In our third podcast on Almodóvar’s work we discuss his third film, ENTRE TINIEBLAS/ DARK HABITS (1983), the first film he did for a commercial production company, Tesauro SA. A very funny and subversive film, the plot revolves around a bolero singer (Cristina S. Pascual) whose boyfriend has overdosed on heroin and who finds shelter in the convent of The Humble Redeemers. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a heroin addict who’s in love with her; Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) takes acid to aid her visions; Sister Lost (Carmen Maura) has a fetish for cleanliness and a tiger for a pet; Sister Rat (Chus Lampreave) is a best selling writer of trash novels based on the lives of the young girls who pass by the convent, though her sister (Eva Siva) is stealing her credit and her money; Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) is in love with her confessor, who really wants to be a fashion designer. The film is a combination of noir, nun film, melodrama and musical all tied together by camp. Even Tarzan makes a coded appearance. It’s a film that would be very difficult if not impossible to make today. We discuss it’s context, boleros, camp, Almodóvar’s skill with actors, the chicas Almodóvar, a largely feminine space where men in drag nonetheless feature… and much more. A modest box office hit but his greatest success to that point and proof of his developing skills in mise-en-scène.
We discuss Almodóvar’s second feature, Labyrinth of Passion, where Almodóvar himself appears both as director and rock star in minor roles. We talk about its convoluted plot, its verbal and visual campyness, its anti-authoritarian stance and its status as a youth film. We note how even in his second film, there are evident connections with his first film (not least in the recurring cast) and plot strands that will re-appear subsequently (the airport scene in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). We talk about it (briefly) as a document of its time, particularly in relation to the Nueva Movida Madrileña. The plot is straight out of Hello magazine; the idea that sex, drugs and art are a fun path without pitfalls to liberation is straight out of underground comics. Richard Lester’s cinema is a clear influence. Fanny McNamara steals the show. We could have talked for a lot longer.
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.