Programme notes: CineMasters Alomodóvar


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CineMasters: Almodóvar

Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the films. They contain discussion of plot and character details for films screening in the CineMasters: Almodóvar season as well as his film, Pain and Glory.

Born in a rural town 135 miles south of Madrid, Pedro Almodóvar’s name has become synonymous with all-things-extraordinary. His distinct style, which features elements of dark comedy and just a pinch of telenovela-esque melodrama, is a product of self-education The director’s dream of studying filmmaking was never fulfilled as in 1967 Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco decided to close the National School of Cinema in Madrid.[1]

The regime had a direct influence on Almodóvar’s work – his debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Average Girls (1980) is an ode to the post-Franco era of La Movida Madrileña, the time of sexual and cultural liberation in Spain. Female friendship, colourful kitsch culture and eccentric characters of his debut still remain some of the most recognisable features of his cinema. 

Women supporting each other and creating unbreakable bonds is a theme that the Spanish director revisits again and again, motherhood being one of his go-to motifs. We see it in All About My Mother (1999) as we follow Manuela, who had recently lost her son, on a journey from Madrid to Barcelona where she finds comfort in a group of women who at first glance have nothing in common; we observe an unlikely friendship develop between Marco and Benigno (Talk to Her, 2002) which intertwines the lives of Lydia and Alicia; we watch Volver’s (2006) Raimunda sacrifice herself for her daughter with unquestionable help from the local women. 

The Skin I Live In (2011) seems to be an odd-one-out in this respect but only superficially – the film leaves us asking ourselves what it really means to be a man or a woman and explores Almodóvar’s fascination with the body, one’s ownership of it, and its connection to our identity. These questions had already been asked in Talk to Her and All About My Mother – before Lydia and Alicia both find themselves in a coma, disconnected from their bodies and unable to object to an unwanted touch, the two had extremely physical careers which demanded a complete control of their bodies. 

The experiences of Agrado, a transwoman, constitute a statement about one’s body being just one of many elements of a person’s gender identity, which Almodóvar only reinforces by dedicating the film to “(…) men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers (…)”.[2] The director’s stance seems clear – gender is a performative act and at times our bodies are nothing more than the skin we are forced to live in.

Almodóvar has become known for his very particular visual style, filled with strong, intense colours, especially red, which signifies passion and emotion.[3] It heavily features in All About My Mother (with Huma Rojo’s name literally meaning ‘red’) and Talk to Her, but when it comes to Volver the director serves us a ferocious explosion of it. Red is everywhere: Soledad’s car, Raimunda’s clothes and even the gazpacho she prepares for the hungry film crew visiting the town.

In The Skin I Live In flashy colours are largely replaced by greys, blacks and whites, which makes the film somewhat stand out from the other three. However, the toned-down colour scheme of Robert’s house is not insignificant as it contributes to the feeling of being trapped and accentuates Vera’s loneliness.

And this is yet another motif that ties all four films together. It is loneliness that creeps into Manuela’s life after the death of Esteban; it is loneliness that brings Benigno so close to Alicia; it is even the name of Raimunda’s sister – Soledad. Loneliness, the need for human contact, and the idea of people’s lives being entwined with one another, are all very much present in Almodóvar’s cinema.

The director’s world is composed of a tight knit of intertextual fabric. All About My Mother clearly references All About Eve (Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) whereas Talk to Her is not exactly a fairy-tale but it is possible to observe parallels between Alicia’s story and a 17th century tale that later became known as Sleeping Beauty.[4] 

Referencing others is not enough for Almodóvar and revisiting his previous work could well be one of his favourite things – Talk to Her begins in the same location where All About My Mother ended. As the director says himself, ‘I wanted to start a movie in exactly the same place that I used to be before. I wanted to show that all of the success had not changed my perception.’[5] Volver, meaning ‘coming back’, invites the viewer to an Almodovarian hide-and-seek game with an abundance of self-references hiding round the corner. Most significantly, the first 30 minutes of the film are the plot of a novel written by a character from one of his previous films, The Flower of My Secret (1995). 

The Spanish director also revisits his old stamping grounds of Castilla-La Mancha, comes back to the theme of motherhood and, as suggested by both himself and the plot of his newest film Pain and Glory (2019), the character of Irene could well be representative of his own mother.[6] To make things even more interesting (and reaffirm the theme of returning to one’s roots) Irene, the re-appearing mother, is played by Carmen Maura, the titular Pepi from Almodóvar’s debut. Having been cast in several of the director’s films, the two stopped speaking in lthe ate 1980s, with Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown (1988) being the last one they had worked on together.[7] It is worth noting that a similar re-establishment of a professional relationship with an old actor-friend features in Pain and Glory.

Almodóvar’s colourful universe, filled with melodramatic and grotesque elements makes for a cinematic scavenger hunt, oozing with surprises and peculiarities. The world has grown so accustomed to the eccentric plot twists served by the Spanish director we just won’t have it any other way.

Alicja Tokarska

Freelance translator and writer

 

 

[1] Corydon Ireland, Alvin Powell and Colleen Walsh, ‘Ten honorary degrees awarded at Commencement’, The Harvard Gazette, 04.06.2009 https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2009/06/ten-honorary-degrees-awarded-at-commencement/

[2] Emphasis my own

[3] Colin Crummy, ‘Colour, Couches & Catholicism. Investigating Almodóvar’s Movies’, Amuse, 26.08.2016 https://amuse.vice.com/en_us/article/zm54gj/investigating-almodovar-movies

[4] See Giambattista Basile Sun, Moon, and Talia and Charles Perrault The Sleeping Beauty.

[5] Jose Arroyo, ‘Guardian interviews at the BFI: Pedro Almodóvar’, The Guardian, 31.07.2002 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/jul/31/features.pedroalmodovar

[6] Jonathan Romney, ‘Pedro’s women’, The Independent, 20.08.2006 https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/pedros-women-6232040.html

[7] Valeria Vegas, ‘Carmen Maura y Pedro Almodóvar: Cronología de un Desencuentro’, Vanity Fair, 23.03.3018 https://www.revistavanityfair....


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