The Iberian Storyteller
Some people might say of Pedro Almodovar’s work what they would often say of Woody Allen’s: that they prefer his early stuff. Penelope Cruz as a star of both directors’ later work might be a bit put out, but perhaps those who like a filmmaker’s earlier, rougher films would be inclined to see Cruz as possessing mainstream star quality, where what was interesting about Almodovar’s first movies was his interest in generating a different type of star. In Almodovar on Almodovar there are numerous remarks about actors, but perhaps there has been a shift from Almodovar’s early interest in the actor as the Warholian performer seeking fame for longer than fifteen minutes, and the later films where the actors are much more inclined to take their fame for granted. When the director talks of one of his favourite actresses Chus Lampreave (who appears in Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Matador and others), he says “she didn’t consider herself a proper actress”. Asked about Cecilia Roth and Cristina S. Pascual who in the interviewer Frederic Strauss’s opinion aren’t his best actresses, he replies: “No they’re not. Cecilia was a friend of mine and I gave her a small part because her character was totally in keeping with the role…As for Cristina S. Pascual…Dark Habits was produced by her husband, hence her starring role.”
There was an ad hoc quality to the casting in the early films; the important thing seemed to be to get a lifestyle on the screen, and whoever embodied it would fit in. Almodovar may say he has always been interested in story, and that the “important difference between me and Morrissey and Warhol [is that] they simply stuck their camera in front of the ‘characters’ and captured everything that happened. I love the artifice which is part of a director’s work.” (Almodovar on Almodovar) However, the early films (Pepi, Luci, Bom…, Labyrinth of Passion, Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, even Matador) are half time capsule explorations of post-Franco Spain, and half-hearted attempts to develop a story. Watching Labyrinth of Passion is pleasurable partly because of the burgeoning presence of ‘Almodrama’ as narrative form; partly because of the performers who are central to a milieu more than given to a profession. As Almodovar says, “Many performers of the time are now business people, hoteliers. It gives some idea of how the city [Madrid] has changed.” (Almodovar on Almodovar)
Almodovar has changed no less than Madrid, and yet the sensibility we find in Labyrinth of Passion is such that few familiar with the later films would doubt they were watching Almodovar. It lies in the heaviness of passion with the lightness of sensibility, the dark aspects of subject matter combined with their facetious presentation, and also in the exuberance of the mise-en-scene. There is heavy passion in the love affair between nymphomaniac Sexilia (Cecilia Roth) and Riza Niro (Imanol Arias): their dalliances with others immediately becoming irrelevant next to the feelings they have for each other, but they can’t easily consummate a relationship when sex has been central to so many casual assignations. This is a deep feeling but contains absurd irony; they are people looking to find a means of shared expression, but they’ve exhausted the most obvious way in which they should express themselves to each other because they’ve spent years screwing around. The sexually incommunicable might be a subject for Antonioniesque ennui, but for Almodovar it is slapstick psychoanalysis: all is revealed and resolved when Sexilia comprehends the source of her fear of the sun and her subsequent nymphomania. She felt rejected one day on the beach by none other than the young boy who is now the man she loves. The heavy passion meets easy narrative resolution, and Almodovar keeps the tone light.
This is even more apparent when the situation might seem to demand gravitas, evident in the scenes where Queti (Marta Fernandez Muro) is forced into sex by her father who thinks that she is her late mother. He takes a powerful pill to keep him virile; she slips into his drink an antidote which ought to weaken his sex drive but instead plays havoc with his mental health. Almodovar offers the situation in a tone that is matter of fact and capable of a solution, and it is a tone he would of course repeat in rape scenes in Matador and Kika, where the atrocity of the deed is contained within the pragmatics of the event and the humorous possibilities extracted from the drama, and even in Talk to Her, where the male nurse sleeps with a female patient who happens to be in a coma. Yet Almodovar has always known where the line is between creating a laugh and causing offence. He considered showing Kika idealizing the rapist Paul. “She reads the paper over breakfast, sees a picture of him and goes to sleep. She dreams she’s making love to him and wakes up to find him inside her. I abandoned the idea because it was too ambiguous. Showing a girl fantasizing about her rapist was risky, even if, cinematically speaking, the scene would have been interesting.” (Almodovar on Almodovar) Already in this second feature this sense of knowing how far he could go without pushing into the ambiguity of viewer response was in place. The facetious was always more evident than the ambiguous.
Though the mise-en-scene in Almodovar’s films would become more elaborate and connotative, even here, in Labyrinth of Passion, the mise-en-scene, as objects in space, is of importance. Mise-en-scene is of course a broad term that covers whatever is in front of the camera, and includes acting, costume design and set design. For Almodovar mise-en-scene is important as colour and object, with much of the humour coming out of this visual exuberance. When Almodovar turns up and sings during a gig he is dressed in a black leather skirt and jacket, his broad, masculine demeanour countered by his female dress sense. When Queti gets to be Sexuela’s doppelganger, she wears an extravagant outfit with plastic breasts as if poking out of a black leather costume. The posters on the wall in one flat include Bruce Lee, Julio Iglesias and the Ayatollah Khomeini. At this early stage, Almodovar’s cinematic spaces still feel like his casting, a question of making do, as if selected from random flea markets rather than exclusive designers, and with the actors looking as if they chose what to wear rather than specifically dressed to fit into the cinematic space. The set design is undeniably exuberant but still slightly random. Later works, like Kika with its Jean-Paul Gaultier designs, become very specific. As Almodovar would say of Marisa Paredes in High Heels, “I had her trying on different voices in the same way as I did her various costumes” (Almodovar on Almodovar). Referring to a Cassavetes film he insists: “I adore Opening Night, but I’d never be able to shoot that story in such a radically naturalistic style.” (Almodovar on Almodovar) Visually, Labyrinth of Passion is embryonic Almodovar, and if someone were to prefer it to the later films, it lies in life entering the frame, and that the mise-en-scene belongs to the moment in time rather than abstracted from it by the formal and narrative means of the filmmaker.
One can be agnostic on this question if we accept that an author’s purpose isn’t definitively to express themselves or record the world, but to find on the continuum whatever brings out a singular perspective. Cassavetes is at one end; Almodovar at the other. When he says that “David Lynch is clearly a pictorial artist…There’s also Tim Burton. But the summit of this approach is Fellini,” (Almodovar on Almodovar) he is admiring the made object more than the found realities. Labyrinth of Passion represents a paradoxical place in Almodovar’s world because it’s more found reality than made object: it tells us more about the Madrid milieu at the beginning of the eighties than it does about the Almodovarian imposition that would make the later films singular; a product of one man’s cinematic vision. If we look at another Spanish film of the period like Arebatto, or even British films with a punk aesthetic from the same era, Rude Boy, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Broken Glass, the similarity in milieu generates a similar aesthetic. Films like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, High Heels and Kika are inimitably Almodovarian, as if existing much more outside of time and in the director’s head. His admiration for Fellini reflects this direction that Almodovar’s own work took, where the vision was more important than the imprint of the real.
However, this notion of possessing a vision isn’t quite the same thing as saying that a director is a visionary filmmaker. Godard, Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Rivette seem more visionary directors than Fellini, Burton and Almodovar. The self-enclosed universes the latter create remove the speculative dimension of filming the world as it is and as it might become. When Godard films the housing estates on the outskirts of Paris in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, or Antonioni films Milan in La notte and Rome in The Eclipse, they are penetrating the present to look into the future: to see what the world is and where it is going. Even Tarkovsky differs from Fellini in this fundamental respect: he might be more given to metaphysical mind games and spiritual intrigues than Godard and co, but there are found realities enough to show a filmmaker speculating on the world as it is in its material dimension, with Stalker of course often seen as a film that anticipated Chernobyl. Obviously Fellini’s earlier work possessed an aspect of this interest in the world as it and in what it might become, evident in La dolce vita, but 8 ½, Juliet of the Spirits, City of Women and And the Ships Sails On so generate the Felliniesque that the tension between the filmmaker’s vision, and the reality he films, gives way to the detriment of the latter and to the power of the former. If Almodovar sees his work as very different from Warhol’s it lies in the Warholian disregard for the manipulation of the material, aware that the mere fact of turning a camera on in a distinctive milieu will generate interest. It made sense that Almodovar would win a best original screenplay Oscar for Talk to Her. The Academy could see a director who worked in the rendering mould of Hollywood moviemaking: someone for whom reality is the rawest of material to be shaped into an ingeniously fabricated weave.
Labyrinth of Passion is an untidy piece of narrative fabric but an interesting example of where Almodovar’s career might have gone had he chosen to investigate given milieux rather than create them. Where here the story seems grafted onto the reality of the Madrid underground, the later films minimized the presence of the pro-filmic as documentary dimension to achieve the cinematically transcendental: to move beyond the vagaries of reality to the advantages of the made object. As Almodovar says in an interview in Reverse Shot, “Life is imperfect, reality is imperfect, but the cinema helps to make it a little less imperfect.” To understand Almodovar’s career trajectory is to understand this need to make the world a little less imperfect, and it has even in recent works become a central thematic: Talk to Her, Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In all concern obsessives making someone over according to their own ideal, or utilising a character’s passivity to project onto them their own feelings, whether it is the nurse in Talk to Her, the director in Broken Embraces or the surgeon in The Skin I Live In. (Indeed there is an early example of it in Law of Desire, where the film’s director is so controlling that, as Almodovar says, “the director gets a letter, a sympathetic letter, but not the letter he wanted to receive. So he sits down at his typewriter, writes the letter he wanted and sends it to the young man to sign and send back.”) (Almodovar on Almodovar).
Whether we care for the films or not, Almodovar has undeniably developed as a craftsman with a voice: His ability to bring together the concept and the execution makes them achieved works, and it makes sense that in all three later films just referenced he was working with experienced actors as if to leave no space for the contingent: Dario Grandinetti and Javier Camara in Talk to Her, Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar in Broken Embraces, and Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In. Almodovar now exists as a trademark, a quality brand of art house cinema that cannot easily absorb the realities of Spain. He instead becomes so monumental a name that his film are sometimes now taken or offered as metaphors for the national mood. When Dave Calhoun in Time Out suggests the director sees the recent I’m So Excited as a reflection of economic and political realities in Spain, Almodovar replies: ‘It’s a metaphor for Spanish society right now. These people on the plane go round in circles. They don’t know when they’re going to land. They know it’s going to be an emergency landing and it’s going to be dangerous.” Even though he claims he retains aesthetic freedom in his work, Almodovar also admits to a certain type of stage fright. “You know, I never feel it when I’m writing the script or when I’m shooting. I feel completely free, I behave with much more freedom than I even do in my own life. In that moment I don’t think about the market, the market doesn’t exist and the audience doesn’t exist, there is no face. But in this moment, right now, when the movie is about to be released, I am absolutely aware, and it’s unbelievable…” (Idol Magazine) He is a filmmaker who is no longer the one who observes but who is observed, and so though Almodovar started as more or less an underground figure, he is now in the reverse situation where the films aren’t symptomatically observing, but metaphorically commenting.
Our purpose here isn’t to say whether this is a good or a bad thing, but to see in Labyrinth of Passion the messiness that perhaps already indicates a filmmaker who was caught between symptomatic cinema that filmed a moment in time and captured a prevailing mood, and a ‘commentative’ cinema that sums up a national consciousness. Like the late Theo Angelopoulos in Greece and the late Kieslowski in Poland, he has become a director whose films possesses a commentative dimension, one much greater than any observational acuity in the work. There may be more important directors in Spain than Almodovar (Victor Erice and Jose Luis Guerin for example), but their work does not function as a metonymy for the country as Almodovar’s oeuvre does. As he says in Almodovar on Almodovar, he wasn’t that bothered whether he won the best foreign Oscar for All About my Mother, but he knew that many people were staying awake till six in the morning to find out if Spain had won. “As for the Oscar, I had a debt towards Spain: I could feel tremendous pressure had built up throughout the country, where everyone had decided, even before the awards ceremony, that my film was going to win the Oscar. I knew that half the country was up in front of their television sets at six in the morning Spanish time.” Almodovar adds, “I was very afraid of not getting the Oscar, not for my sake – I don’t get worked up over that kind of thing – but because it had become such an obsession in Spain.” The director’s own ambition was suddenly irrelevant next to his function as national representative.
Perhaps one reason for Almodovar’s shift from underground figure to national monument lies in a world view Almodovar possessed that shifted itself from underground to mainstream: the homosexual world is no longer dissident but culturally viable. While we needn’t exaggerate this absorption into the culturally acceptable (as the gay marriage debate has shown), nevertheless Almodovar’s interest in the fluidity of sexual inclination is reflected in a society more given to accepting alternative lifestyles. Nothing revelatory in this, of course, but if we think of a phrase from Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, a certain irony reveals itself. “In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story.” The story Almodovar has managed to tell in recent years is one that incorporates into melodramatic storytelling a contrary sexuality that has revived melodrama as a form. It is as if when making Labyrinth of Passion he could see the type of narrative he was interested in but saw it as an underground tale that inevitably demanded an underground mise-en-scene to match it. The film is as convoluted as many of the later ones as a brief description of the story can reveal. Its narrative is criss-crossingly complex, showing a nymphomaniac whose father is a radical gynaecologist focusing on artificial insemination, and whose own sexual hang-ups are matched by Sexilia’s complicated nymphomaniac impulses when she falls in love with the aforementioned Middle Eastern gay prince, Riza. Over time we come to see that Sexilia and Riza were childhood friends, and that Sexilia’s therapy sessions reveals this past acquaintance. Meanwhile, her father takes up with Sexilia’s new found friend, Queti, who is made over to look like Sexilia, so that Sexilia can leave the country without fuss with Riza. This both cures her father’s impotence and Queti gets to sleep with another father obsessed with his daughter, just not her own.
This is only half of the plot, but gives a good indication of Almodovar’s capacity for storytelling no matter how absurd, sexually provocative and facile. The director resolves the problem of storytelling not in a retreat from narrative, but from pushing further into it for the purposes of proposing multiple lifestyle options. Obviously there is a risqué dimension to Almodovar’s film that wouldn’t easily be absorbed into today’s actual mores, and the incest theme is a provocation more than an ethical hope, but the creation of true love, out of nymphomania on Sexilia’s part, and Riza’s gay cruising, is fairy tale narrative as sexually dissident fantasy. If the path to true love would usually be chastity, the path to love in Almodovar is exactly the opposite. The issue of incest might inevitably remain a taboo, but its representation has become in various manifestations a common enough subject for cinema. In the late nineties it became almost a mini-genre, with Seul contre tous, Festen and The War Zone just three that immediately come to mind, no matter if it was hardly absent from cinema altogether before Almodovar: Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, for example. Nevertheless there was a sense it was a touchy subject. Now it might remain a taboo act but it is far from a taboo topic, and Almodovar’s insouciant attitude towards it here helped push the representational envelope just as his attitude to sexual fluidity coincided, and perhaps even helped, create more relaxed attitudes towards gay choice. In the years following la movida (the post-Franco counter-cultural movement in Madrid), Almodovar’s movies may also have contributed to his compatriots’ changing sexual attitudes, Jason Elgrably reckoned, and Almodovar agreed. “With all due modesty,” he says, “I believe (my films) have helped. Fortunately, you know, a lot of the stereotypes have vanished in the last 15 years.” (Los Angeles Times Magazine)
It is Almodovar’s capacity to draw on the milieu as well as the mores that gives the film its energy, and sets in motion his fascination with all things sexual. As Labyrinth of Passion opens on a series of crotch shots as Sexilia wanders through the streets looking for sex as if purchasing fruit and vegetables at the market, so Almodovar directs with a streak of rebelliousness that partly comes from the crotch shot, but just as much from the milieu in which he films it. Equally, as Riza scouts around for a pick up in a cafe terrace, again we get a feel of locale, of a camera telling a story but also however accidentally capturing time and place. At one moment just before Riza looks through a magazine talking about porn star Patty Diphusa (an Almodovar literary creation) a man walks round the corner and into the frame before exiting it again. He has no purpose within the story, but it is one of those moments in the film where life enters the frame, rather than an element that is part of an inevitable design. When Almodovar would talk of objects and furniture in his later work, he admits to strong preconception. “The crystal in Kika is a metaphor for fragility and a reference to the lens of a camera, Glass represents the work of a photographer and transparency, voyeurism. I have to give myself reasons to use these objects quite apart from their aesthetic appeal. Sometimes these reasons are a little superficial, but I don’t mind that,” (Almodovar on Almodovar) Actors and objects are no longer the product of the contingencies in the mise-en-scene, but instead the material shaped around the director’s sensibility. While the early films created the space for polymorphous sexuality in the verisimilitude of the event, in the later work these sexual possibilities become ever more absorbed into elaborate fictions, as found realities give way to exaggerated set design all the better to express Almodovar’s commentative storytelling.
We wouldn’t want to exaggerate the freedom of the earlier films and insist on a claustrophobic control in the later works, but it is as though Almodovar extracted from a punk sensibility what he needed to make the work his own. When we see in later films like Talk to Her the presence of Pina Bausch’s choreography or Gaetano Veloso’s guitar-playing, these are high cultural references matching high symbolic intent, with Bausch framing the story, and Veloso’s guitar work making us wonder why one of the central characters reacts so strongly to it. Compared to the gigs here where Roth, Almodovar and others perform with energy and enthusiasm, the difference is marked. In the gig in Labyrinth of Passion, the music is semi-amateur and the dramatic purpose underdramatized: the characters attend the gig but it hardly concentrates the feelings – apart from a brief moment where Sexilia looks at a stage light and it reminds her of the sun she is so frightened of as the film briefly goes into flashback. In Talk to Her it is the opposite: this is great art that demands our attention, and at the same time conveys the characters’ depth of emotion. What we lose in spontaneity we gain in meaning, but as with the late Kieslowski and Angelopoulos, perhaps this meaning is too premeditated and formulated: the storyteller as grand master. If we can watch the concert scenes in Labyrinth of Passion with a punkish disregard for meaning matched by Almodovar’s own knocked off approach to the material, in Talk to Her we can see that the director no longer allows for the same sense of inattentiveness. The facetious tone has a portentous undercurrent.
What we find in Almodovar’s work then is a consistent interest in narrative convolution, but with a shift from low facetiousness to the presence often of high seriousness. Even if I’m So Excited happens to be according to Jonathan Romney in The Independent on Sunday “unimaginably bad. Unimaginably, in that you can’t conceive of Almodóvar making anything so utterly graceless – an airline comedy so flabby…”, that doesn’t mean Almodovar expects us to view it with the same casual attention we might watch the early films. No, this might be low comedy, but it is there to serve metaphor and abstract meaning. This is fine if the portent of the material is matched by the meaning to be found within it (as we may believe is true of All About my Mother, Talk to Her and Broken Embraces), but I’m So Excited is so airless in its execution (it takes place almost entirely on the airplane) that we might yearn for the oxygen of real life, of those Madrid streets we see here and the casual presence of friends not as superstars (the cameo appearance of Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas in I’m So Excited) but acquaintances casually turning up. We can see Labyrinth of Passion and I’m So Excited as the two ends of the Almodovar spectrum. The earlier film feels like a youthful birthday party where friends are invited to come and wear what they like, and to make it if they can; the later film a grand celebration of a monumental figure, with Almodovarian dress code applied and numerous faces he helped make famous appearing in small and large roles, from Cruz and Banderas, to Roth and Camara. In Almodovar’s best work there is a director who can shape the material into the commentative, but when it fails, as it so clearly does in I’m So Excited, we might just miss that youthful energy which contains the accidental, and that forces upon us certain questions of the vision without the visionary, the commentative storyteller who happens to have nothing to say. It is the danger of a director who is no longer a chronicler of the real, but the filmmaker responsible for his nation’s hopes and expectations. Maybe the time has passed for Almodovar to be the nation’s storyteller, the story teller of the Iberian peninsular, but would a return to the streets of Madrid create a renewed sense of energy?