Life In Glorious Colours
There can’t be that many directors who encapsulate the pulse, the beating, unbridled, flamenco stomping fiery passion of their homeland such Spanish director (screenwriter, producer, actor, though he claims he’s quite bad at the last bit) Pedro Almodóvar. Born in 1949 and raised in the aftermath, freedom, rebirth and cultural (and consumer) renaissance of an entire nation after the death of ruling dictator Francisco Franco.
The nation had been suppressed for 30+ years, but the sense of joy, freedom and expression began to match the saturated colours of the Spainish landscape. Quite often the best way of dealing with any psychosis from such oppression is through comedy, black comedy indeed, but it allows for metaphors to gild the pens/knifes that stabbed with revenge, through the cloud of laughter the carefully written words slowly butchered the ghosts of old regimes.
Another standard reaction to such historical overt conservatism or domination is the desire to not only ignore boundaries, but question their very existence, after all realistically there are no such thing as rules, it’s a construct that we’ve all been conditioned to since birth, and as such a means of control.
Pedro grew up in a household in rural Spain made up predominately of women (he has two sisters and one brother), with a huge family/neighbourhood social network of even more women. This predominately feminine upbringing was to have a beautifully profound effect on him forever more. There is few male (or even female) directors/writers who can display, present with such ardour, the truth, sincerity, the lives, plights, passions and woes of women with the effect he does. Admittedly more often than not it’s in a hyper state, influence by mass culture, more passionate, more woeful etc, but such a presentation serves a dramatic purpose in itself, for passion is life, it’s freedom. It’s also in the language of the ordinary people, and not of the ruling elite intellectuals.
At one point in his early years he believed (well his parents believed) his destiny was to be a priest and they sent him to a religious boarding school to begin his ecclesiastical future. But rather than discovering God, he found something much better and rewarding, cinema. Film was to be his religion, and the cinema his church. Having had very little, if any film exposure previously in his small village the possibilities and miracles of the world projected and shone up before him. Combining all the influences of his life so far and with a flamenco kick in his step, he robustly set off on his film making career.
To date he has created 34 titles. Quite helpfully and more so enjoyably STUDIOCANAL have collected 6 of his earlier works that trace the swift evolution of his focus and abilities (and outright cheekiness) that have stood him steadfast and ever more globally successful all these years. What is wonderful about such collections is that you can see the moments of genius in the early works where he may not have the technical know how or experience to successfully render it, yet it gleams with the glory of brilliance, or indeed the profound desire to experiment and push boundaries surpasses the actual story or moment. Effectively we watch a fantastic talent grow and bloom.
There is zero doubt in Almodóvar’s brilliance, but that doesn’t always mean that his works are a success in my humble opinion. And certainly there a few films that I resonated far more with in the collection than others, having said that, it’s a great collection where there is something offered by them all.
‘Dark Habits’ (1983) is first up and despite Pedro wanting to distance himself from the movie as he felt the commercial considerations (it was his first movie with a film company) imposed on him were at odds with his background of more free form guerilla creations. Having said that, it’s a fantastic premise about the unusual (to say the least) inhabitants of a charity convent. Think drugs, madness, masochism, lust, musicals and women’s pulp fiction novels. On the surface this is a house of God, if God is a pimp. There’s a huge amount of crazy, impassioned fun to be had in it, if unfortunately it’s somewhat uneven and doesn’t reach the euphoric heights as later works. Think a somewhat gleefully perverse female Father Ted. It also commences the gathering of some female actresses that he uses in many of his movies over the years, they all become his muses.
‘What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984) was my outright favourite of the bunch. Hysterically funny and wrong in the most wonderful of ways, it deals with the on going struggles of an ordinary VERY over-worked mum as she tries to hold her family and mind together. Of course it can’t be straight forward in Pedroworld, so Gloria is addicted to amphetamines, being it’s the only thing that gets her through the day. Even though there’s a huge amount of comedic fun to be had with that concept, it’s painfully closer to the truth/reality of modern times than with might be willing to admit. Oh there’s also the element of her bigoted Nazi tune singing husband participating in a scheme to forge Hitler’s memoirs. And that’s just for starters. It’s a seriously, beautifully insane film where no matter how outlandish everything gets, it seems to be completely rational in the context of this apartment block.
‘Law Of Desire’ (1987) fits nicely into Pedro’s desire to push if not just outright obliterate any social boundaries which to the greater extent are destructive, oppressive. Unfettered passion, obsession and it’s potentially destructive out comings if left unchecked are the premise for a feral, raunchy dalliance between an established film director and his ‘straight’ working class male lover. While the intellectual and emotional turmoil rages, forcing the young lover to flee to the countryside, though they still converse via love lorn written passages. Up steps a very randy Antonio (a very young Antonio Banderas) to basically manipulate and seduce the entire situation for his own greed and physical longings. Of course this is just one small aspect of it and again rapidly becomes more crazy a the mins and underpants fly by.
‘Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown’ (1988) was the one that I first ever came to know of Pedro’s canon. It traversed the entire globe reaching just success even receiving the first of his Oscar nominations. It exemplifies all that is outstanding in his work. Beautiful brilliant colours, outstanding distinctive and memorable female characters, VERY high drama, jilted love, fantastic creativity in script and stunning cinematography, insanity and rakish fun where alot of it happens on a set that looks like it could be in ‘Friends’. Oh and as it can’t be as straight forward as the lead having a mental collapse, there’s a splash of terrorism in it too. And of course it all works splendidly.
‘Kika’ (1993) again has Pedro momentarily (but unforgettably) pushing the boundaries. Basically it is about the misadventures of a makeup artist (Kika) who gets involved with a wee bit of criminality with her lover Ramon. The things we do for love eh. Full of sensationalism and social commentary about the misplaced glory and drug of fame, it received alot of controversy because of a scene where Kika is raped, while she exhibits humorous detachment from her attacker. The criticism is misplaced though as it’s a very shrewd way of exposing the bigotry in media and the fact that women are forced to deal with such attacks on a daily basis, where nothing is done and they are forced to press on with their lives. It’s not as heavy going as it sounds and Kika (Veronica Forque) is outstanding in her comedy and resilience. Incidently it’s the first feature where Pedro collaborated with fashion designer John-Paul Gaultier, and it’s absolutely worth watching to see his outlandish creations.
‘The Flower Of My Secret’ (1995) is art imitating life, imitating art as we follow the collapse of Leo Macías’ (Marisa Paredes) marriage, life and sanity. She’s a very successful secret romantic novelist who despite all the creation and dreams she places in her characters (and as such bringing solace to millions) she hasn’t the capacity to fix her marriage. Her (misplaced) dreams slowly die and so does her ability to write about love itself. It is a fantastic piece of work depicting the breakdown of what on the surface seems to be profound stability, and is eruditely astute and realistic because of it. Despite the hyper drama and some stunning cinematography there is true pathos permeating the excess that anyone can relate to. Of course it’s peppered with black comedy too, as clearly there isn’t a moment of life that can’t be mocked into laughter.
All the discs have varying amounts of extras including many director and cast interviews, trailers etc which really do add weight and especially handy context to the work. Given that the films are quite a few years old it is quite easy to forget just how profound such works had on an emerging, evolving modern Spain. It’s an excellent, very interesting body of work, with my only real complaint being some terribly design pixelated subtitles, unless Pedro is trying to push the boundaries of taste on that front too?
‘The Almodóvar Collection’ is out on blu-ray now.
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