light, too insubstantial… I tried very hard to like it though!

24 09 2009

Just like throwing different flavors in a dish, or splashing a canvas with touches of color, or sipping a wine that explodes your sense of taste after every sip, or a night full of dreams, Almodovar’s films for me are richly elaborate gorgeous strokes on the canvas of life. What I absolutely love in his films, which no other director can give me, is the sense that I have experience a place, or a time, or a reality, in its complete whole, seen from surface, and then gone underneath its layers to experience it differently.

If you have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Jose Saramago, or latin american literature in general, you will find the same trait – the richness, the irony, the complexity of life, and the quirks of personality and mind, being the primary colors on the film canvas instead of just a single story or a single thread.

Also, what fascinates me about Almodovar is his ability to play with narrative structures – while watching Broken Embraces, I realized that while it was quintessentially about the love of cinema (touching the footage images with hand, characters who are made of celluloid instead of flesh and blood, blindness and his fear of it, and an almost metaphorical personification of films as the woman the protagonist adores to death…) – while the film really had that as the core – he went about it in a way that was fresh, that kept me on the very edge of the seat. It begins almost as a detective story, which then, midway, converts into a love story that borders on being a thriller, with characters being peeled throughout to the very end). I can think of very few directors or writers who are able to achieve that greatness with their structure.

For some, life is all about fleeting dreams and nightmares, and most of his films are a commentary on that.

I don’t know the cultural backdrop in which you grew up, but being from a very richly chaotic part of this world, where every character breaks textbook cliches, I find myself associating far more with works of directors like Almodovar, Wong Kar Wai, Guillermo Del Toro, Innarritu… in face of the rich complexity of their storylines, Hollywood and its style seems ‘engineered’ and very bland in its structure and style – three acts, one primary protagonist, one primary storyline, and the ‘active’ protagonist who controls his life – I find it designed to cater to the psychological empathies of the ‘capitalistic western man’, as culturally those are the narratives that most stories told in the west are made of, and thus the audience responds the best to them (which is not really true in the rest of the world). Heck, even growing up, the tales that my grandparents narrated to me weren’t single plot/thread, they would inevitably encompass multiple characters, multiple storylines, all unfolding simultaneously, and the ultimate core sense being that life is ironical and really beyond control.

Of course, its a very subjective matter we are discussing here – I just wanted you to see the viewpoint of an opposite, a person who would return again and again to Almodovar’s films, and remember them over the years as the some of the best cinema experiences he’s had.

For me, Almodovar is as iconic to Spain as Madrid (and I am not even from there, not from this continent).

24 09 2009

Hi DeSoumal.

Thanks for reading and for giving me your perspective on Almodovar’s work.

I’m very much into films that break with the ‘engineered’ Hollywood style of narrative that you describe; I love everything from Bunuel to Abdel Kechiche’s ‘La Graine et Le Mulet’, to directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Claire Denis. But for some reason I’ve never been able to get on with Almodovar’s particular approach to narrative or his aesthetic style, for the reasons given in the post.

I’ll keep trying though! I can see that Almodovar is a unique artist, even if I don’t agree with his aesthetic choices, so I will continue to watch his films and hopefully learn a thing or two.


1 01 2010
Overrated Films of the Noughties « Matinée Idle

[…] readers will know that I have a few problems with Pedro Almodóvar’s whole aesthetic (see We’ll be having an arm-wrestling contest later in the year to resolve our differences, but in […]

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