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Posts Tagged ‘Carmen Maura’

For a while there I thought I wasn’t taking this Almodovarathon idea nearly seriously enough, with weeks often going by between my watching the different films in question. But that was when I rather foolishly thought the world would only be on pause for a few weeks, maybe a month or so: I’m quite glad I didn’t rush through them all, to be honest, because I would have run out a while ago.

And so I find myself watching the first Pedro Almodovar movie to acquire any sort of cultural traction in the UK (by which I mean, of course, that it warranted a mention in the cinema review section of Radio Times): Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, released in 1988. It has been pointed out that this film has not quite been optimally translated into English, certainly when it comes to the title. The Spanish title is Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and apparently (snappy though the extant English title is) ataque de nervios more accurately means an attack of nerves, or panic attack.

Certainly there are a lot of stressed women in this film, chief amongst them being Pepa (Carmen Maura), a reasonably successful actress (she gets recognised in the street and asked to do commercials, in both cases because she plays ‘the killer’s mother’ in a popular crime TV show). She also has a gig doing the Spanish dub of various foreign movies, and it seems that it is here she has met Ivan (Fernando Guillen), one of those charming, silver-fox kind of older dudes who ladies seem to go for. Pepa and Ivan have been an item for some time, but now it seems they have split up – Pepa, however, urgently needs to speak to him about a pressing personal matter.

Pepa’s futile search for Ivan is the core of the movie, and she grows increasingly frustrated and perhaps a bit erratic as the film goes on and he seems to be actively trying to dodge speaking with her. Other elements of her life start to pile up on her, making things even more confusing and complex: her young friend Candela (Maria Barranco) turns up at her flat, confessing that she has unwittingly become romantically involved with a group of Shi’ite Muslim terrorists; a young couple, looking to lease the flat, arrive for a viewing and – in a typically outrageous piece of Almodovar plotting – it turns out that the young man (Antonio Banderas) is actually Ivan’s son. Ivan’s mentally unstable ex-wife arrives, and so do the police, not to mention a phone repairman (Pepa has been taking her frustrations out on the handset). It seems like the only person not wanting to talk to Pepa is Ivan himself…

At one point a minor character, who’s just had the events of the movie summarised for him, looks blank and says ‘You’ve got to be pulling my leg’: this is blatantly a black, screwball farce, and the director seems to be revelling in how preposterous it all is. That said, it does take a little while to get up to speed, and the first act is something of a slow start, where it’s unclear exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be and how we are supposed to respond to it. Or perhaps this is another sign of Almodovar’s increasing confidence and deftness as a director: as we first meet and get to know Pepa, she does seem genuinely upset and the film looks like it may be dealing with relatively serious issues. But once all this is established and we’ve become invested in Pepa and her situation, the tone of the film noticeably lightens and the pace picks up. Before long there are tongue-in-cheek gags about Islamic terrorism, a running joke about a jug of gazpacho soup spiked with sleeping pills, and by the end Almodovar can cheerfully include a car chase involving a gun-toting mental patient on a motorbike and it somehow feels like much of a piece with what has gone before.

The combination of outrageous plotting, vivid characterisation, and colourful composition does seem to me to mark this as the film in which Almodovar’s classic style first comes together – needless to say, several members of his unofficial rep company also appear in the movie. Chus Lampreave gets a small part as the Jehovah’s Witness concierge of Pepa’s building, Banderas gets a nice, but relatively minor role, and the film is essentially carried by Carmen Maura, who gives another one of those strong-but-quietly-vulnerable performances which are practically another hallmark of Almodovar’s style.

As the title suggests, this is a film almost exclusively about the actions and concerns of its female characters, and it’s told from their perspective. The men are almost exclusively feckless, useless, or actually stupid, almost without exception a source of problems for the women around them. Pepa’s success at the end of the film, when it comes, is not that she finally manages to track Ivan down and have the conversation with him she’s been desperately wanting all film: it’s that she realises what a waste of space he is and decides he’s no longer worth her time, as a result becoming much less stressed and unhappy.

It’s an appropriate note for the film to close on, and entirely fitting for a film with a definite (if initially well-hidden) feminist subtext to it. The end of the film satisfies, even if, as a whole, it is not quite as masterfully assembled as some of Almodovar’s later films would be: the focus is not initially clear, and the director is not quite as slick as he would later become in selling his more outrageous turns of plotting to the audience. Nevertheless, this film is a lot of fun, once it gets going: it is still a bit rough around the edges, but in its tone, style, and outlook, it is the earliest Almodovar film that I’ve seen which genuinely feels like it anticipates the likes of All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Even if it’s not quite up to their standard, it’s still well worth watching.

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As is not unusual with non-Anglophone directors, the very early films of Pedro Almodovar are not widely available on DVD (at least, not in English). His first film to get any kind of wide release is 1983’s Dark Habits. You can forgive someone for not wanting the work they did while they were learning their trade to be dwelt upon in too much detail: a film like Dark Habits is certainly interesting from a historical point of view, but it hardly indicates why Almodovar has become such a major figure in world cinema. The same is probably even more true of Labyrinth of Desire and the other work that preceded it.

Dark Habits (title en Espanol: Entre tinieblas) opens in a fairly straightforward way: a nightclub singer named Yolanda (Cristina Sanchez Pascual) arrives home one night, having collected some heroin for her boyfriend. Their relationship is somewhat strained and Yolanda does not seem overly exercised when he drops dead from an overdose (very little seems to stir Yolanda’s emotions, but this may be for reasons we will discuss later on). Soon it becomes clear that she is being looked for in connection with the death – but what is she to do?

As luck would have it, she recalls a visit to her dressing room by a pair of nuns, one of whom was a big fan of hers. Yolanda decides to take up their offer of whatever help she needs and hides out in the convent. However, the place has fallen on hard times, with nary a prostitute or drug addict to be seen about the place. The sole remaining benefactor of the order is threatening to withdraw her support, which will force it to close. The spiritual wellbeing of the five remaining nuns there is hardly in a better condition. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a big fan of humiliation as a means to spiritual growth and has given her sisters new, not especially ecclesiastical names.

So, Sister Sewer Rat (Chus Lampreave), unbeknownst to the others, moonlights as a writer of trashy bestselling novels. Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) obsessively cleans the convent, often while enjoying the benefits of one of her frequent LSD trips. Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) spends her time coming up with tasteful new purple lurex outfits for the devotional statues in the convent, and has a bit of a crush on their priest. Finally, Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) is devoted to the convent’s pet tiger, which roams around the grounds. Yolanda is a little surprised by some of this, and so the Mother Superior thoughtfully offers to share some of her own heroin with their visitor.

Yolanda’s arrival causes a bit of upheaval around the convent, and soon the nuns are starting to question some of their own choices and what their future holds, while the Mother Superior comes up with a plan to blackmail their benefactor into continuing her support – and if that doesn’t work, there’s always drug smuggling to keep the place going. As the Mother Superior’s birthday party approaches, things are clearly coming to a head – will the convent be able to survive?

As you can probably tell, this is not an especially subtle film, although at least the laboured pun of the title seems to have been added for the film’s English release, the direct translation being In Darkness (yes, I know, laboured puns: you’ll find nothing like that around here. Ahem). According to the director it was intended as a satire on the anachronistic nature of organised religion in Spain in the early 1980s. Obviously, the film feels blatantly provocative, and the various depictions of nuns shooting up and so on were enough to prevent it from being shown at Cannes and guarantee a polarised reaction from critics in Catholic countries. To be honest, what’s curious about the film is what a straight bat Almodovar seems to be playing with – the various scenes of the nuns misbehaving are not especially arch or played for laughs, but handled deadpan and naturalistically.

To begin with, this does make them funnier, but it soon becomes apparent that Almodovar doesn’t have much more to offer on this occasion than careful acts of provocation: the film settles down to become a steady enough depiction of how weird life is in the convent, without much in the way of new revelations or striking plot developments. The focus is very much on the nuns, with Yolanda as a relatively passive onlooker: this is an interesting device, especially as it initially looks like she is to be the focal character of the film, but apparently it was something forced upon the director: Almodovar, still an obscure young director with only a couple of minor films to his credit, was approached by a wealthy businessman who offered to fund his films as long as they prominently featured his girlfriend, Cristina Sanchez Pascual. Sanchez Pascual proved to have very limited experience as an actress and so Almodovar was obliged to restructure the film so it was less dependent upon her performance.

You don’t necessarily notice this much as it is a fairly weird film anyway, with only marginal signs of the sensibility Almodovar would bring to the great films he would make in the years and decades to come – there’s barely a male character in it, for one thing, and you do sense a deep compassion for the nuns, despite their various peculiar foibles. There’s a touch of his fondness for wildly eccentric plot devices – one element of the story is an obvious spoof of Tarzan, dropped straight-faced into an ostensibly serious emotional subplot. – but he doesn’t seem to have quite mastered persuading the audience to invest in them, yet.

Oh well. The saving grace of Dark Habits, if you’ll pardon the expression, is the ensemble performance by the actresses playing the nuns, most of whom have gone on to make frequent appearances in numerous other Almodovar movies. They are funny and engaging even when the film around them feels like it’s meandering and short on incident. This is an odd, awkward sort of film in many ways; faintly amusing, somewhat amusing, mostly just self-indulgent. It’s so self-consciously peculiar that any serious satire the director is trying to make of the Church is difficult to make out. But it’s Almodovar, so it’s still watchable – but you can tell it was made at a time when Almodovar was only just Almodovar.

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I was genuinely a bit concerned that I’d peaked too soon by watching The Skin I Live In as only the second film in the current Almodovarathon – this was a genuine case of ‘how do you follow that?’ Well, I decided to grasp the nettle, mix the metaphor, and hurl myself back into the depths of time to 1984, when Almodovar was little-known as a director even in Spain. The film in question is What Have I Done to Deserve This?! – there is some inconsistency over whether to translate the title with a final ? or a !, so I have decided to go with both – the Spanish title of which is the slightly-unwieldy ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?

The movie is set in then-contemporary Madrid and opens with a visit to the local kendo club, where we find the cleaner, Gloria (Carmen Maura) watching the members waving their swords about with fascination. Once they’ve all gone, Gloria even has a go herself, really getting into those overhead swings. But it turns out they have not all gone, and she stumbles across one of the members, Polo (Luis Hostalot), naked in the shower. A robust and intimate (though consensual) encounter ensues, which Gloria does not find entirely satisfying. (For a long time this seems like a weird prologue which contributes nothing to the rest of the film, but it is setting up a lot of threads which eventually get picked up in the third act.)

Gloria heads home and we slowly learn more about her and the people close to her: she lives in a pokey little flat close to the motorway, with her unpleasant husband Antonio (Angel de Andres Lopez), his mother (Chus Lampreave), and her two children, fourteen-year-old Toni (Juan Martinez), who is dealing heroin at school to fund his dream of becoming a farmer, and twelve-year-old Miguel (Miguel Angel Herranz), whose main distinguishing feature seems to be that he is precociously and promiscuously gay. Gloria’s closest friend amongst her neighbours is Cristal (Veronica Forque), a prostitute whose ambition is to go to Las Vegas, while also living in the building is Juani (Kiti Manver), a bad-tempered dressmaker whose life is often made a misery by her young daughter, who has psychic powers.

A startling array of plotlines and situations develop out of this premise, involving yet more characters: one of Cristal’s clients, a writer (Gonzalo Suarez), hires Gloria as his cleaning lady, but then tries to involve Antonio (whose main talent is being able to falsify handwriting) in a bizarre scheme to fake Hitler’s diaries (the genuine Hitler diary hoax had taken place the previous year, although this involves sweet-talking a German opera singer. Granny and Toni find and adopt a lizard, which they christen Dinero (the lizard’s real name is Carlito). Gloria basically gives Miguel away to his dentist, who is strongly implied to be an insane paedophile, as this should give him a better start in life and cut down on the family bills. Polo pays Cristal to pretend to be his girlfriend during his visits to a sex therapist, who happens to be her client the writer’s brother. It goes on and on like this, increasingly convoluted and ridiculous.

Almodovar (who even makes a preposterous cameo appearance himself, as an opera singer) says it is basically a homage to Italian neorealism, and there are vague signs of the film wanting to address serious social issues: Gloria is clearly suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety and has become addicted to tranquilisers, a situation which seems unlikely to change given the treatment she receives from her family. On the other hand, the notion at the heart of a well-known Roald Dahl story is incorporated into the story virtually unaltered, so you could consider the film a homage to him as well – or possibly the whole thing is just a tribute to throwing vast amounts of mud at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Perhaps that’s just being unfair, though, for while much of What Have I Done to Deserve This?! is wildly, extravagantly silly, the script is actually a lot more coherent than it looks: in the end, everything comes together in a remarkably focussed way,  and the quality of the film is consistently high – you might expect this to be very uneven, but it’s a lot more consistently funny than that. There are a few places where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to be provocative and outrageous, the paedophile dentist being the most obvious example, but thankfully he’s a minor character. Most of the time the film is just an absurd black comedy.

However, it’s an absurd black comedy with unexpected depths, which are the strongest indication of the kind of direction Almodovar was going to take in future films. No matter how ridiculously unbelievable any of the things in this film become, el maestro somehow manages to keep it all emotionally grounded and involving – there is a warmth and compassion here, even when you least expect it. Almodovar’s chief collaborator in this is Carmen Maura, who is at the heart of the film: it helps that Maura’s character is relatively normal compared to most of those around her, but she not only manages to retain your interest, she even manages to generate real pathos as the story proceeds and Gloria finds herself increasingly isolated and desperate.

It’s this compassion and humanity which makes the film recognisably an Almodovar movie. It is clearly still the work of someone figuring out his craft, and playing with the elements of storytelling which are most interesting to him: outrageous plot developments, handled deadpan; a deep interest in the female characters and their outlook on life; a sense of camp. Still not quite there is the willingness to explore the perspective of the gay characters in quite the same way, while also still absent is the interest in incorporating suspense-story and thriller elements into a character-focused narrative. But for all that Almodovar was still essentially learning his art and working for someone else when he made this film, it has his stamp upon it, and it’s a very engaging and amusing piece of entertainment.

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Long-term readers may recall that towards the end of last summer, the release of Pain and Glory and an accompanying season of revivals led to my discovering (at long last, some might say) the work of Pedro Almodovar. If there’s a flaw in Pain and Glory, it’s that it’s so rooted in the Almodovar canon that many of its subtleties aren’t apparent to the newcomer (at least, they weren’t to me at the time I saw it), but there’s very little at all wrong with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, or Bad Education, all of which were shown around the same time. I had a holiday booked in September, which meant I had to miss the screening of Volver, but looking on the bright side our trip did take us to places which still have DVD stores and I was able to pick up two boxed sets of Almodovar movies – not quite the complete collection, but most of the major works.

The challenge after such a purchase is finding the time to actually watch all the movies – I have a couple of box sets of Kurosawa movies I bought in 2012 I still haven’t watched all of – but I suppose one of the few advantages of the world being on pause is that one no longer has any serious excuse for not catching up on culture. For no particular reason, I decided to commence what could become an Almodovarathon with his 1987 movie Law of Desire (title en Espanol: La ley del deseo).

This is the movie which first brought Almodovar to wide international attention, although it is actually his sixth film. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise to discover that many elements of the now-recognisable Almodovar style are already present, if perhaps not quite fully developed: the mixture of provocative melodrama with suspense movie tropes, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, the tendency towards outrageous plot developments.

Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo, a successful gay film director whose latest film has just been released (Law of Desire kicks off with a scene from the film-within-the-film, which appears to mainly be there to challenge the audience). Pablo is involved with a younger man, Juan (Miguel Molina), who isn’t sure he wants a serious relationship or not. They part, and Juan goes to spend his summer on the coast. Pablo devotes himself to working on his next project, a stage play to star his sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a transsexual.

While doing so he encounters Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a young man who initially seems a bit conflicted, to say the least. However, after spending the night with Pablo, Antonio becomes obsessed with him to the point of violent possessiveness…

It takes quite a while for this to become apparent, however: the film begins by looking very much like a ‘conventional’ drama about the life of a writer and film director and those around him (to the extent that any film directed by Almodovar can be described as conventional, anyway). Only gradually – but, it must be said, fairly comprehensively – does it slide into the realms of the suspense thriller. By the end, however, there has been a murder, a car crash, someone has been in hospital with a rather convenient case of amnesia, there has been some stalking, a hostage crisis, gunfire and a suicide.

Even then, however, deep in the third act Almodovar still finds time for a scene between Pablo and Tina which is obviously very significant: Pablo is in serious trouble by this point, but this does trigger what is clearly the first serious conversation he and his sister have had in many years. It almost goes without saying that the back-story Tina reveals (which is almost wholly incidental to the plot, if not her character) is far-fetched to the point of being completely ludicrous. As ever with Almodovar, you end up accepting it, though this is largely due to the strength of Carmen Maura’s performance – Maura’s character is one of the elements of the film which is most memorable, and even though she is really a secondary character, it almost functions as a character piece about her.

You would really expect it to be more about the character of Pablo, but he does remain an oddly passive presence at the centre of the story. Perhaps Law of Desire does have something to say about the ironies of attraction – Pablo pursues Juan, who isn’t sure if he wants him, and tries to reject Antonio, who is besotted with him – but this is left implicit; the film always seems to have other things on its mind. It’s not that Eusebio Poncela (resembling, to my mind, Graham Chapman in his later years) gives a particularly bad performance, but he is out-horsepowered by both Maura and Antonio Banderas.

Antonio Banderas is such an established face in Hollywood movies now that I suppose it’s quite possible to have followed his career reasonably closely and still not be aware that he rose to fame off the back of a string of fairly provocative movies made with Almodovar: possibly the closest Hollywood ever came to acknowledging this was in Philadelphia, where he was cast as Tom Hanks’ lover. Here, Banderas’ sheer charisma, coupled to the fact that he is a very handsome chap, means that you’re looking at him whenever he’s on the screen: it doesn’t hurt that his character is the main driver of the plot, either.

If you were watching Law of Desire as a ‘new’ movie, with no idea of its historical context, I imagine you would conclude that it’s a curious but mostly successful attempt at combining elements of drama and thriller: possibly also that it’s equally successful in including LGBT elements in a film which is still appealing to a mainstream audience. All of this obviously true – it’s only when you consider the heights to which Almodovar was later to take this kind of film that you become aware of the ways in which this one is not quite as deft or assured or as satisfying. Nevertheless, Almodovar himself says this is the most important film in his career, and given that historical context, you can see what he means.

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