When critics speak about Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos), set for US release in November, they focus on the departure the Spanish writer/director takes from his previous works as the amour fou (passionate love) ventures into ‘50s style American film noir. The film, born from an original script and the fourth collaboration between Almodóvar and actress Penelope Cruz, involves four characters (Cruz, Blanca Portillo, Lluis Homar and José Luis Gómez) who are in one way or another involved in an ill-fated love triangle. According to Almodóvar, his arrival at this style has been part of a slow progression:
“Throughout my career I’ve moved naturally from the screwball-pop-comedy-with-feelings through melodrama and drama to finally land in ‘noir.’”
As one considers the scope of Almodóvar’s seventeen films, an oeuvre spanning over a quarter-century, the divide of this three-part progression is clear. The early work, rebelliously campy and dayglo decked, brims with neurotic trangressive types (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels), then the so-called ‘mature’ phase comprised of dark and brooding psychological drama (The Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver), and finally the stylish sophistication of mid twentieth-century noir as presented in Broken Embraces. Despite the diversity of range, many thematic elements reemerge, such as the examination of Spanish heritage and identity, the relationship between reality and art, and the deconstruction of sexual identity. Almodóvar’s more recent works blend nicely the traditional with the transgressive.
Almodóvar, born in 1951 to a poor family in the municipality of Calzada de Calatrava, in La Mancha (interestingly, Don Quixote’s homeland), before moving to Madrid at the age of sixteen, often depicts urban dwellers who at transitional points in their lives return to their roots—humble villages, or the ruins of such, or childhood haunts—while seeking resolution. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), The Flower of My Secret (1995), Talk to Her (2002), and Bad Education (2004) are some of Almodóvar’s films that feature major characters returning to their native villages.
The most obvious example is Volver (2006), as the title of the film is a Spanish word literally meaning ‘to return.’ In Volver, Raimunda (Cruz) goes to her home village of Alcanfor de las Infantas to wash the tombstones of her deceased parents who died four years earlier in a fire. Her Aunt, Tía Paula (Chus Lampreave), who suffers from dementia and, as a result, is mentally situated in the past, tells Raimunda, “The important thing is that you come back.” This statement not only refers to Tía Paula’s niece’s return, but also forecasts the resurrection of Raimunda’s mother, whose spectral presence cooks and cleans for Tía Paula when no one else is around. Within the thresholds of childhood spaces, the task presented to Almodóvar’s characters is not merely one of return but also of revolution. Unless they confront their past they are destined to repeat the same mistakes, as well as inherit the mistakes made by those who came before them. While his films are mainly noted for their critique of contemporary Spanish ideology and culture as a whole, they undeniably contain elements of hope and redemption within the individual lives of his characters.
An international audience perceives Almodóvar as quintessentially Spanish in taste and sensibility—emerging in the mid ‘70s from 40 years of repressive Francisco Franco style dictatorship, diving into the cultural movido of newly radicalized Spain only to become a symbol of liberated creative expression—though others from his homeland have accused the filmmaker of succumbing to the influences of Hollywood cinema. It is no secret that the director has been the target of certain Spanish critics who claim Almodóvar has at times lost his sense of direction. The reality may be that he has been influenced by such sources; however, he is not inspired by so called “dominant” productions, but eccentric film such as those by John Waters and Andy Warhol, as well as Hollywood Golden Age productions. Although Almodóvar claims he does not pay homage (He once said, “All of the influences on me and all of the film references in my films are very spontaneous and visual. I don’t make any tributes. I’m a very naïve spectator.”), his transnational eclecticism is clear, for many of his works contain allusions to American film. High Heels (1991), for instance, directly references the 1945 melodrama Mildred Pierce, and another film, All About My Mother (1999), refers to Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire. Although Almodóvar has used elements of this film noir before, in particular borrowing from Double Indemnity while filming Bad Education, Broken Embraces is his first all-out noir endeavor.
Broken Embraces incorporates the defining narrational elements of noir, such as betrayal, jealousy, adulterous affairs, revenge, and fatality. Having already experimented with the darker side of drama in Live Flesh (1997) and Bad Education, Almodóvar alludes to two works in particular that exemplify how drama and the thriller are twin genres. His latest work, he explains, has been influenced by John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven, with Gene Tierney, and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night, starring Barbara Stanwyck as an anti-heroine. The central conflict in Broken Embraces surrounds the film director, Mateo Blanco (played by Homar), who after a fatal accident has lost his sight as well as the love of his life. The mysterious tragedy has led the protagonist to change his life, but the narrative flashes back to the time of his affair with actress Lena Rivero (Cruz). Lena is married to the tycoon Ernesto Martel (Gómez) who, in order to keep his wife, agrees to produce Mateo’s film in which the actress stars. At this time, very little of the film’s storyline has been released, but Almodóvar has emphasized the importance of a staircase scene in Broken Embraces. The staircase, according to Almodóvar, has always been an architectural structure indicative of power: “Murderous jealousy and staircases have featured in golden moments ever since cinema was invented.” A particular staircase scene resonates in his mind—Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven in which Ellen Berent Harland, played by Tierney, throws herself down the staircase in order to kill the child she was carrying “for the simple reason that her husband adored it before it was even born. And the sole idea of competing with that baby drove her crazy.”
The trope of blind director that Almodóvar uses is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending from 2002, which features a filmmaker who develops a case of psychosomatic blindness when asked to direct a film in which his ex-wife stars. The similarities stop there as the films are of different genres—one a romantic comedy and the other a tragedy—but other commonalities between the directors exist. Both Allen and Almodóvar have used the same actors; in Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, Javier Bardem, who stars in Live Flesh, plays a lead role, as does Penelope Cruz who, in addition to staring in Broken Embraces, was also in Live Flesh, Volver, and All About My Mother. Though a New Yorker through and through (every bit as much as Almodóvar is a Spaniard through and through), the most recent of Allen’s expatriate films is exclusively filmed in Barcelona. There is also evidence that Almodóvar may feel Allen is encroaching upon his territory. Although he has not viewed Allen’s film, he has seen photos of Cruz in the title of Vicky Christina Barcelona “with her hair dishevelled (sic) as in Volver.” He states:
“I’ve got no right to stick my nose into other people’s business, but someone should tell my adored Woody Allen that the title of his ‘Spanish’ film doesn’t mean anything in Spanish. In my humble opinion, it isn’t a good or bad title, it’s a non-title.”
In addition to the examination of Spanish heritage and identity in Almodóvar’s works is the investigation of the relationship between reality and art. According to the director, “Cinema has become my life. I don’t mean a parallel world, I mean life itself. I sometimes have the impression that the daily reality is simply there to provide material for my next film.” This investigation presents itself in the professions of his characters, many of whom are directors, writers, actors, publishers, and producers; these occupations draw attention to the artifice of the film in which they are cast. Additionally, the characters are often depicted as spectators of various dramas—plays, dances, television, film, bullfights, and concerts. Indeed reality and fiction operate in Almodóvar movies much in the way Oscar Wilde argued, which is that life imitates art. However, Almodóvar takes this notion further, for his works do not only explore how life imitates art, or even how art imitates life, but some bizarre amalgamation of life imitating art while imitating art that’s imitating art.
The Flower of My Secret exemplifies this intermingling of art and reality. It casts Marisa Paredes as Leocadia Macias, an author of serial romance novels who strays from the publishing contract stipulating all of her works have happy endings. Despite the contract, her new novel portrays a mother whose teenage daughter has killed her own father after he has attempted to rape her. In the novel, the mother stuffs the body of her dead husband in the cold storage of her neighbor’s restaurant in order to protect her daughter. When called to explain the new direction her work of fiction takes, Leocadia states simply, “Reality is like that.” Eleven years later we see the narrative of the fictional novel manifest in Volver. Like Leocadias fictional heroine before her, Raimunda also disposes of the dead body of her husband in the freezer of the neighbor’s restaurant after her 14 year old daughter stabbed him as he tried to rape her. Through the intertextuality of these plot lines, Almodóvar renders the sensation of twin mirrors being held between reality and fiction in order to produce an infinity of duplicates.
There are several other instances of metafilm present in Almodóvar’s work. In Broken Embraces there is a film within a film—Girls and Suitcases is shot within. In All About My Mother, one of the opening scenes shows Manuela (Cecilia Roth), now a transplant coordinator but once an actress, performing in a video promoting organ transplants. In the film, actors playing grieving relatives are asked to donate the organs of their loved ones to recipients in need; later, Manuela herself is asked to donate her own son’s heart for real. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a case of a porn within a porn (metaporn if you will); the movie portrays a director watching an old video of an ex-adult film star turned B-movie actress, Marina (Victoria Abril), masturbate while she watches pornography on her own television. Though critics do not place Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! on the list of Almodóvar’s finest works, it is worth viewing if only to see this scene. Never before has there been a more brilliant subversion of the male gaze as the director, Máximo Espejo (Francisco Rabal), cannot see Marina’s body in the adult film in which she acts, despite her various movements and contortions as she touches herself, because the television on which she is watching another porn obscures his view.
In many ways Pedro Almodóvar’s movies document the evolution of sexuality in Spain, especially the expression of feminized desire in a post-Franco society. However, in a country where same-sex marriage is now legal, the filmmaker tends to stay out of the political spotlight when it comes to statements about sexuality, much to the consternation of certain advocacy groups. His films do, despite this abstention, deliberately cast the categorization of gender identity as artificial and arbitrary. His characters, who play gays, lesbians, drag queens, transsexuals, and transvestites, blur the boundaries of what it means to be male or female. In these films sex, gender, and sexuality are fluid concepts.
The 1987 film, The Law of Desire, casts Bibí Andersen, a well-known transsexual in Spain, as Tina, the lesbian mother of a child who is ‘adopted’ by a transsexual played by Carmen Maura. Almodóvar says when talking about Bibí’s character: “The only truth in Tina is artifice. Artifice, not deceit… Artifice is her only truth, and if the individual is not insane, she knows she’s artificial and enjoys the imitation of what is essential to a woman, the most intimate part of being female.” There are other examples of transsexual performances that reinforce Almodóvar’s point regarding the imitation of gender. In High Heels a drag queen performs imitations of Becky, a famous singer whose daughter he wants to seduce. Antonia San Juan, in All About My Mother, plays the transsexual character of Agrado who delivers a monologue concerning the surgical alterations she has undergone that “make her who she really is.” Agrado says “it costs a lot to be authentic, ma’am. And one can’t be stingy with these things… because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” Though a real transsexual playing
a post-operative transsexual appears in Bad Education, the focus of the movie is on Ángel (Gael García Bernal), a heterosexual whose ambitions lead him to have sex with his gay director in order to play the part of a transsexual.
All of these performances indicate that gender, unlike sex, is performative in nature and socially constructed through sustained corporeal signs, such as speech, dress, body language, and other fabricated means. Moreover, gender identity no longer hinges on one’s biologically determined sex as operative procedures allow people to reconstruct their bodies. The inclusion of transgender or transsexual characters in Almodóvar’s films underscores the director’s cognizance that perception is reality; whether we are male or female, we play roles in our own lives. As spectators of his work, through irony and self-reflection, we—much like his characters—come to find the perception of others is central to the ever evolving process of defining who we are.
“Movies changed my life,” Almodóvar said. “Why wouldn’t they have a similar impact on others?”
Pedro Almodovar won an Academy Award in 2002 for the movie Talk to Her, and throughout his career has won over 85 international awards and received 50 other nominations, no doubt making him one of the premier directors on the planet.