Pleasure Principle: The Early Films of Pedro Almodóvar

The brash, colorful, and wildly vivacious early films Pedro Almodóvar mark a distinct period in the great Spanish director's career.
Lawrence Garcia

MUBI's retrospective, The Art of Transgression: The Cinema of Almodóvar, is showing August 18 – October 19, 2019 in the United Kingdom.

“Cinephilia is not only a love for cinema. It’s a relation to the world through cinema.”

—Serge Daney

The impulse to divide filmmaking careers into identifiable stages continues to be an attractive one for critics, particularly those of a more auteurist bent. So-called “early” works might demonstrate identifiable talent cut with too-conspicuous borrowings, stylistic excesses, or sophomoric tendencies, while those of a “late period” might exhibit a more casual mastery of form, and a general sense of introspectiveness, the director having taken previous experience as license to express themselves through more self-consciously pared-down works. Of course, actual careers aren’t quite so easily narrativized, and such demarcations, while useful, threaten to smooth out the anomalies present in most any artistic progression. But on the surface at least, the career of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar provides as close to paradigmatic a case as is possible nowadays. 

Most commentators seem to agree that 1995’s Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto) was a significant pivot point. And following the Cannes premiere of Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria, 2019) earlier this year, it now lies at the precise midpoint of Almodóvar’s feature-film career, putting many well-known international successes—All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999) and Talk to Her (Hable con ella, 2002)—in his career’s back half. MUBI's current retrospective of the Spanish director, which ends with Flower of My Secret, offers a chance to engage with the director’s early period and track the deviations from—or conformities to—the aforementioned template.

Any assessment of Almodóvar, however, must begin with La Movida Madrileña, a cultural efflorescence that emerged in Madrid directly following Franco’s death in 1975. Although the Spanish director asserts that those who took part in it were neither a generation, nor an artistic movement, nor an ideologically bound group—“We were simply a bunch of people that coincided in one of the most explosive moments in the country”—that it laid the groundwork for his artistic career is undeniable. Like Fassbinder, Almodóvar got his start in theater, with a group called Los Goliardos, and like Fassbinder, he would go on to cultivate a veritable troupe of artists with whom he would collaborate over the decades following. (Almodóvar has put his affinity with the German director more bluntly: “We both like cocaine and we’re both fat.”) At present, Penélope Cruz is perhaps the most recognizable of Almodóvar’s rotating ensemble of actors, but there from the start were Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas, who respectively anchored his first two features, Pepi, Luci, Bom (Pepi, Luci, Bom y las otras chicas del montón, 1980) and Labyrinth of Passion (Laberinto de pasiones, 1982).

Neither of those first two films—distinctive, if rickety works that, for better and worse, fully partake of the unfettered, hedonistic spirit of La Movida—are included in the present retrospective, which opens with 1983’s Dark Habits (Entre tinieblas). Following a cabaret singer Yolanda (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who flees the city after her lover overdoses on heroin, the film is set almost exclusively in a rural convent on the verge of collapse. Populated by a group of nuns, each with their own vices—erotic novels, murderous pasts, various drug habits—it at first scans like a broad skewering of Catholic belief along the lines of Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969). And, to be sure, a reckoning with prevailing institutions—including that of the ruling class under Francoist Spain, represented here by a wealthy Marchioness who rescinds her financial support of the convent following her husband’s death—is part of the agenda. But the tone is often more bemused than anything else, with outright contempt reserved only for self-righteous, blind belief—an attitude all but absent from the major characters, who are only too aware of their failings.

In contrast to the strung-together financing of his first two features, Dark Habits marked a major change for the director. But with the cash came certain constraints—here in the form of his leading lady, who was insisted upon by one of the producers, an industrialist named Jacques Hachuel. Apparently dissatisfied with her talents, Almodóvar transformed his original script into something of an ensemble drama, which accounts for its slightly directionless, improvisatory quality, so it impresses mainly as a series of self-contained interactions within the convent. The film’s generally shiftless air does prove uniquely conducive for matters of performance—and a belief in its liberating power is one of the enduring hallmarks of Almodóvar’s filmography. While other directors might attempt to cover up their sundry references and borrowings—a pet tiger recalling Bringing Up Baby (1938), a prominently placed pin-up of Marilyn Monroe, and a shimmering, sequined red dress right out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953); an impromptu song-and-dance number to Lucho Gatica's bolero “Encadenados”—for Almodóvar, such showmanship is all but essential to personal expression. Dark Habits eventually builds towards a closing party thrown by the mother superior, during which the convent is unrecognizable, its religious iconography either papered over or else bedecked with all manner of incongruous, decorous objects. For one who believes in the powers of self-presentation—the sartorial suggestion of the title is no accident—it matters little what lies underneath.

Dark Habits (1983)

As one of La Movida’s most internationally recognizable artists, Almodóvar is now inextricably associated with cosmopolitan Madrid, dependent as the movement was upon urban density. But his current image as a kind of patrician city-dwelling artist was far from preordained. The director was born in 1949 in the central Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha. At the age of nine, he moved with his family to the town of Madrigalejo in Spain’s far west, where, despite being an avid moviegoer from the beginning—a habit he shared with his brother and future producer Agustín—he nurtured aspirations to become a writer. (He would eventually give the dream up, and considers himself something of a “frustrated novelist.” Not for nothing, it seems, do the male writers of his movies frequently meet with untimely fates.) In 1967, against his parents’ wishes, he moved to Madrid with the intention of attending the national film school—though he ended up honing his craft on his own, shooting Super 8 films while working a day job at the national telephone company Telefónica. Of his childhood home, he would later say: “This was the last place I wanted to grow into adulthood.”

Almodóvar would eventually return to La Mancha with the windswept exhumations of Volver (2006)—whose title literally means to “go back”—but even in the nascent stages of his career one already senses a conflicted attitude regarding the city’s inducements. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, 1984) is, foremost, a portrait of urban discontent. Following her minor role in Dark Habits, Maura stars as Gloria, a frazzled housekeeper with an amphetamine habit, who lives with her family in a cramped apartment by a Madrid motorway. Introduced walking through a film shoot surveyed with a grand crane shot above a city square (a “Godardian” touch, per Almodóvar himself), she dictates the film’s movements with her day-job as a cleaning lady, as well as her increasingly desperate attempts to keep from falling apart altogether. From the outset, there are all the makings of a miserablist slog, but the director’s predilection for heightened artifice, brash color, and eccentric storytelling gestures—often as bewildering as they are pleasurable—forestalls that impression. 

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

Whereas something like Victor Erice’s Spanish classic Spirit of the Beehive (1973) places its mundane characterizations and fantastical elements in opposition, Almodóvar’s impulse is to synthesize, using the former to motivate the bizarre stylistic shifts, zany tonal changes, and wild plot turns that are a part of his default procedure. (In this regard, he may be more like Wes Anderson than, say, Douglas Sirk, an avowed influence to whom he is often compared as a director of so-called “women’s pictures.”) Case in point: the minor subplot involving Gloria’s 12-year-old son Miguel, who is first introduced returning from sleeping with a classmate’s father (“It’s my body, ain’t it?” he asserts), and whom she later sends to live with a pedophilic dentist when she can't pay for his dental treatment. All told, this mother-son relationship constitutes no more than 10 minutes of screentime—and yet, as refracted through their respective personalities, it eventually crystallizes into the film’s soaring emotional conclusion.

On paper the script’s various narrative lines might seem untenable, and the film as a whole impossibly overstuffed with incident. But Almodóvar’s storytelling verve is such that one need only point to the film’s astounding ensemble—handily the director’s most vivid and variegated to date—with four distinctive major players, and at least another five memorable supporting ones. In the former category are Gloria’s husband Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López), a Stanley Kowalski–like brute who gets caught in a subplot involving a German singer and an ill-fated scheme to sell Hitler forgeries; his elderly mother (Chus Lampreave), who longs to return to her home village and takes a green lizard (which she names “Dinero,” i.e. “Money”) as a pet; and Cristal (Verónica Forqué), an ebullient sex worker and neighbor who at one point ropes Gloria into watching a performance from her exhibitionist client. In the latter grouping, one might point to Vanessa, an abused child who lives in the same apartment complex, whose telekinetic powers could likely center a Carrie-esque film of her own. 

Almodóvar has described What Have I Done to Deserve This? as his neo-realist film—which seems at least partly in jest, since the statement is fairly insupportable. But if there’s an Italian cinematic tradition to which the Spanish director can be productively compared, it is the giallo. Though absent from the retrospective, Matador (1986) is the ideal model, as the film opens with a direct homage: the sight of a retired bullfighter jerking off to a TV playing one of the murders in Mario Bava’s genre exemplar Blood and Black Lace (1964). But the omission isn't cause for concern. Although it highlights a quadrant of Almodóvar’s sensibility, the film itself feels too doggedly committed to the genre’s generic interests, with few attempts at welding them to a personal style. 

Having effectively paid his debt to giallo in Matador, however, Almodóvar seemed to play faster and looser with his antecedents in Law of Desire (La ley de deseo, 1987). In this particular case, that freedom had a rather literal source: The feature was the first made under El Deseo, S.A., the instructively named production company Almodóvar started with his brother Agustín, under which all of his subsequent films would be made. That development, coupled with the fact that this was the first of Almodóvar's features to foreground gay male relationships—centered on a popular (porn) director, no less—makes Law of Desire comes across something of an auteurist annunciation. Following a minor detective role in Matador, Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo Quintero, who, when first introduced, is in the throes of another professional success and yet another romantic failure, his much younger lover Juan (Miguel Molina) having decided to leave him for a summer. Maura again has a major role as the director’s trans sister Tina, while Banderas plays a young man of obscure, but obsessive impulses, for whom Pablo becomes the object of an increasingly destructive amour fou.

Law of Desire (1987)

Law of Desire’s early portions move fleetly between a backstage melodrama and an erotic thriller, before incorporating a wrong man plot forestalled by that most parodied of soap opera turns: a bout of amnesia. In full force throughout are Almodóvar's talents for harmonizing disparate emotional tones, his ability to modulate the intensity of a scene with canny shot changes, and his penchant (in common with Hitchcock) for using visuals to illustrate his characters’ inner states—most apparent in a sequence in which Almodóvar, through a number of point-of-view shots, recasts the thrill of a chase scene to elongate the sting of romantic loss. Despite some initial financing issues, Law of Desire would go on to top the Spanish box office, and also become the country’s most successful international export that year. Almodóvar’s casual indifference for conventionally “well-proportioned” plots and his taste for goofy plot turns are still very much in play—but after all, the listlessness of the lonely is not so different the world over. And for that matter, the film’s sense of urban dislocation is most succinctly encapsulated by Edward Hopper, whose famed Nighthawks—coincidentally, also referenced in Dario Argento’s giallo classic Deep Red (1975)—the director quotes in a luminous, depopulated nighttime composition, and a print of which hangs amidst the meticulously curated décor of Pablo's apartment.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Almodóvar was never much of a niche director, having achieved a fair measure of success from the start. Pepe, Luci, Bom and Labyrinth of Passion both played at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Dark Habits bowed at the Venice Film Festival, while What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Law of Desire had the (backhanded) distinction of being selected for the annual New Directors/New Films showcase in New York. But Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, 1988), which again saw Maura take the lead, would vault him into another level of success entirely. The recipient of an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s quite handily the most well-known of his 1980s output.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Although it at one point lifts Psycho’s score directly—prefiguring Alberto Iglesias’ supremely Herrmann-esque score for Julieta (2016)—the film’s rhythms are that of a bedroom farce. Opening with separate dubbing sessions of the famed “Lie to me” scene from Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), the film is, at bottom, about a woman’s emancipation from a feckless, fraudulent man—though along the way, it manages to work in subplots involving a Shiite terrorist cell and a blender of gazpacho laced with sleeping pills. That general arc, though, had something of an unfortunate real-life mirror, since Women on the Verge would be the last time Maura would work with Almodóvar until Volver, a full two decades later. But the film did inaugurate Almodóvar’s collaboration with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, who could go onto shoot six of Almodóvar’s films. With reference to this long-standing partnership, Brian De Palma, for whom Luis Alcaine shot 2012's Passion, would off-handedly remark: He “lights women beautifully.” 

De Palma turns out to be a rather useful point of comparison for Almodóvar. The first scene of Matador, after all, anticipates the American director’s deployment of Double Indemnity in the opening of Femme Fatale (2002)—a film in which, lest one forget, Banderas does an absurdly campy impression of a gay man going on about floppy disks. Likewise, one might recognize shades of Blow Up (1981) in Almodóvar’s own work, such as in the recording sessions of Law of Desire and Women on the Verge. As is the case for most cinephiles of a certain age, Hitchcock looms large for both directors, but in addition, the two share voluptuous visual styles, a taste for scuzzy, voyeuristic pleasures, not to mention a weakness for the bravura set-piece—though Almodóvar’s camerawork never quite reaches the same vertiginous, whirligig intensity as De Palma’s, weighted as it is towards the materials of performance.

Of the films included in the retrospective, the closest point of contact between Almodóvar and De Palma is Kika, an antic slapstick comedy that over its runtime presents a veritable catalogue of scopophilic antecedents: a phallocentric photoshoot in the vein of Blow-Up (1966); an intrusive survey of domestic activity à la Rear Window (1954); a crucial narrative turn from The Prowler (1951); and a prominently placed poster of Peeping Tom (1960) for good measure. Add to this the throughline of an exploitative reality show—sordid true crime, with none of the desired moral/ethical balance—and the film would seem to have the makings of a De Palma-esque thriller. But in keeping with Almodóvar’s filmography, the film’s primary draw is how melodrama and farce serve as containers for these varying interests—seen most clearly in the lengthy, slapstick sequence of Forqué’s eponymous lead character being raped by a recently escaped convict. For this scene, Almodóvar courted a fair amount of controversy—which he had done before, and would continue to do in the decades following. His early reputation as the enfant terrible of Spanish cinema, though diminished, has yet to disappear entirely. But there’s nothing quite like the shock of a first encounter, and if nothing else, Kika makes for a potent one.

For Almodóvar, the film—shot in 1992 and released in 1993—marked the end of the 1980s, and thus an entire stage of his career: “I think that I had become very saturated by everything that I had done in the 80s.” And if Kika never quite achieves the marvelous synthesis of raucous and plangent that What Have I Done to Deserve This? or Law of Desire managed, it makes one better appreciate the astounding, improbable achievement of those features. Conventional wisdom might consider them to be the frivolous flailings of brash youth, the mere foundation of a later, more “mature” artistic phase—but there’s no mistaking the fact that from the start, Almodóvar had very particular, cogent ideas about his chosen artistic medium. And his commitment to “the physiology of the film language” and “the authenticity of artifice”—phrases he would later use to describe his directorial tastes while writing on the origins of 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!—would remain constant in the years to come.

Inasmuch as any single scene could be said to capture the spirit of a film—let alone an entire artistic phase—there are few better choices than the closing of Law of Desire, during which Almodóvar cuts from an intimate reckoning within an apartment bedroom to the front edifice of the building. A fire burns. Sirens wail. A group of tense onlookers rushes forth, climbing the scaffolding that fronts the structure, at which point Almodóvar deploys a casual freeze-frame. Suspended herein are the distinct pleasures of the director's early cinema: a vision of the world as proscenium, a recurring air of potential collapse, and a general sense of the lost and the lovelorn going about their weary ways amidst the uncontrollable conflagrations of desire.

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