In his beautiful and illuminating Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, Guillermo del Toro writes, ’50 percent of storytelling (in movies) is “eye protein,” which is very different than eye candy. They look the same to the untrained eye, but they are fundamentally different’. One could argue that there are few directors who have provided as much ‘eye protein’ as Pedro Almodóvar: Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Del Toro himself, perhaps even others. But it’s hard to think of one who’s given us more. Yet, if that’s the case, why aren’t we more attentive to it?; why don’t we, so to speak, visually chew on that protein and let its nutrients feed and nurture whatever arguments we make on the film to a greater extent than we do now?
For example, on its initial release, there was a lot of debate as to whether and to what extent La mala educación/ Bad Education was autobiographical. Javier Royos, whilst focusing on the screenplay, writes in Cinemania that Bad Education is a film noir ‘born as a rebel yell against something Almodóvar knew from his own experience’. Jonathan Holland’s review in Variety, the trade magazine, highlighted the use of autobiographical material: ‘Pedro Almodóvar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable Bad Education’ welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education into a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output.’
There’s something interesting in that juxtaposition of the autobiographical and genre as genre is a setting for and horizon of expectations for the telling of that personal story; and, over time, as the story gets expanded, there’s a shift in the choice of genre Almodóvar finds appropriate to its telling: we first encountered the themes and a rough sketch of the characters in Bad Education almost twenty years earlier in La ley del deseo/ The Law of Desire (1987) but in melodramatic form and with more than a dash of comedy. That film too focused on a film director who was gay, who had made films in the early 80s and was part of the Movida that Bad Education also references. It was the film that inaugurated, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, transformed in Bad Education into El Hazar, thus transmuting desire into chance, and, most importantly, it featured a moment in which Tina (Carmen Maura) walks into a church remembering all the times she’d ‘jerked off’ there when she was a boy only to come face to face with the priest she’d had sexual relations with as a child:
‘You remind me of an old pupil. He used to sing in the choir, too’ says the priest.
‘Father Constantino, it is I.’
‘How you’ve changed
‘Self-expression’ was considered an important criterion when evaluating Almodóvar’s authorship in the 1980s. For example, the press in Madrid had long recognized a gay sensibility in Almodovar’s films, even taunting him about not giving it full expression. ‘In the end he’s not prepared to reveal more…directly through (his) own sexuality’, wrote Carlos Benítez Gonzalez in 5 Dias (1982). It was seen as gay work by a director who had not formally come out; and there’s an unpleasant aspect to such comments, to such attempts to drag him out of the, or at least a, closet; as if the ‘coming out’ they sought was not so that his self-expression would be truer or deeper but so that he’d be more vulnerable to attack in what remained a deeply homophobic culture.
The fact that Almodóvar would not put homosexuality, or let’s be more explicit, homosexual characters, at the centre of his films was seen as a block to his self-expression. In turn, this was interpreted as a reason why his films were not those of a true auteur. It’s difficult today to look at films like What Have I Done to Deserve This or Labyrinth of Passion and not see them as key exemplars of gay culture. But Spanish critics then were searching for a more autobiographical form of self-expression. They wanted homosexual stories in a plot about homosexuality. Basically, they wanted him to out himself, even if only via a fictional alter-ego, on film. That, it seems to me, is the ‘self-expression’ they wanted from him.
When La ley was released, Pedro Crespo (1987) titled his review in ABC , ‘La ley del deseo unblocks the career of Pedro Almodóvar’. In the text he added that the world depicted in La Ley was relatively similar to (Almodóvar’s) own’. Thus, it’s not that Law of Desire is any more camp or has any less ‘gay sensibility’ than previous films like Dark Hideout/ Entre tinieblas (1983) or What Have I Done to Deserve This?/ Qué he hecho yo para merezer esto? (1984)that ‘unblocks’, it’s that critics are overly focusing on the story rather than on its telling; and urging him to tell stories about himself. Thus this pressing for the intimate, the personal, the autobiographical — and the insistence on its verification — is something that runs through critical responses to Almodóvar’s work.
So now that we’ve established why this concern with the autobiographical in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is Almodóvar’s Bad Education autobiographical? According to Jordi Costa in Fotogramas, ‘it’s autobiographical and it isn’t: the game of masks is written into its DNA’. In another note, I would like to explore further this game of masks Costa refers to, how most characters are split into two or three different personas in the film, how some characters pass for others, how the film like any noir, whilst not cheating, guides us through false corridors, and how the labyrinthine narration moves through the perspective of different characters writing a story, reading it, seeing at as a film, remembering. The story is told through masterfully narrated fragments of point-of-view on story, film and memory. Bad Education is a film that wants to tell but doesn’t quite want us to know, wants to show but wants us to work at that seeing, it doesn’t want us to easily come to a fuller understanding.
In Bad Education, as they’ve set in motion the murder of Ignacio (Francisco Boira), Juan (Gaél García Bernal), who we’ve already seen in the guises of Ángel, Ignacio and Zahara, walks out of a cinema during ‘film noir week’ with Señor Berenguer (Lluís Homar), previously and fictionally Father Manolo, as the latter says ‘it seems all the films talk about us’. The camera then lingers on posters of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938)and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953). Those films definitely have a lot to say about Ángel and Señor Berenguer as characters in the narrative and about Almodóvar’s ongoing conversation with a history of cinema in general and noir in particular. But does Bad Education have anything to tell us about Almodóvar other than in the general sense that ‘all films speak about us’ or ‘all of Almodóvar’s films are an expression, however partial, of his consciousness’?
In the pressbook for the film, Almodóvar writes, ‘La mala educación’ is a very intimate film. It’s not exactly auto-biographic – i.e., it’s not the story of my life in school, nor my education in the early years of ‘la movida’, even though these are the two backgrounds in which the argument (sic) is set (1964 and 1980, with a stop in 1977).
What Almodóvar says in the film does not exactly contradict what he says in the press-book but neither is it identical to it. The very last shot of the credit sequence (see image capture 1-a above) ends with ‘written and directed’ by Pedro Almodóvar. The very first shot of the narrative of Bad Education proper starts with a close-up of a framed picture saying ‘written and directed by Enrique Goded’ (see image capture 1-b above). The cut separating each of those credits thus also links them, particularly since there is the same image of airplanes and stewardesses in the background. Now this could be an accident or a mere conceit except we return to it at the end of the film but in reverse order. The last shot of the narrative of Bad Education is a still image telling us what happened to Enrique Goded after this murderous incident of filmmaking and passion; the title informs us that ‘Enrique Goded is still making films with the same passion’(see image capture 1-c above); then the camera zooms in so close to the word passion that it dissolves (see image capture 1-d) and the start of the end credits begins with ‘written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar’ (See image capture 1-e). Enrique Goded and Pedro Almodovar are explicitely linked at the beginning and at the end; and in the end, linked above all, but perhaps not only by, a passion for cinema.
If the film seems to be saying that Enrique Goded is much more Pedro Almodóvar than the director himself will publicly admit to, then very first image points to another discussion of the autobiographical and that is in relation to the self-referentiality of the development of the oeuvre itself. Doesn’t that credit of Goded’s (refer back to 1-b above), which is also the background for the credit to Almodovar (1-a) also remind you of the poster for I’m So Excited (see below)? And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces (2009)?
One image attributed to Enrique Goded can thus bring up a whole web of links, cross-referenced, to Almodóvar’s oeuvre that becomes an autobiography on film, not only of Almodóvar but of our own experience and interactions with his work. His filmic autobiography becomes in turn part of a memory of experiences that make up little stories we tell ourselves and others that are in turn transformed into a narrative, a changing one, of who that self is. At least, it does if we pay attention to that eye protein and chew on it.
The image for the poster of Live Flesh may be understood not only as that which ‘represents’ or sells the film, but also as one that condenses a whole series of meanings and feelings, complex ones, that the film deals with and is about. At its most obvious, it’s a sexual image of two bums next to each other and with a hand on each. But it’s an image in which it’s difficult to distinguish gender. Is it two men, two women, a man and woman? You can’t really be sure until you see the film. But why does the film valorize, prize, image and posterize that representation of gender?
Once you’ve seen the film, you might ask why this man and why this woman? There are three male protagonists in the film: Sancho (José Sancho), David (Javier Bardem), and Victor (Liberto Rabal). Sancho, with his patriarchal need to control, to dictate, constantly associated with a traditional masculinity visualized for us in the film by the cazuelas he’s cooking with, the morzilla and chorizo pictured in the background. He’s a cop too smart or too weak to kill a man directly; a cop who regularly commits crimes at home; a man wearing an apron; a man who belongs with the sour nuns that greeted Victor’s birth (see second-last image) and for whom there’s no room for in the Democratic Spain that Victor’s son is born into and which the film celebrates.
David, rendered impotent partly because he couldn’t stop himself from acting on his desires, couldn’t stop himself from fucking his partner’s wife or start to think about the consequences of his actions and ends up in a wheelchair as a result. He’s now got a wife who’s with him because of guilt, because, as the slow-mo scene of their meeting tells us, he’s an homme fatal she couldn’t resist, both of them imprisoned by an event they were responsible for but for which only an innocent was sent to a physical, material, jail for. The film beautifully images this imprisoning for us at the moment that it happens (see image below) . Even in his wheelchair, David is a model of masculinity, a Paralympian champion; is, as his T-shirt tells us, a 100% animal (see image above); one constantly shown as imprisoned by this fact; constantly shown through bars, meshes, grids.
Victor is the hero of Live Flesh. We know this because he is the only one who’s linked to all the main characters. His mother, played by Penelope Cruz, also symbolizes an era. The film hints that she’s had to leave her village, cast out? Escaped? And arrives already pregnant to Madrid where she has few options; she can’t have many if she’s still selling her body way into her pregnancy. She’s a victim of the sexual morays and rigid gender roles of the old Spain and she’s already dead as the film’s main narrative gets underway, though as we can see through the character of Clara (Angela Molina), those morays and roles persist.
It’s why we’re shown Clara with her peineta and full flamenco regalia (see image above), and why we’re introduced to her through an ornate iron-worked balcony window with her black eyes. There’s no way out for people who try to live out the old rules in the new Spain. It’s why we see that potent image of the two hands, hers and Sancho’s entwined, their wedding bands prominently displayed, but hands and bands smeared in the blood that is the result of the rigidity and violence of their union (see image below).
David is a little different from Sancho but not much. The outline of their shadows pointing a gun as they go up the stairs to Elena’s apartment, the moment which erupts in violence and which sparks the narrative, is initially indistinguishable, as if it’s the shadow of one person rather than two . The camera quickly separates them (see image below) but the shadow of that gun haunts them both. Sancho’s will be the guiding hand that will deprive David of his legs and Victor of his liberty albeit not achieving his initial intent which was murder. David will later try to get Sancho to kill Victor, also not successful but equally damaging as it will result in the death of Sancho and Clara. There is no room in this new Spain for men such as David and he too is cast out, to Miami, just as was Benito, the character Bardem played in Bigas Luna’s Huevos de oro.
The image that signifies the film is half composed of a young man who’s born into a new Spain with a bus pass for life but not much in the way of economic security, but one with a capacity to learn, to grow, to forgive and to love. It’s telling and touching that his idea of revenge is to become the best lover in the world and please the object of his revenge to such an extent that she’ll be destroyed by that loss of pleasure. It’s interesting that the film’s ideal couple, Victor and Elena (Elena is the other half of the composition), the one that he’s been longing for throughout the film but that the film visualizes for us as his mirror image, indistinguishable from him in the act of love, is a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but a European. Each half of the composition is a mirror of the other but also its inverse and its opposite. Is it too much to read this allegorically? This new Spain, symbolized by this new Spanish man gets rid of all that shackled him in the past to find a better, more productive and fertile union, with his European inverse complement. But is there also a new Spanish woman? The film doesn’t show us who she might be though it’s not outside the bounds of the ideas the film posits, that she’s met a nicer, more sensitive, less dictatorial Swede or Brit or Dane (hard to think of that man in Italy).
There is much more to be said about the meanings that this beautiful image of sex and equality condenses but I would here like to mention only one more as it is arguably one of the film’s greatest achievements; and that is that it is an image of love. Note how in the sex scene the camera moves in creating out of the representation of a physical act of sex an evocation of the abstract concept of love; as the camera moves in, all you begin to see is beautiful undulating shapes. Chavela Vargas — is there such a thing as a hermaphrodite voice, one that evokes both sexes at once, that in evoking both sexes comes across as multi-gendered and full of feeling? – singing ‘Somos’: ‘somos dos seres en uno que amando se mueren, para guarder en secreto lo mucho que quierén/ we are two beings in one that in loving die, to keep secret how much they love’. The camera then returns to the act of sex, she on top, each of them upside-down and then side-by-side before ending with the image with which we began, the two hands caressing those beautiful but indistinguishable bums, before cutting to dawn.
It’s a sexy and romantic image of a genderless couple, an image of sexual equality, an image of the new EEC Spain, an image of love, sex, desire, jouissance and thereby loss. It’s a beautiful image of a great moment in a wonderful film.
A Fount of Pleasure and a Matrix of Meaning: Notes Arising from a Viewing of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’
Seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again earlier this week made me think that, whilst each Almodóvar film can be enjoyed in and of itself on first viewing, his films become richer seen as part of the process in the unfolding of his ouvre. I suppose this can be said of any great director and was certainly a basic precept behind the auteur ‘theory’. However, with Almodóvar, its different, or perhaps just more intensely so, in that it’s not just a coherent style or recurring themes but a kind of unfolding of ideas, situations and themes from film to film in a style that seems the same in spirit but is the product of a much greater command of the medium as the oeuvre progresses. For example, one can see how the nugget of an idea in one film (Tina playing Cocteau’s ‘La voix humaine’ on stage in Law of Desire  becomes the basis of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown , the filming of which becomes an integral plot point in Broken Embraces ).
In looking at Almodóvar’s work, this unfolding comes to seem richer still if these inter-connected elements are then linked to a conscious articulation of the references they were employed to evoke. The idea is to see Almodóvar’s films in the fullness of their diachrony but also within their synchronic relations. Each film could be seen as a matrix in which not all the dots need to be joined together to get pleasure or meaning. They could exist as relational planes, one beyond the other but also circling within a cybernetic type of space in which the viewer can at best access only certain elements. Yet the desire to see them in their fullness is an enriching drive because there are always pleasures and meanings to be had behind and around the view on overt display by exploring relations, echoes, references, the little bytes of meaning, colour and design the bricoleur that is Almodóvar utilised in the overall design of the image to achieve its dramatic intent.
As an example of this unfolding in Almodóvar’s work let’s linger over Carmen Maura in Women. Up to that point she’d appeared in all of Almodóvar’s features bar Labyrinth of Passion (thought it might be worth noting that that film, like Women, has a similar race to the airport as the film’s finale). In Law of Desire she played Tina, a trans-sexual, who gets the lead in Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, and triumphs nightly onstage in a female monologue of a woman speaking to her invisible and inaudible lover who is leaving her to marry another woman.
This scene of Maura as Tina onstage as the protagonist of La Voix humaine, a great part that had already been enacted by great actresses and stars on-stage (Berthe Bovy), on vinyl (Hildegard Knef, Simone Signoret) and on-screen (Anna Magnani in L’Amore (Italy, 1948) a film directed by Rossellini which included Cocteau’s ‘La Voix humaine’ and also Federico Fellini’s ‘Il Miracolo’), then becomes the germ of the idea for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It’s a tour-de-force part for, to use Kenneth Tynan’s term, a ‘high-definitio’ performer — one can see why Poulenc turned Cocteau’s play into a one-act opera, in which form it continues to be staged as a showcase vehicle for a long line-up of illustrious opera divas, Lesley Garrett being but a recent example.
In Women, Carmen Maura plays Pepa, constantly too late to say to her ex-lover what she needs to tell him; he always having left just as she’s arriving; she in contact only with his recorded voice, smooth, professional. Carmen playing Pepa in a melodramatic screwball becomes Penelope Cruz playing Pepa but in the original script idea for Women on the Verge entitled Chicas Y Maletas (‘Chicks and Suitcases ‘or ‘Gals and Suitcases’, neither translation quite conveys that combination of girly-ness and hipness that ‘Chicas’ does – the logical equivalent something like a ‘cool chick’ to me always seems a moniker with an implied male designator or addressee, whereas ‘chicas’ has a communal female feel, a term used by women within a female context but to refer to youthful behavior that might border on the slightly transgressive) but this time in a film within a film composed within the porous, billowing fog of noir.
In Broken Embraces, Penelope Cruz is playing the Carmen Maura role. Maura had played Cruz’s mom in Volver. Pe is thus the Pepa once played by the actress who was to play her mom. But Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces is not just a version of Pepa, she is also and simultaneously a version of Audrey Hepburn, and Dietrich, and a film noir heroine, and an ideal movie star.
‘Chicas y Maletas’, Broken Embraces’ version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, gets barbarically destroyed in the initial edit by the industrialist villain in Broken Embraces. But at the end of that film, the remaining protagonists hover around a steenbeck looking at a restored section of ‘Girls and Suitcases’, and declare it wondrous and marvellous. Personally, I found it to be a pale, thin, sitcom imitation of the masterpiece that is Women.
As I was watching Women on the Verge there were moments when I was thinking simultaneously back to Law of Desire or Labyrinth of Passion and forwards onto Broken Embraces, and on different planes in relation to Magnani and Signoret, and also in relation to a whole history of female stardom in a variety of guises that seemed to somehow foreground glamour and film noir, all without losing sight of that wonderful comic timing, and still being moved by Maura, and still admiring the 80’s chic of it all. And there were many other moments in the film where this way of looking simultaneously diachronically but also within an extraordinary range of synchronic relations resulted in bursts of all kinds of pleasure.
There are some truly lovely moments: Angela Molina dancing with her grand-daughter, Maribel Verdú trying on Art Nouveau gowns, the bit where Macarena García is carried out of the bullring, the final tear. It is a re-telling of Snow White through clichés of Spanishness (Carmen, flamenco, bullfighting, the grotesque, esperpento) and using the style of late-period Silents. But I wouldn’t show this to children. There’s something very primal about fairy tales anyway: childhood reading of the Grimms have led to countless and long-lasting nightmares. But this touches on slightly darker areas, goes even further: not only murder, the killing of parents and children being rendered orphans but also s&m, a soupçon of sexual abuse. It all ends with a hint of white slavery, set in a freak show no less, and one from which there is no escape. It’s slightly camp, which is lovely as it adds that touch of theatrical excess in gesture which an edit into the eyes can then render as internal and emotive (Angelina Molina and Maribel Verdú throw themselves into the Silent vernacular and are glorious with it); But in spite of all the lovely work on the image, there’s something slightly off about all the extreme wide-angles and the too-sharp focus; it seems to take us away from the dream/nightmare scenario; the contemporary is put too much in evidence. Obviously influenced by The Artist but offering greater depth and more sophisticated pleasures. In the former cute little dogs wag their tale, beg for our applause and get it. Here, well let’s just say roosters don’t always get to crow another day.
The film is over thirty years old now, still potent, and now seems a lot darker than it used to, with the incest and the rapes taking on a different significance in the light of Almodóvar’s subsequent work. I first saw it in the mid-1980s at a packed midnight screening at the Alphaville cinema in Madrid where the audience itself made the event seem a party for and a celebration of what the film represented (a new way of being in a new Spain) and of themselves (a postmodern coalition of dissident youth cultures, gay and straight, with a shared view of the past and shared hopes for the future). The audience knew all the lines and uttered them before the characters in the film did, with the appearances of Fabio de Miguel as Fanny McNamara being greeted with particular enthusiasm (he remains a highlight, his very presence a witty and forceful protest against domineering institutions and homogenizing ideology).
This 25th of July, over thirty years later, it was the opening film at Kitoks Kinas, the LGBT film festival in Vilnius, introduced by His Excellency Don Miguel Arias Estévez in front a whole host of dignitaries (Ambassadors from The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark etc.). Lithuania is going through a transition not unlike what Spain went through in the 1980s. The right to a Gay Pride March through Vilnius City Centre was against the wishes of the City’s Mayor, had to be fought all the way through to the Supreme Court, and was won only just before the march itself, which took place in the face of vociferous right-wing opposition. It was an honour to be there and to participate. The Spanish Ambassador gave a witty and elegant introduction to the film explaining why it had been chosen to open the LGBT film festival in Vilnius and what it had meant to his generation in Spain.
Labyrinth of Passion was never a masterpiece. It is technically rough and the shoe-string budget (reported then at 20 million pesetas) is everywhere evident. However, it’s still cheeky, corrosive, queer punk at its best. Worth seeing for many reasons not least Fabio McNamara, early appearances from mainstays of Spanish-speaking film and TV such as Immanol Arias and Cecilia Roth and Antonio Banderas’ very first appearance on film, already fearless as an actor and clearly a star from the get-go, as a gay Muslim terrorist with pictures of the Ayatollah on his wall and an unerring sense of smell.
The scene with the sniffing of the nail polish, and the one where Almodóvar himself directs Fanny in a fotonovela where Fanny is pleasured by having his heart and his guts drilled, are still hilarious (and we get to see Almodóvar and McNamara in a rare, crudely camp performance of ‘Satanasa’ as well). And of course, all of Almodóvar’s themes (sexual identity, gender, uncontrollable desires, consumer culture, various kinds of violations, etc) are already present, some in scenes that recur and get better executed in later films (for example, the chase to the airport that we later see in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but many others as well).
Seeing the film again all these years later made me reflect on camp humour, and how the film’s deployment of it now seems so culturally specific. The film went over well but not brilliantly in Vilnius and I suspect it’s because some of the humour is simply untranslatable. One of the things that fascinates me about camp is that the structure of its operations seems to be transnational, you find it almost everywhere, certainly everywhere I’ve been to. But its specific manifestations are often highly coded, work on various levels simultaneously and only manifest to a few, those in the know. The reference points to La Movida, the pop and underground culture of the era, even the narrative woven by Hola (Hello magazine) throughout the 1960s about the tragedy of the Shah of Iran having to divorce Soraya, the woman he loved, because she couldn’t bear him children, the basis for the film’s story, all of these sets of knowledges that enhance one’s appreciation of the film, I don’t find to be essential.
However, much of the camp humour in Labyrinth of Passion comes not only from situation, which is relatively easy to get, in spite of missing specific references, but from dialogue. Almodóvar is simply brilliant at everyday quotidian dialogue. I sometimes felt that I could close my eyes when seeing his films and hear my aunts. But in this film more than others, those phrases work on multiple levels: who says them, the intonation with which they’re spoken, whether a line is inflected at beginning or end; all bring different meanings, draw on different sets of knowledges, set the perfect pitch and the optimum timing for the punch-line: the Vilnius audience only got the visual. Might this now be true of all audiences except the generation of Spaniards who grew up around the moment of the transition?
It’s worth remembering that the film was made a year after Colonel Tejero’s armed intervention in the Spanish Cortes, the coup that failed; that only a few years earlier, Almodóvar would have been arrested for such representations had they been possible; that in 1982 there was no guarantee that there would not be a political reversal (much as the situation now in the aftermath of the Arab Spring). To dare to make a film as nasty, as queer, as funny as this one in that context: no Spanish artist of the last four decades has been braver or more true to himself. Few have grown, developed and improved as much as he did since Labyrinth also. The film works best as a document of its time. Yet, the wit, the daring, the corrosive critique, the in-your-face queerness of it all still thrills, still shocks, still makes it worth seeing at any time.