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Posts Tagged ‘melodrama’

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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My partner and I went out for a browse round the charity shops of a pleasant town in the Midlands on the morning of my most recent birthday: it’s something I tend to do whenever I’m up there, more in hope than expectation to be honest. However, on this occasion, no sooner should we walk through the doors of the British Heart Foundation than I came across a bin full of DVDs at 50p each (three for a quid). This would only really be notable if the DVDs were any good, but on this occasion they were: looking up at me from the top of the pile was The Stone Tape, while not far beneath was A Clockwork Orange. With these two, I basically got a third free, and after a moment’s pause went for – and it did feel very odd to come across this particular film in this particular setting – Tod Browning’s 1932 movie Freaks. It was only when I got it home that I noticed that it was still in the original wrapper.

Now, of course there are many reasons why a film might get bought and never watched – back in my youth I was a sucker for picking up VHS tapes that I thought I might like to watch one day and then never getting back to them – but when it comes to a film like Freaks, you can’t help but wonder. Did the purchaser look at the blurb on the back of the case, and have second thoughts? Did they do some research into the movie and then decide against watching it, or even having it in the house? One will never know. Certainly this remains one of the most problematic and genuinely difficult-to-watch films I have ever come across.

Technically a horror movie, it takes place in and around a travelling circus, somewhere in France (it seems to have been a convention of very early horror films that they should be set in the Old World), and most of the first half of the film concerns the everyday lives of the performers. This includes – and here things start to get tricky – the acts in what one would glibly call the freak show. There is a ‘human skeleton’, a bearded lady, a hermaphrodite, conjoined twins, people missing various limbs, a group of ‘pinheads’, and some midgets. All of them are played by people who genuinely possessed these conditions. We see them going about their daily routines and interacting with the other performers, and the result is a kind of very odd soap opera: the bearded lady has a child, the conjoined twins are contemplating marriage – to two different men – and, most significantly, one of the midgets, Hans (Harry Earles), has developed an infatuation for the circus’ statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), much to the anguish of Hans’ fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles).

However, what Hans does not realise is that he is being played for a sucker by Cleopatra and her actual lover, Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor). The pair have become aware that Hans has inherited a fortune and are planning that Cleopatra will marry and then slowly poison him. What can possibly go wrong? He’s only a midget, after all. Of course, they have reckoned without the unwritten law of the sideshow freaks, which is that they look out for each other, and an attack on one is considered an offence against all of them…

If nothing else, Freaks is a bracing (to say the least) antidote to the mawkish sentimentality with which circuses of yesteryear tend to be depicted in modern movies – in its own way, I find The Greatest Showman to be every bit as problematic and gruelling to watch as Freaks, but the much older movie is, I suspect, rather closer to the truth. I say that Freaks is technically a horror movie, because – as you can perhaps tell from the brief outline I have provided – the actual plot is much more of a melodrama. Only in the closing stages of the film do things take a different turn.

Prior to this, if there is ‘horror’, it comes from the presence in the film of people with genuine abnormalities. Obviously there is something very off about this in principle: the film seems to be operating as a kind of circus sideshow itself, with the chance to see the ‘freaks’ the main draw to the audience. However, there is a weird tension operating here – there are a number of quite lurid and even prurient moments, such as when the camera dwells on one of the twins being kissed and the other enjoying the sensation as well, but the general tone of the film is much more matter-of-fact and even compassionate towards its subjects.

However, come the end of the story, there is inevitably a shift. Cleopatra and Hercules’ plot is uncovered, and as a thunderstorm lashes the circus wagons, the freaks close in to exact vengeance on the attempted murderers. There is something genuinely chilling about this, even in the extant, savagely truncated version of the film: the original climax apparently caused a furore when it was shown to audiences, resulting in the film being cut by nearly a third. As it is, the end of the film does feel abrupt and anticlimactic – we don’t see exactly how Cleopatra goes from being a beautiful amazon to the quacking, legless, bird-like thing she has been transformed to in the frame story, and the suggestion that the freaks have emasculated Hercules is completely absent. An epilogue intended to ensure Hans remains a sympathetic character has also been added.

This is a film from the 1930s, pretty much the dawn of cinema, and as such it inevitably feels a bit primitive by modern standards – the characterisations are broad, the plot basic, and so on. It does suffer from some pacing issues, too, probably because of the recutting the film underwent – most of the incident happens in the last quarter, giving the uneasy impression that for most of the film we’re just being invited to gawp. One significant problem is that – for obvious reasons – many parts are played by people who were not professional actors, resulting in some slightly wince-worthy performances. Even worse, not all of them had English as a first language – Harry Earles’ birth name was Kurt Schneider, and his thick German accent renders some of his dialogue unintelligible, which is obviously an issue given he’s playing one of the main characters.

Is Freaks genuinely a horror movie? I would like to think not. Perhaps it is one of those films from so long ago that it is a losing game to try and assess it by modern standards. There are certainly some chilling and powerful moments, but every frame of it radiates an awkward ambiguity, about just how we are expected to respond to the characters. One thing is certain: a film like this could never be made today, and perhaps that’s just as well.

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I expect there is not much of a family resemblance between myself and any of my great-grandparents, none of whom I could honestly tell you very much about. So it probably shouldn’t be very surprising that the archetypal modern zombie film, exponents of which have been lurching all over the pop-cultural landscape on a regular basis for nearly two decades now, should have very little in common with the first films to cover this same kind of material. The watershed moment in the history of zombie cinema came when George Romero saw Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies in 1966 or 1967 and pondered what would happen if the undead workforce in that film got out of control. (The result was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.) Prior to this point, zombie films were mostly steeped in the lore of the culture that created the legend – namely, that of the Caribbean and the voodoo religion practised by the plantation workers there.

The award for first ever zombie film is usually given to White Zombie, from 1932, which seems to have a mixed critical reputation, and was followed by a sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, which seems to be unanimously agreed to be awful. Still in the same milieu, but enjoying rather more acclaim, is Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, made in 1943 and another product of RKO’s horror film unit under the leadership of Val Lewton.

It almost goes without saying that this American movie, made in 1943, seems completely oblivious of the war gripping most of the world at the time it was made. Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell,  a nurse who as the film opens is resident in a chilly-looking Canada. However, a change is on the cards as she is hired to go and live on the remote Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. One of the plantation owners there, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), needs a nurse to care for his wife, who has been struck down by a strange affliction that has left her unable to speak and with no will of her own. Betsy is initially quite impressed by the beauty of her surroundings, but Paul is quick to disabuse her of any romantic thoughts she may be having – ‘There’s no beauty here, only death and decay… everything good dies here!’ he declares, which hardly constitutes making the new hire feel comfortable.

Betsy rapidly realises that there are tensions between Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), and possibly even between the men and their mother (Edith Barrett): Rand has a drink problem, for one thing, which Holland seems disinclined to do anything about. Clues to the reasons for this come when Frances overhears a local calypso singer (credited as ‘Sir Lancelot’) singing a scurrilous ditty about Holland’s wife having an affair with Rand. You would not have thought the calypso to be a musical style which particularly leant itself to the delivery of ominous exposition, but the effect here is striking, particularly when Lancelot bears gravely down on Dee, strumming and calypsoing all the while.

Things get a bit melodramatic as Betsy decides that, for no comprehensible reason whatsoever, she has fallen in love with Holland, and selflessly resolves to see if his wife can be cured (the wife is played by Christine Gordon, by the way, who gets no dialogue and just has to waft eerily about the place in a white dress). When modern medical science fails, Betsy looks further afield, having become somewhat fascinated by the local tales of voodoo and the ceaseless drumming that drifts through the island night…

As mentioned, this is about as unlike a modern zombie movie as you can get, stylistically at least: the film was apparently inspired by a factual magazine article written by one Inez Wallace (the mind does boggle somewhat). However, the initial script was heavily rewritten, not least by Val Lewton himself, and one of the changes was to base the story on (of all things) the plot of Jane Eyre. There you go: the role of the Bronte sisters in the evolution of modern horror laid bare (to say nothing of the fact that this film is a great deal better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so eat your heart out, Jane Austen).

To be honest, the similarities between I Walked with a Zombie and Jane Eyre don’t extend much beyond the basic premise of the story – Betsy is obviously Jane, Holland is Rochester, and the mad woman in the attic is replaced by one of the living dead – but this remains a classy, thoughtful movie. The real strength is in the atmosphere of the piece, which is powerful and well-maintained throughout. There are many effective sequences, not the least of them the one in which Betsy leads Holland’s wife through the night to a voodoo gathering, encountering the disquieting figure of a man who may be an actual zombie along the way.

This is only the second product of Lewton’s tenure at the RKO horror unit (after Cat People) but already you can make out some themes developing: both films are essentially melodramas, built around an interesting female protagonist, and both couple rich atmospheres to a finely-judged sense of ambiguity. There is little in the way of explicit horror, no cack-handed make-up, and it always feels as if the possibility that there is no supernatural element to the events of the film remains on the table, so much is implied or left suggestive.

Is Mrs Holland indeed a genuine zombie, or simply the victim of an infection which has affected her nervous system? If she is one of the walking dead, how did she get that way? The questions slowly accumulate and while the film certainly seems to have its own ideas about what is happening, it doesn’t attempt to impose them on the viewer, except perhaps at the very end. The defining characteristic of the horror genre is surely nothing to do with setting, style or subject matter, but the effect the film has on the viewer, and the success of I Walked with a Zombie comes not from its characterisation or plotting, but the disquieting atmosphere the film generates and sustains. This probably counts as a very atypical zombie film by any modern standard, but it is still an impressive movie.

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In case you hadn’t noticed it, constant reader, one of the local indie cinemas has been running a series of classic silent movies made in Weimar Germany over the last few weeks, which I have been watching when my schedule and interest levels permit. One thing about watching silent German films from the 1920s which I have commented upon is the almost irresistible temptation to start looking for some kind of historical subtext or irony, looking for hints of the film anticipating what consumed Germany and its people only a few years later. Well, you don’t have to look especially deep to find that kind of connection in Arnold Fanck’s The Holy Mountain (D-title: Der Heilige Berg), mainly because the most famous person in it is, um, not so much famous as notorious.

I would imagine that many people are vaguely familiar with Leni Riefenstahl’s name even if they are not exactly sure of what she did to earn her notoriety. I say notoriety, but this is still someone who has been acclaimed as one of the most technically gifted film-makers of the 20th century (one critic places only Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock ahead of her), while serious critics have suggested that her film Triumph of the Will is possibly the best ever directed by a woman. The very title Triumph of the Will is perhaps a clue, for the uninitiated: made in Germany in 1935, it is a Nazi propaganda movie. Riefenstahl directed a number of these, which is why she is still such a problematic figure in cinema history.

The Holy Mountain is arguably where it all started for her, however: she had previously appeared in a health and fitness documentary, Ways to Strength and Beauty, but this was her first acting role. It is a fairly natural progression for someone who was previously a professional dancer, for she plays another dancer here. One story has it that Adolf Hitler watched The Holy Mountain and found Riefenstahl’s uninhibited gyrating so mesmerising he became obsessed with her, and that it was this which eventually gave her the chance to make the documentaries she is best-known for. The world is an odd place, and often does not seem to run along straight lines.

Riefenstahl plays Diotima, who as noted is a dancer. The film opens with a sequence of her dancing on a breakwater near a rocky shore: waves crash, foam sprays; it is all clearly supposed to be very primal and significant. However, Diotima is drawn inland, to the towering presence of the Alps, where she encounters hunky, stoical mountaineer Karl (Luis Trenker) and his young friend Vigo (Ernst Petersen) while giving a performance.

I don’t know, tastes change and all that, but I did have an issue with the film’s conviction that Riefenstahl’s character is some sort of irresistible temptress and her dancing unleashes fundamental forces of desire. I don’t know what the German for ‘bad hair day’ is, but Riefenstahl seems to have been peculiarly prone to them while this film was in production, while her particular style of expressive dance mostly just put me in mind of a drunk woman trying to start a fight at a wedding reception. However, the plot requires that both Karl and Vigo have their heads very much turned by Diotima, with Karl in particular falling for her hard.

You’d think all would be lovely, wouldn’t you? Well, this might perhaps have been the case were it not for the running of a big ski race – this is a major sequence in the film, and there is a grave admonitory caption on behalf of the sportsmen participating that it was realised without the use of trick photography. Vigo does very well in the race, and as a result gets a hug from Diotima. Little does she realise that foolish young Vigo now thinks she is in love with him, while Karl is under the impression she is putting herself about a bit. He broods and suffers a lot, stoically.

Yes, it does all sound a bit ridiculous and melodramatic, and to be honest it is. What happens next does not buck this trend, as Karl and Vigo set off to climb ‘the dreadful north face’ of one of the local peaks, presumably because the distraught Karl wants to take refuge in nature, or has a death wish, or something like that. Trouble inevitably ensues, with one of those moments which recurs and echoes throughout the history of climbing lore – in the midst of a blizzard, Vigo slips and falls, and finds himself dangling from an overhang with only Karl’s grip on the rope keeping him from a terminal plummet. Karl can’t pull him back up, but if he saves himself by cutting the rope, his friend will die… (This is the same dilemma at the heart of the brilliant documentary Touching the Void, of course.)

Genres come in and out of fashion: something which was once seen as very niche and culty can rise to box office dominance, while a genre which once had hundreds of films made in it every year can slip into obscurity in just the same way. That said, they still do make westerns, even if they are most often odd, effectively art-house films, while the German bergfilme – the mountain film – seems to have long since passed into history. It has been argued that the mountain film is as essentially German as the western is essentially American, and it does seem to me that there are obvious similarities between the two forms – they are both concerned with the juxtaposition of human life and the natural world, and they are also about wide open spaces (admittedly in different dimensions). There is also a fiercely moral element to The Holy Mountain, the issue of what it means to be a good man, even in the most extreme circumstances, which is also a classic western theme.

Of course, this does mean that once The Holy Mountain really gets going, with its skiing, climbing and mountain rescue sequences, it doesn’t leave Leni Riefenstahl with much to do except hang around in a cabin back at base camp, occasionally staring with deep concern out of the window. So the film does seem to shift its centre of gravity in a fairly pronounced way, from Diotima to Karl, as it proceeds. For a modern audience I’m not sure this is as much of an issue as some of the less than subtle performances or the general tenor of the thing, which often borders on the unintentionally camp.

I think the fact that The Holy Mountain is an example of an obscure and arguably defunct genre is also an issue: watching a movie like Faust or The Golem or Metropolis these days, there is always the fact that you can see its similarities to the films it has influenced, and identify its place in the history of the genre – this can make a very old film somehow feel more accessible. More recent films about climbing have either been American popcorn blockbusters or documentaries, and bear no more than a faint resemblance to this one. It’s a curious film that doesn’t feel as if it has much connection to the modern world any more: the scenery is beautiful, and Fanck certainly knows how to compose an impressive shot, but the story and performances feel very ordinary, at best. Very much a case of historical interest only – but it does have that by the bucketful.

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At what point does entertainment cross the threshold of genuine art? Is it even a meaningful distinction? Does your story have to have a certain degree of complexity or depth to it? Or can it just be a simple tale, told with artfulness and care? If so, at what point does worthwhile embellishment become actual pretension and self-indulgence? Lots to think about here, and the film that got me pondering this particular issue is Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, from 2016.

(Yes, it’s another Almodovar review – what can I say, having finally discovered this director I’m in a hurry to catch up, and having bought two boxed sets of his films recently I would anticipate a string of further reviews to come. What can I say? At least you’re not having to pay for this stuff.)

Not for the first time, the film initially presents a kind of narrative puzzle-box, the contents of which only become clear as it proceeds. The central character is Julieta (Emma Suarez), a middle-aged woman living in Madrid. She and her partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) are on the verge of completing a long-planned move to Portugal together, even though it seems that Julieta is not quite as committed to this as him. Then, quite by chance, she meets a young woman in the street – a childhood friend of her daughter’s. The friend reports meeting Julieta’s daughter and family in Switzerland. It is a casual conversation for the friend, but the impact of it seems to strike Julieta like a hammer-blow. She abandons her plans to go to Portugal, ignoring how hurtful this is to Lorenzo, moves into an apartment in the building where she used to live, and begins to obsessively write an account of her life, for her daughter Antia’s benefit.

It begins many years earlier, when Julieta (played in her younger days by Adriana Ugarte) had yet to settle down and was working as a supply teacher. While travelling by train one night, her journey is disrupted by the suicide of a fellow passenger – but as a result of these events she embarks on a passionate relationship with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a man she has just met. She takes his letters to her as a tacit invitation, and they resume the affair in the town where Xoan lives once her current job is over. Then it transpires that she is pregnant, and naturally everything changes. As the child, Antia, grows up, Julieta is perhaps a little dismayed that Xoan has a better relationship with her, but still reasonably happy. But tragedy is waiting for the family, and will inflict the kind of emotional wounds from which some people never completely recover…

Some people mellow with age, but Almodovar seems to have grown sourer, if that’s quite the right word for it. Certainly, while Julieta retains the outward colour and vibrancy which in many ways the director’s trademark, the story has a darker and more sombre tone than that of his most famous films. The narrative has a degree of the subtle complexity of those films, but for the most part this is a simple case of a story told mostly in flashback, the opening and closing scenes basically being a framing device. And, while the resonances with Hitchcock are less pronounced than in some other films, the story itself moves through dark territory. Julieta’s life is shaped by random chance, and many of the key events are tragic, to say the least: a suicide, a fatal boating accident, and so on. The corrosive effect of deceitfulness and dishonesty within families is also dwelt upon. The losses Julieta experiences come close to breaking her as a person – much of the film is about loneliness, isolation, and just how difficult it is to recover and rebuild when closure has not been fully achieved.

It sounds like pretty heavy going and to be honest it is – no matter how well-told the story is, there’s no escaping the fact that it gets progressively tougher to watch as it continues. It’s as close to bleak as you will find in a Pedro Almodovar movie, although the director apparently enforced a strict ‘no crying’ rule for his two lead actresses, on the grounds that this is a film about long-term despair rather than particular outbursts of grief and sadness. It is to Almodovar’s credit that the film stays as watchable as it does, given the subject matter.

This is also, of course, because of the very strong performances of both lead actresses, who keep the film accessible even when the character is not the most accessible or sympathetic of individuals. It is undeniably a little odd that the lead role is split in the way it is – when the film jumps back in time from the older Julieta (Suarez) to her younger self (Ugarte), you almost do a double take and wonder if that’s really supposed to be the same person. It soon doesn’t matter, for you get used to Ugarte’s engaging screen presence, and it does allow Almodovar one of his most impressive cinematic flourishes – when the film reaches the point at which the older Julieta is again played by Emma Suarez, it happens mid-scene, and again you almost do a double-take, the change is not immediately obvious.

Still, the decision to split the role remains a slightly curious one, which the director defended by expressing his doubt about the believability of old-age make-up and the unique presence possessed by older actresses. (At one point this film was intended to be Almodovar’s English-language debut, to be made abroad and starring Meryl Streep as the older Julieta – one wonders who would have played the younger one.) It is just one of a number of choices which some might take issue with. The film is a relentlessly emotional one, with stirring music non-stop on the soundtrack (or so it feels, anyway); if it were just a little less subtle you could easily call it a melodrama. Still, this isn’t the first Almodovar film you could call a bit melodramatic. Then there is the question of the unresolved conclusion of the film, which I would imagine seriously hacks off anyone who sits through the film’s heavy third act in the hope of a carthatic, affirmative ending with everything resolved. Personally, I think the ending works – it’s a bold choice, but it certainly feels like it suits the rest of the film.

I think it would be stretching a point to suggest that Julieta is quite up to the same standard as the films he was making in the late 1990s and early 2000s – it falls just a little short in terms of ambition, if not in execution, and it doesn’t have the same kind of audacity or life to it. Nevertheless, when even a slightly sub-par film is as good as this, it’s a sign that the person responsible is a director of the first rank. Even off-the-boil Almodovar is still a formidable talent.

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There was a time, a few years back, when half the new movies coming out of Hollywood seemed to be adaptations of old TV shows to the medium: Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team. This sort of thing has been going on for decades, of course, and shows no signs of letting up (the Mission: Impossible franchise is now Tom Cruise’s most reliable revenue stream, while we are threatened with a new Charlie’s Angels movie before the year is out), but it certainly felt like something of a peak when obscurities like The Mod Squad and SWAT were being dusted off for a big screen outing. Such is the nature of modern cinema, I suppose: there’s currently no bigger risk than originality.

British attempts at this sort of thing go back nearly as far: in fact, back in the 1950s, Val Guest and Hammer Films were actually making films based on radio shows. The British big-screen spin-off is usually a cash-in, made while the TV show in question is still a going concern or at least a recent hit, and most of them have been based on comedy programmes. The results have been extremely variable – some of the Monty Python films are regarded as genuine classics, and the two Inbetweeners films made a stack of money, but on the other hand the Are You Being Served? film is practically a shorthand summary of the many reasons why this sort of thing is a bad idea.

Of course, they have done movies based on drama series, too: there have been a number of Sweeney films, a big-screen Callan, and (not that long ago) a Spooks movie. Appealing to a rather different demographic, however, is the current release of Michael Engler’s movie version of Downton Abbey. I don’t just mean that this film features fewer men in overcoats delivering knuckle sandwiches to each other than the typical Sweeney film; Downton Abbey, whatever you think of it, has become a globally successful entertainment, even to the point where they do jokes about it in Marvel movies. It may be a few years since it was actually on TV, but the calculation seems to have been that an audience exists that will be prepared to leave the house and pay to watch what is essentially a new instalment (the $90 million return so far on a $20 million budget suggests this was a shrewd assessment).

Full disclosure: I never watched Downtown Abbey on the telly and never felt like I was missing out on much, either; I’m not saying I would have walked five miles and stuck my head down a sewer in order to avoid watching it, but it’s just not my cup of tea. However, I did find myself taken along to watch Engler’s film by various family members who were more than passingly familiar with it. In brief, they all found it to be inoffensively engaging and occasionally rather amusing, and if you are a die-hard Downtonite this may be all you need to know.

The film opens with a lavish credits sequence concerning a letter being written and delivered, which kind of sets the tone for the high-octane thrills which follow. It turns out that the King and Queen are about to embark on a trip round the country and are intent on spending the night at Downton Abbey. Needless to say, this sends everyone into a proper tizzy, from genial good-egg Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the assistant cook (Sophie McShera).

It seems like everyone has their own particular concerns as the royal visit approaches: is the best silver going to be polished correctly? Can the boilers be relied upon to keep functioning? Will there be enough chairs for everyone? Primarily, though, the Downton domestic staff are somewhat peeved to learn that they are to be displaced by the King’s own servants for the duration of his time at the house. Can they really be expected to take this kind of treatment?

Mixed in with all this (and there are a great many other plotlines, some of them very minor indeed) is a subplot about an attempt to assassinate the King. I would hazard a guess that in 90% of films, this would be the main focus of the script, and the climax would see the domestics showing their quality by coming together to save the King’s life, a deed for which they would receive due gratitude and respect. However, this is not the kind of level on which Downton Abbey operates. The assassination plotline is resolved quite early on, without a great deal of fuss, and everyone carries on as they were for the rest of the film. The message is clear: this is not a film about tension and excitement. It’s a film about using the right knife for the fish course and knowing your place in Downton’s labyrinthine social ecology.

It’s all a bit like HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the feckless but presentable upper classes wandering about in self-absorbed bemusement, while the much more capable domestic staff get on with ensuring that everything actually works – although, once again, there is never any real prospect of Mr Carson the butler (Jim Carter) actually eating the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), as that would be far too surprising.

Of course, to say all this is to miss the point of a film like Downton Abbey, which is absolutely not intended to surprise the audience – what it is there for is to deliver more of exactly the same sort of thing as the TV series on which it is based. (I get the sense of the movie jumping through hoops in order to ensure all the main players are in their customary positions, even though some of them departed them at the end of the show’s run.)

However, as a newcomer I couldn’t help noticing a number of things. It is true that the film contains a number of very capable actors, Bonneville, Carter and Smith most prominent amongst them – on the other hand, such is the diffuse and episodic nature of the film that none of them actually get much to do beyond simply showing up and doing their usual business. More problematically, from my point of view at least, is the essentially complacent nature of the film. The main thrust of the plot concerns a group of people who are utterly determined to go out of their way to be as servile and deferent as they possibly can: the film doesn’t so much let a particularly rigid form of the British class system go unquestioned, as swooningly celebrate it.

Of course, I suppose much of the charm of Downton for its many fans is the very fact that it depicts a picture-book version of a world that hasn’t so much vanished as never existed in the first place (who was it who said that progressive escapism tends to look to the future, while the reactionary kind is set in the past?) – somewhere that is clean, and essentially untroubled, where everyone knows their place and sticks to it. (The film is not entirely backwards-looking, but a storyline about the lives of gay men in the 1920s feels laboriously crowbarred in.)

Perhaps this is why the focus of the film remains so firmly on the continuing characters, with the newcomers in distinctly secondary roles even when they are played by people who are relatively famous (Stephen Campbell Moore shows up, along with Geraldine James and Tuppence Middleton). The rules and regulations of Downton Abbey supercede conventional movie-making concerns. In the end it only barely feels like a genuine film at all; it could be just a particularly lavish and extended episode of the TV show. Which was surely the idea; but whether this is the film’s biggest strength or weakness is a matter of perspective.

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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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