Antonio Banderas’ first appearance for Almodóvar (and only his second film), cruising Imanol Arias in Labyrinth of Passion (1982):
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.
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.