All About Almodóvar
The early low-budget films of Spanish screenwriter and director Pedro Almodóvar (b. 1949) are frolicsome but amateurish. It was the comedic sophistication of his Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) that brought the auteur serious international acclaim. With the Oscar-winning All About My Mother a decade later, Almodóvar embarked on a new, more artistically ambitious phase of his career, creating films that are deeply informed by movie history yet unmistakably his own.
The first two films of what has been called Pedro Almodóvar’s “mature” period, All About My Mother and Talk to Her, are astonishing works of cinema—movies whose outlandish plots manage to be both strangely plausible and extremely moving. (Their characters shed copious tears, and so shall you.) The action in these films couldn’t be more unlike. All About My Mother hinges on a mother’s search for the transvestite father of her dead son; Talk to Her follows two badly injured, comatose women and the men who, in very different fashion, are devoted to them. Yet the films share an emotional resonance. Both explore the lacerations wrought by loss, as well as love’s paradoxical capacity and incapacity to heal those wounds. Structurally, the films (like much of Almodóvar’s later work) are episodic, moving backward and forward in time and crisscrossing the topography of contemporary Spain. In each, suspense is punctured by comedy that intervenes at odd, even inappropriate, moments. And despite all the horrendous stuff that happens—the casualty list includes auto-accident fatality and injury, deaths from AIDS and a female matador’s goring in the bullring—both films conclude with happy-ish endings that strike just the right note of bittersweetness.
Pedro Almodóvar’s films are populated with all manner of sexual outliers and outlaws—drag queens, shemale prostitutes, transsexuals, lipstick lesbians, homosexual pedophile priests—but the openly gay director turns his queer eye on straight folks, too. Broken Embraces focuses on the hopeless infatuation of an aging industrialist (José Luis Gómez) with his pneumatic secretary-cum-mistress (Penélope Cruz). Talk to Her recounts the pathological devotion of a male nurse (Javier Cámara) to a lovely young dancer (Leonor Watling) assigned to his care after an auto accident leaves her in a persistent vegetative state. The passions of both male leads are tragic and injurious to the recipients of their misguided affections: The industrialist pushes his beloved down a staircase; the nurse rapes his unconscious paramour. In these and other films (notably 2011’s The Skin I Live In, about the obsession of a cosmetic surgeon with the perfect “woman” he has created), Almodóvar’s aim is not to expose any falsity underlying heterosexual relations. Instead he explores the meaning of crazy, unrequitable desire for those in its grip as well as its effect on the unwilling targets of the twisted lovers.
Pedro Almodóvar’s oeuvre is distinguished by an ensemble of actors who keep showing up in different combinations. Broken Embraces, for example, is Penélope Cruz’s fourth film with Almodóvar—her fifth is 2013’s I’m So Excited. Two of the actors in Broken Embraces, Lluís Homar (who plays Cruz’s love interest—a filmmaker, naturally) and Blanca Portillo (who plays Homar’s longtime producer), had leading roles in previous Almodóvar pictures: Bad Education (2004; Homar plays a pedophile ex-priest) and Volver (2006; Portillo is a marijuana-smoking homebody). But these actors are relative rookies compared with Chus Lampreave, who has appeared in eight Almodóvar films, from 1983’s Dark Habits through Broken Embraces. In the film-within-a-film that concludes the latter, Lampreave reprises her trademark dotty-old-lady role from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). As with his actors, Almodóvar’s production team remains remarkably consistent from picture to picture; of this crew, the most important is his younger brother, Agustín, who since 1987 has served as producer on every Almodóvar film—a relationship echoed by the filmmaker and producer in Broken Embraces.
The most improbable of the intersecting story lines in All About My Mother concerns Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young nun and social worker impregnated and infected with AIDS by one of her clients—a transvestite prostitute named Lola (Toni Cantó). But Rosa’s problems go beyond Lola: She also has an art-forger mother (Rosa Maria Sardà) who refuses to accept her daughter’s religious vocation and an aged father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) who suffers from dementia and no longer recognizes her. The miracle is that Cruz carries off this seemingly impossible role with such aplomb, mixing giggly girlishness with saintly suffering. Before All About My Mother, Cruz had acted in a string of European movies, but it was Almodóvar who introduced her to a worldwide audience—leading to major Hollywood roles and her Academy Award–winning performance in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Her career’s trajectory resembles that of Antonio Banderas, whose early films with Almodóvar—the first, 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion, features him as a gay Islamic terrorist—were his springboard to international stardom. After a 20-year hiatus, Banderas rejoined the Almodóvar roster with 2011’s The Skin I Live In and stars (with Cruz) in 2013’s I’m So Excited.
Penélope Cruz specializes in portraying emotionally overburdened women. In Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, Cruz plays Raimunda, a working-class woman who must deal, in quick succession, with her daughter’s self-defense killing of Raimunda’s abusive husband, the death of her beloved aunt and the mysterious return of her mother, whom Raimunda (and everyone else) had believed dead. She fends off would-be suitors, runs a rogue restaurant (she stashes her husband’s corpse in the kitchen freezer) and offers solace to her childhood friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who is dying of cancer. Complicated? Well, yes, but Volver isn’t nearly as convoluted as All About My Mother or Almodóvar’s first international hit, the 1988 superscrewball comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Volver’s Spanish-language title means “To Return,” and the film marked the return of Carmen Maura to Almodóvar’s acting ensemble after an 18-year rift with the director. Maura won a Goya Award (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar) for playing Raimunda’s mother, seemingly back from the grave. Maura had starred in Almodóvar’s first 16mm feature-length film, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (1980), and appeared in five more of his movies during the 1980s, culminating in Women on the Verge.
The music for every Almodóvar film since The Flower of My Secret (1995) has been composed by fellow Spaniard Alberto Iglesias, whose lush, sultry, noirish orchestrations suit Almodóvar’s storytelling to a T. Just as Almodóvar’s images often have a retro look reminiscent of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, Iglesias’s scores recall those created by great mid-century American film composers like Elmer Bernstein (The Man With the Golden Arm, Sweet Smell of Success), Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Psycho) and Henry Mancini, whose song “Moon River” (from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; lyrics by Johnny Mercer) is put to unsettling use in Almodóvar’s dark tale of priestly sexual abuse, Bad Education (2004).
Bad Education isn’t the only Almodóvar picture to include a song or two not composed by Iglesias—sometimes performed by noted artists whose cameos are woven into the films’ plots. In Talk to Her, Brazilian singer-guitarist Caetano Veloso wistfully performs Tomás Méndez’s Huapango standard “Cucurrucucú Paloma.” The Skin I Live In (2011) contains two performances by Spanish singer Concha Buika. And in Volver, the theme song—sung by flamenco singer Estrella Morente and lip-synched by Penélope Cruz—is a tango classic from 1934 composed by French Argentine legend Carlos Gardel.
Designer Saul Bass, who made his mark working with Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock and other directors in the 1950s, virtually invented the art of the title sequence. Before Bass, opening titles were generally humdrum affairs, presenting the major acting and production credits in a static format that differed little from film to film. Bass’s innovative title sequences establish the distinctive mood and theme of each film he worked on and often stand as exceptional short films in their own right. Although Bass’s live-action titles—including those for Walk on the Wild Side, The Victors and Grand Prix—can be compelling, his signature style is displayed in sequences he animated for films such as Preminger’s Man With the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho. Widely copied at the time (see designer Maurice Binder’s titles for Charade), Bass’s brand of bold, screen-traversing graphics has been resurrected by designer Juan Gatti, who has collaborated with Pedro Almodóvar since 1988. Especially impressive are the sequences Gatti designed for Almodóvar’s Bad Education and Volver; the latter film’s closing titles are an eye-popping explosion of floral and geometric patterns in a mid-20th-century mode.
The title All About My Mother is a nod to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve—a perennial favorite of gay male cinephiles, including, apparently, Pedro Almodóvar. In an early scene, Almodóvar’s heroine, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), watches a televised broadcast of All About Eve with her soon-to-die teenage son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin). Almodóvar then lifts several elements from Mankiewicz’s film for his own story. All About Eve centers on the troubles of an aging stage actress, and so does one of All About My Mother’s subplots. Almodóvar’s past-her-prime diva is cigarette-sucking Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Huma—the word means “smoke” in Spanish—declares she learned to puff cigarettes by watching Bette Davis, who, as Margo Channing, chain-smokes her way through All About Eve. And just as Margo hires Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) to be her personal assistant, so Huma takes Manuela into her service. As the resemblances between them accumulate, Manuela is accused of being “just like Eve Harrington.” But she isn’t. Eve is a duplicitous vixen bent on stealing Margo’s stardom; Manuela is a vexed but kindly soul lending comfort to everyone who strays into her path, including Huma.
Pedro Almodóvar wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve. An educated moviegoer watching his films, which Almodóvar writes as well as directs, will immediately recognize the Spanish filmmaker’s debts to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (suspense heightened by odd camera angles and a thrumming, threatening score), Federico Fellini (constant encroachments of memory on characters’ present lives, the interweaving of fantasy and reality), Douglas Sirk (lachrymose melodrama, supersaturated colors) and George Cukor (compassionate focus on female characters). So too with Almodóvar’s literary influences, which in All About My Mother are stated outright: Truman Capote (the heroine, Manuela, reads aloud from the preface to Capote’s Music for Chameleons), Federico Garcia Lorca (the film ends with a scene from Lorca’s Blood Wedding) and, in particular, Tennessee Williams, whose Streetcar Named Desire, as performed by a traveling Spanish theatrical company, figures centrally in the plot of All About My Mother. Manuela acted in an amateur production of the play in her youth and, like Streetcar’s Stella, abandoned her husband to protect herself and her child. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she says, “has marked my life.” One infers that Williams’s tale of shattered dreams has similarly marked Almodóvar’s.