by Ben Poster
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Though several debatable rumors and reasons may exist as to why a retrospective of Pedro Almodóvar’s films is appearing now, none of them are really a concern of mine. Would I say that it’s somewhat unusual to find theatrically re-releases of the highlights of a directorial career while said director seems to be right around the peak of said directorial career? Sure, but whether or not it was an international effort in compensatory egotism—following Spain’s snub and the U.S.’s ‘neglect’ of Almodóvar’s Bad Education last Oscar season—or an advanced campaign in ‘reminder-marketing’ to ensure that ‘Volver’s release this ‘season’ isn’t similarly ‘neglected’ pales in comparative importance to the fact that I got see a bunch of the ‘dustier’ gems from the Almodóvar canon in an American movie theatre. And while the causes for this treat may be banal, utterly unknowable, or basically boring, it’s effect should call some consideration to what ‘Pedro’s filmmaking is more or less about, and how an American audience ‘could’—or ‘should,’ according to Sony Pictures Classics—anticipate his upcoming releases and interpret or relish his past ones.
‘A cinema of transgression’ is a phrase that most commonly comes with considering the complete collection of Almodóvar’s films. Its popularity—as far as ‘phrasings’ go—may frankly be rooted in the fact that it’s an accurate one—a really accurate one, even. And while an entire, lengthy book could be written about the cultural implications of a Spanish film director’s compensatory attraction towards the ‘transgressive’ following the recent history of Franco’s reign in Spain, a smaller, more focused effort could be put into defining how Almodóvar’s use of those insistently transgressive tropes directly define the success or achievement of his films.
From sexy pseudo-serial-killers, to writers shuffling pseudonyms, from transgender aspiring-actress to transgender bastard father/mother figures to transgender vengeful abused altar boys, Almodóvar seems to like beginning from the brink of the boundaries acceptably established for filmic characters. These are characters whose identities remain refreshingly undefined due in large part to their respective locations on the aforementioned ‘brinks’ of common—Spanish—society. Change seems to suite those that are already out the other end of a life-altering transgression. That change seems to be displayed by Almodóvar as seductively contagious as well, more often than not enticing those more socially ‘stable’ characters to their own transgressive ‘baby-steps.’ And while the social implications may vary across these characters’ selective side-steps and forward—or backward—leaps their mere location near or beyond the ‘bounds of a moral principle or other established standard of behavior—that’s the definition on ‘transgression’—ensures that they will ALL share a commonality of heightened emotional response.
Another ‘phrase’ that seems to circle Almodóvar’s work somewhat consistently is his misnomer as a successful ‘director of women.’ I have a harder time accepting the popularity of this one as it seems more so a poor reflection of the ‘phraser’ than any sort of accurate anything of the ‘phrasee.’ Yes, American audiences seem to not realize indeed how starved they are for the-now-rare ‘role’ of a strong female protagonist, and yes Almodóvar has had some not-so-hot male leads in comparison to his steadier ‘starlets,’ but this misnomer to me, more than anything else, reflects a misinterpretation of Almodóvar’s distinct emotional tone. One of the trademarks of at least the Almodóvar films featured in this retrospective is their recognizable beginnings’ in other art forms. And while I think that this on its own is a pretty transgressive move—gasp, film acknowledging…even featuring other art forms!—Almodóvar has spoken to the real use of this technique as an effectively clear way to establish the emotion that he wants to guide, or define a film. Whether it be the ‘instructional video’ that establishes a fear of death in ‘The Flower of My Secret,’ or the VO-session that calls our attention to authority’s role in sexual frustration at the beginning of ‘Laws of Desire,’ or, most effectively, the poignant dance performance that ensures our sensitivity to deep loneliness at the beginning of ‘Talk to Her,’ Almodóvar’s command in maintaining a heavy dose of emotion throughout the entirety of his respective films is enabled in part to the way that we are thrown, first and foremost, into literal ‘scenes’ of focused or heightened emotion. These emotions, far from having any gender-based implications, instead ensure Almodóvar’s audience as to the tone within which his characters will tread along their respective fringes, defining more their ‘mood’ than their intent as they circle towards the desired resolves of their identities.
Their respective paths towards these yet-unknown identities may take place among varying social fringes, but more than that, these paths are guided by Almodóvar’s use of varying narrative tropes that help his characters make their way. Enough Bette Davis and Eva Gardner references in enough Spanish language movies clue you to the fact that Almodóvar is steeped in his cinematic history. From putting a scene from King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun directly in front of us in Matador, to fancifully ‘recreating’ a pseudo-surrealistic short at the center of Talk to Her, Almodóvar seems to use ‘movies’ to help his ‘movies’ along. And that’s not to say that it is only in this instances of ‘direct lifting’—these examples are just the most blatant—but rather in his subtler use of traditional cinematic ‘tropes’ as well. ‘Good-cop/bad-cop’ seems to make an appearance in at least four of the films that I saw for this retrospective, as did a few earnest and unexpected chase-scenes. More so even, the emotion that may at times seem excessively heavy upon Almodóvar’s characters seems to reach it’s exaggerated heightenedness through almost an overly dramatic cinematic ‘awareness’ that his characters have. Their emotional excesses and epiphanies, from the suicidal to the comedic, all seem intentionally encouraged by either traditional cinematic narrative devices that we expect and accept to push a plot along, or by the tradition of ‘cinematic-ness’ itself that we, as much as these characters, are familiar enough with to take these otherwise overindulgent flights of fancy in stride.
Despite all of Almodóvar’s craftsmanship in introducing and ushering his character’s through the elaborate infrastructures of his plot lines and social positionings, many of his true successes result from his actors’ abilities to spill out of these intricate environments. Ironically, or even paradoxically enough it is precisely these over-involved settings that become the perfect backdrop for finely personal and relatable performances. In a way it’s as if Almodóvar is a perfectly inadvertent actor’s director, for it is precisely his arrangement of too many hoops that allow his performers to win our hearts and sympathies in exasperatingly diving through all of them. And I really do wonder at Almodóvar’s awareness of this here, because, honestly, for all his intents and purposes these shining performances really do seem an unwitting by-product of his dizzying plot arrangements. Which is to say, simply, that the Almodóvar films that don’t work are the ones where no impression is made outside of his character’s trappings and travails. Laws of Desire is a clear example here: when an Almodóvar film is literally left only to its ‘devices’ it amounts to not much more than a fantastically composed mess; conversely though, when that mess’s extravagance is measured through the dismay or relatable overwhelmed-ness of a lead character, we are that much more indebted to their performance. If we can’t laugh at the ridiculousness of everything in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown along with Carmen Maura, we simply won’t laugh; just as Cecilia Roth’s awkward—or un-enticing—emoting left me that much further away from all of the emotion in All About My Mother. That is the double-edge of Almodóvar’s films, that for all of their uniquely ‘transgressive’ intricacies, if the audience does not have a strong enough lead to carry us through it, the rest easily falls away as unappreciable. And that strength can be subtly relatable, or dynamic as with Dario Grandinetti and Javier Camara in Talk to Her but simply put, it must exist, for if it doesn’t, as with Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance in Bad Education, the audience is left outside of Almodóvar’s enthralling intricate environs.
This subtlely determining responsibility now falls squarely on the supple shoulders of a one Penelope Cruz, whom, not surprisingly has been the focal point for all of Volver’s praise thus far. I myself, remain somewhat curious as to her ability to carry an Almodóvar film. Her biggest impression on me this far may have been that irresistibly charming burp in ‘that one Coke commercial,’ and after having just been reminded of Gael Bernal’s strengths as an actor in The Science of Sleep only after Bad Education made me forget as much, I will say that she better come equipped with more than just her charm to meet Almodóvar’s exacting standards—standards that I encourage all/any of you to seek familiarity with via your DVD supplier of choice as, whether it was the ‘big idea’ or not, I look forward to now seeing Volver—only the next step in Pedro Almodóvar’s growing legacy of cinematic distinctness.
Ben Poster is a film critic living in Chicago.
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