As he closes out his fourth decade directing feature films with the UK release of Pain and Glory – his twenty-first feature – this week, it feels an opportune moment to reflect on the virtuoso career of arthouse titan, Pedro Almodóvar. It is easy to take Almodóvar for granted, especially if you’ve only come to his films recently. He is an established part of the set of arthouse auteurs who regularly grace the festival circuit with a new release every 2-3 years. His name has become a genre in its own right, a thing of familiarity.
The most surprising aspect of Almodóvar’s snug position in the film world is how miraculous and unlikely it all is. He is a filmmaker of startling invention and subversion, weaving complex tapestries across time and genre and questioning the very nature of the fictive process that other cinematic storytellers seem to take for granted. Additionally, he emerged from the carcass of Francoist Spain (his parents had intended for him to be a pious Catholic Father no less), to offer staggering deconstructions of the restrictive, fascist dogma that had enveloped much of Spain in this period.
Almodóvar released his first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom in 1980. This film, and much of his work through the ‘80s, is characterised both directly and indirectly by his queer gaze. He ran amok through the melodrama genre and riotously deconstructed the predominant heteronormative representations of sexuality and identity in Spanish cinema with verve. By the time of the late ‘80s, Almodóvar was starting to create ripples on the international stage. His Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
By now, an idea of a Pedro Almodóvar film was beginning to take shape. It was usually a riff on a familiar domestic genre (the melodrama, romantic comedies, family dramedies), featured a lurid colour scheme, and showcased a real knowledge of the history of cinema; he loved a playful homage to a previous filmmaker or film genre, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, or the ‘Women’s Pictures’ of the ‘40s and ‘50s. There was ideological craft at work in the Almodóvar blend too. He would often merge the personal and political to dazzling effect by using complex timeframes that linked a present day act of sexual transgression to an authoritarian or patriarchal act of yesteryear (often set in the Franco era). In essence, Almodóvar was making films that normalised homosexuality, transvestism, and non-binary gender politics, long before these became accepted subject matter for mainstream cinema (and there is still a ways to go!).
Almodóvar entered his golden phase in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. He released a series of films – All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), and Volver (2006) – that were the crowning glories of his craft. His Oscar glory came with All About My Mother winning for Best Foreign Language Film and Talk to Her winning Best Original Screenplay.
All About My Mother is a deeply emotive paean to maternal love and sustenance; not entirely coincidental was the fact of Almodóvar’s own much beloved mother passing away in the build up to the film. The story centres around a mother who embarks on an odyssey into her past to track down the long-lost father of her recently deceased teenage son. Almodóvar challenges audience notions of gender and femininity – the father turns out to be transgender – and creates one of his most striking cine-homages. There are recurring references to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1951) and John Cassavettes’ Opening Night (1977), and much of the narrative hovers around a theatrical production of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.
Talk to Her was an even more refined piece of melodramatic craftmanship from Almodóvar, as he elegantly played with his ‘high concept’ notion of two men caring for the women they love while those two women both lay comatose in hospital.
Of the four films, Bad Education is probably the least well known, but is arguably the most atypical and ambitious film of the bunch. Instead of his predominant focus on female characters, femininity and the inspiration of maternal values, Almodóvar cast a more ambiguous gaze over shifting male identity. Casting Gael García Bernal just when his star was on the rise post Amores Perros (2000) proved a masterstroke, as his character ‘Ignacio’ proves a suitably alluring and mysterious presence around which filmmaker Enrique (Fele Martinez), begins to deconstruct his abusive past, his sexuality, and his own role as a storyteller. It really is one of the forgotten gems of noughties cinema, and sorely deserves a critical retrospective, not the least because of Almodóvar’s masterly command of the complex narrative perspectives in the film.
After Volver (2006), the crowd pleaser of Almodóvar’s fabulous four, Almodóvar has settled into his position as a venerable arthouse auteur. Most of his films have been variations on his now familiar concerns and stylistics. His The Skin I Live In (2011) is perhaps the most impressive and well received – a typically subversive and dazzlingly complex narrative that centres poignantly on an ironic change of gender and identity. Antonio Banderas’ role as the sinister Dr Ledgard in this film, and as Salvador Mallo in the upcoming Pain and Glory, is a reminder that Almodóvar has also helped launch the career of some of the finest film actors of the last few decades. Banderas, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz are perhaps the most well-known of this repertory, but Almodóvar aficionados will also appreciate the stellar presence of stalwarts like Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, and Cecilia Roth to name but a few, across of many of his films. They are the faces and icons of Almodóvar’s cinema; a cinema that has, deservedly, become one of the most established and celebrated of landmarks on the world film scene for the last 40 years.
ALMODÓVAR TOP 5: IN REVERSE ORDER…
5. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
A typically playful and feminist inversion of the stereotypical notion that hysteria is a distinctly female characteristic. The first film that brought Almodóvar’s work to a wider audience, culminating in his first Academy Award nomination.
4. The Skin I Live In (2011)
Perhaps Almodóvar’s finest film of this current decade. A typically dazzling and complex narrative sees Almodóvar take his career long interest in the body and gender identity to its logical end game.
3. All About My Mother (1999)
Inarguably Almodóvar’s most emotive film, and his most overarching paean to femininity – in all its forms.
2. Talk to Her (2002)
A precursor of sorts to The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar takes what is, at times, a prurient scenario of voyeurism and longing, and is able to find the pathos and emotion within.
1.Bad Education (2004)
Almodóvar switched his focus to male identity, and, as a result, crafted a murkily complex film. Capitalising on the lustre of newfound superstar, Gael García Bernal, Almodóvar takes us on an almost Faustian journey to reveal the true fate of the mythical Ignacio at the centre of the narrative.