It’s probably fair to say that Pedro Almodóvar’s films seem to be made specifically for José. It’s in every detail: the locations, eras, sexuality, ways of life, attitudes, class, love of cinema and countless other aspects of Almodóvar’s ouevre speak to José on a deep, intimate level. He’s watched every one of his films time and time again, and he considers Pain and Glory, which he has already seen twice and plans to see again, a masterpiece. Mike doesn’t have anything like such a specific relationship to Almodóvar, and indeed has only seen one other of his films, 2016’s Julieta, which he liked very much – and indeed he likes Pain and Glory just as much… though not quite as much as José.
We discuss how Pain and Glory stands alone but might benefit from being seen in relation to Almodóvar’s ouevre. Several of his regular collaborators appear, including Cecilia Roth, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano and Penélope Cruz; this film, as with The Law of Desire, Broken Embraces and Bad Education, is about a filmmaker; it makes use of art as an unconscious but pointed visual layering and underlying theme; images of characters writing on typewriters or computers show up – this is a film about, amongst other things, writing. Mike brings up the way chance events are used to drive the plot forward and thinks about how they’re contextualised; José praises how fluid Almodóvar’s storytelling is here, effortlessly bringing together disparate timelines and plot strands.
Is this autofiction, as the mother in the film accuses her filmmaker son of so often indulging in? José considers the appearance of Almodóvar’s own mother in his previous films and how so many of his previous films are in fact about mothers (All About My Mother and Volver being the most obvious examples). We discuss the structure of the film, the movement from the relationship with an actor who’s an addict to a previous relationship with an addict, through the performance of a confessional monologue titled Addiction, then a sexual awakening seen from a young boy’s point of view. Representations of Spain in the 50s, memories of the past and a present setting fluidly intermingle. We also consider its themes of illness, ageing and loss, and how it’s a film about cinematic expression, the revelation that half of the diegetic world is in fact a film within a film recontextualising half the story, similar to Bad Education but to different effect here.
It’s a film on which as soon as we finished, José regretted not saying more: The references to Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa, the clear allusion to Fellini’s 8½, the use of Rosalía to sing the song by the river, the section on films that feature water such as Splendor in the Grass and Niagara. He’s only scratched the surface of a great film.
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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 Breakdownbut 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.