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Posts Tagged ‘Marisa Paredes’

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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One issue with the Almodovarathon which I recently embarked upon is that I don’t have a full set of the great man’s films: I have a box set covering the mid-to-late eighties, and another with all the movies from the late nineties to the beginning of the current decade. If I had all of them, the obvious thing would be to start with Pepi, Luci, Bom and work my way through to the present day (or at least, the most recent film I haven’t seen, which I believe is the very camp one set on the airliner). But I can’t. Oh, the agonies of indecision. Luckily, my Significant Other came to my assistance (she is a great support to me, even when we are in lockdown on different landmasses). ‘Have you seen the one with Antonio Banderas as the mad scientist? Then put it to the top of the list!’ came the command.

Having spent my formative years in the provincial north of England, I was sort of vaguely aware of Almodovar growing up, particularly after Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, but his films never really made it to the local multiplexes. It was only when I came to Oxford and had an arthouse cinema within easy reach that the opportunity to see one on the big screen came along. And this first happened in 2011, with the UK release of The Skin I Live In (title en Espanol: La piel que habito). However, I suppose I was still relatively young and foolish and must still have felt that Pedro Almodovar was not quite my kind of director, and – if memory serves – was quite happy watching The Guard and Cowboys and Aliens and even, God help me, the Inbetweeners movie. Needless to say I am kicking myself now, because I am pretty sure The Skin I Live In would have rocked my world in 2011. I say this because watching it in 2020 has rocked my world.

The most immediately noticeable thing about the film is that it marks a welcome acerciamento between the director and Antonio Banderas, with whom he had not worked in decades after the actor went off to be a star in Hollywood. Here, Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a brilliant doctor, surgeon and scientist, who is apparently in the process of finishing up his work on developing a new kind of genetically-modified synthetic skin to help burn victims (Ledgard, we are told, lost his wife to severe burns injuries some years earlier). Ledgard is clearly an intensely dedicated man, and his work has brought him many material rewards, most obviously his lovely mansion (which contains its own laboratory and operating theatre), where he does most of his work.

All very well, but it is already apparent that all is not quite right. Resident in the house, apart from Ledgard’s devoted housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes), is a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), who appears to be being held captive in one of the upstairs rooms. Ledgard seems obsessed with her and her wellbeing, but there seem to be serious issues here – Vera attempts suicide, pleads with Ledgard to let her die. Naturally, he refuses.

It is all very mysterious and somehow indescribably unsettling, not least because Ledgard is clearly using Vera as a guinea pig in his experiments. The first hints of an explanation for all of this come when life in the mansion is disrupted by the arrival of Marilia’s estranged son Zeca (Roberto Alamo), who is a violent criminal. (This being an Almodovar movie, Zeca arrives wearing a spectacularly fabulous fancy-dress tiger outfit.) When he sees Vera, he mistakenly recognises her as Ledgard’s wife Gal, with whom he seems to have had a history. She does not disabuse him. But we have already been assured that Gal is dead – just what exactly has Ledgard been doing for the last few years?

The distinctive thing about this film (there was a lengthy debate on the BBC’s flagship film programme as to whether The Skin In Which I Live wasn’t actually a more grammatically accurate title than The Skin I Live In) is that it is much more obviously a genre movie than most of Almodovar’s work. Now, obviously many of his films include suspense-thriller elements, but what brings a new flavour to this one is that it does approach the territory of the horror movie (whether you want to qualify that by calling it a psychological horror film, or a psychological horror-thriller, is up to you; I can see some merit to all of them). You have to admire Almodovar’s audacity, as usual: English-language horror cinema largely abandoned the mad-scientist-doing-weird-experiments-in-his-home-laboratory set-up by the early sixties, on the grounds it was inescapably campy and ridiculous, but el maestro revives it here and sells it the audience as something entirely fresh and reasonable (he has acknowledged the debt this film owes to Les Yeux sans visage).

Then again, floating the most outrageous characters and plot developments past an unruffled audience is really Pedro Almodovar’s speciality. Here he is on top form, even though this is a much more plot-driven film than most of his past works. The plot is an intricate trap, unfolding largely in flashback – there is, inevitably, more than a touch of melodrama (two characters turn out to be siblings, but this is unknown to either of them), as well as what initially looks like a conventional revenge thriller largely concerning a character played by Jan Cornet. However, despite the unfamiliar approach and focus, very familiar Almodovar themes of sex, obsession, desire and gender slowly begin to make their presence felt.

For me, the result is a film which for most of its duration is as strong as anything else in Almodovar’s canon. It looks as fabulous as one would wish, has a superb script (loosely based on a novel by the French author Thierry Jonquet), and the performances are uniformly terrific. Watching this film, you do see what Almodovar meant when he suggested that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Antonio Banderas – in his English-language films, he tends to be cast as a romantic-comedy lead or athletic action hero, but he is entirely convincing as someone obsessive to the point of being actually insane. (That said, he’s still had better opportunities than Elena Anaya – another of those very talented and photogenic actresses Almodovar seems to effortlessly turn up whenever he needs one – whose American work has largely consisted of playing henchwomen in blockbuster fantasies.)

Then again, it is entirely possible I am not being objective about this film, but this is because it connected with me in a way which very rarely happens. Alan Bennett once said (according to Mark Gatiss, anyway) that we all have only a few beans rattling around in our tins, and at the heart of this film is a notion which has fascinated me for many, many years, one I have touched on repeatedly in the small amount of fiction I write. Suffice to say that Almodovar elevates it to a level I can barely credit, and handles it with his usual skill, investing the film with a rich sensuality and eroticism that makes most so-called ‘erotic thrillers’ feel very bland and tame.

I would call this another masterpiece, were it not for the last few minutes of the film. Here there is a mis-step, and a story which has worked hard to challenge the audience and resist conventionality becomes both traditional and conventional. It is very disappointing, for the ending on the screen does not ring quite true, nor does it really provide a sense of closure. The film even seems to be acknowledging this in the manner of its ending, fading out awkwardly partway through a scene.

It really is a shame, because it could surely have been avoided – it feels like a deeply uncharacteristic failure of nerve and imagination on the director’s part, and all the more telling because the rest of the film has been so supremely accomplished and powerful (or so it seems to me, at least). Still, this is one of Almodovar’s best films, and comes tantalisingly close to being one of the best I have ever seen.

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I occasionally make a wistful observation hereabouts concerning all the apparently great film directors and classic movies which I have yet to properly come to grips with – it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance – and that small aspirational part of my brain (the bit that lies when I fill in questionnaires about my taste in books and films) should by rights feel good, as I can announce that another of the big names of world cinema can be crossed off the list – finally, I have caught up with a Pedro Almodóvar movie.

Well, I should qualify this by saying that Almodóvar is enjoying a fairly high UK profile at present, mainly because he has a new movie out – he’s still an arthouse darling rather than properly mainstream, of course, and so the new film is nowhere near as inescapable as Tarantino’s recent offering turned out to be – and I’m guessing that the revival of his 1999 movie Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) is connected to this. Still, if there’s one thing better than finally catching up with a film by one of the world’s great directors, I suppose it must be watching two of his films in the space of a couple of days.

 

It initially seems like the mother in All About My Mother is going to turn out to be Manuela (Cecilia Roth), for as the film begins she is living with her teenage son in Madrid. She is a nurse, but still has fond memories of her youth when she was an amateur actress. But then – and this is when summarising the plot gets a bit tricky, for there is clearly intended to be a big shock early on, the thing which launches the story proper – events conspire to put her life onto a different track. She finds herself returning to Barcelona, where she lived when she was younger, in search of her son’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since before he was born.

Up until this point it has been clear that this is a film made with great skill and subtlety, but now something new enters the mix and makes it especially distinctive. Manuela can’t find her ex, but bumps into an old friend named Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute whom she happens to rescue from being beaten by a client. As if this wasn’t a bold enough narrative step in all sorts of ways, Manuela’s attempts to continue her search see her getting involved in the lives of various other equally eye-opening characters – an on-the-way-up Penelope Cruz plays Rosa, a naïve young nun who has managed to end up pregnant by the father of Manuela’s child (who is, needless to say, another transsexual prostitute, this one with HIV). When Manuela stumbles into a job without really looking for one, it is as the personal assistant to an ageing lesbian actress (Marisa Paredes) involved in a somewhat fraught relationship with a much younger woman who is a drug addict (Candela Pena). Life gets complicated even without finding the object of her search.

As you can perhaps see, there is no actual shortage of candidates for the title role in this film – which appears to be an allusion to All About Eve, a film which two of the characters are watching while the actual title card comes up – and what makes the issue even more ambiguous is Almodóvar’s closing dedication for the movie, which is to ‘all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother’ – a fairly broad cross-section there.

That said, one thing the film is notably short of is unambiguously male main characters (there are a few minor male parts which make a significant contribution to the story), and you could certainly view it as an attempt to cover all the bases and include all aspects of both femininity and maternity, one way or another: under this reading, the whole film is a kind of extended meditation on the nature of motherhood and womanhood, one of considerable generosity and compassion. This is one of those very non-judgemental, essentially optimistic films we see all too rarely.

The other thing that makes the film so striking is something that I’ve alluded to already – overall, it has a warmth and naturalism to it that is very engaging, especially when coupled to the artful subtlety of the script. This does feel like a film set in some close analogue of the real world, with interesting things to say about it, and Manuela herself is a fully convincing character, brought well to life by Cecilia Roth. However, most of the rest of the characters are slightly outlandish, to say the least – any one of them would be the wacky or off-kilter supporting role in a more conventional film, and to have them all together here in the same film – sometimes in the same scene – is an interesting choice by the director. Then again, Almodóvar isn’t afraid to make this film a genuine melodrama, loading it with outrageously emotive moments, vastly improbable coincidences, implausible plot twists, and much more along the same lines.

His real trick is to do so without turning the film into something which functions only as an outrageous piece of over-the-top camp. There are elements of the story which probably don’t hold up under close scrutiny, certainly not as a piece of conventional drama – but such is the skill of the director and performers that the film remains genuinely engrossing and moving on those terms. It packs a genuine emotional punch in its key moments, despite everything I’ve mentioned; only at the very end does it seem to come a bit unravelled, with relatively little sense of closure.

This comes too late to genuinely impact on what is, by any standard, an extremely well-written and performed movie, which manages to touch on some quite profound subject matter without being unnecessarily didactic or profound. It is true that the truly remarkably subtle and intelligent movie promised by some elements of the opening sequence never quite materialises (a scene in which we see Manuela playing a role is closely paired with one where she finds herself in essentially the same situation for real), but there is a huge amount to enjoy and think about here regardless; this is an engrossing and rewarding film, clearly made for an intelligent and mature audience.

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