Dario Llinares and I discuss Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces during the mini-retrospective hosted by Curzon Cinemas in August here: http://www.cinematologists.com/podcastarchive/2016/8/24/episode-29b-broken-embraces.
Continuing from first blogpost on Juan Madrid, I have now read the two first volumes of the Toni Romano series, currently published on a 35th anniversary edition, by B de Bolsillo: Un beso de amigo/Kiss From a Friend, 1980; and Las aparencias no engañan/ Appearances don’t lie. Romano is a former policeman and boxer, scraping a living doing things that could put the skills he was trained for to use (taking blows, finding people, security, doorman: as the series progresses, his jobs go from bad to worse). The first novel is set in the Madrid of the transition, the moment between Franco’s death in 1975 and Colonel Tejero’s attempted coup in ’81; the second is set immediately after; and both novels vividly evoke the period of the Transition.
There are Goyaesque vignettes such as a dwarf offering Toni a blowjob whilst her blind mother is seemingly asleep in the same room; drunks making a home in the parking lots under the Plaza Mayor; characters such as Zaza Gabor, playing his accordion in local restaurants in exchange for meals, neighbourhoods where everyone knows each other, each trying to work out the angles to survive; all against the police; all at a time of change and incertitude, with the rich and right-wing trying to hold on the power they wielded under Franco, funding thugs to beat the more liberal factions with; yet, with some of the certainties and completely accepted ways of being under the Franco years crumbling (there’s no Church so far in the novels; the family is the ultimate source of betrayal in the first novel; I’ll come to the police in a moment). Sex is everywhere, and it’s for sale.
Like with Vázquez Montalbán, Juan Madrid paints a picture of a known Madrid of the period and you can trace Romano’s walks (as I did with google maps) through the central neighbourhoods of Madrid (Sol, Plaza Mayor, Chueca, Gran Vía: the action is all very central except for a few forays to the more prosperous new suburbs or in order to deposit the odd body in the forests outside Madrid; all streets he mentions can be found; the books are like an artist’s pulpy and vernacular sketch of the human geography of the city of Madrid in the era of the transition to Democracy
As to the forces of law and order, Madrid is Marxist:
‘La policía, a pesar de los discursos y de las pamplinas que se escribían sobre ella, no servía para defender a los cidudadanos, sino para vigilarlos. Éramos una especia de guardia pretoriana de unos pocos, pagados por los impuestos de todos….Sé de comisarios con cuatro sueldos, algunos de profesor, acudir a burdeles y después condenar a prostitutas apelando la Ley de la Peligrosidad Social. A cambio de tanta corrupción, se conseguía una policía fiel y dedicada a encarcelar a desgraciados. Y el que no aceptaba aquella cosas era tratado como sospechoso o imbécil.
Me han dicho que ahora con la democracia las cosas han cambiado. No lo sé/
In spite of the discourses and all the nonsense written about it, the police is not there to defend citizens but to keep them under surveillance. We were a kind of of praetorian guard for the few, paid for from the taxes of all…I know of commissioners with four salaries, some as professors, going to brothels and subsequently arresting prostitutes under the Social Danger Laws. In exchange for so much corruption, one aquires a faithful police force dedicated to incarcerating the unfortunate. And whomever didn’t accept that was liable to be treated as either stupid or suspect.
They tell me Democracy has now changed those things. I don’t know’.
I’m finding Madrid’s novels most interesting. All his women lack depth; they’re stereotypical projections of sex, danger and betrayal. And yet, the (city of) Madrid of those years, which I know first hand, seems vivid; if one doesn’t look for depth, the line drawings of the people and social relations that peopled those streets in that time are as real and evocative to me as nothing else I know of except Almodóvar’s early films (which dealt with a different but intersecting side of that same [city of] Madrid).
I had a fantastic cinephiliac moment at the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museo do Cinema in Lisbon. As I was walking into the cafeteria with a friend, I noticed that as part of the permanent exhibition and hidden behind an old projector there was a poster for Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954), but rather different than the one originally designed to advertise the movie upon first release in America.
There, as we can see above, what was advertised was Joan Crawford, billed above the title and in lettering that seems even larger than that of the title itself. The tagline at the top trumpets ‘Joan’s greatest triumph’. The image of Joan Crawford occupies almost all of the left hand side of the poster. She’s wearing trousers but the light emphasises her bust. Joan is imaged as a ‘pistol-packin’ mama’, but a glamorously made-up one, and with romance evident beneath and between her legs, against a backdrop of a canyon cliff rising towards her crotch.
Joan Crawford was not only instrumental in selling the film but the driving force behind it being made at all. In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan delineates how ‘Crawford was considered the picture’s de facto producer’ (p.244), how she not only owned the rights to the novel but had bought them before publication and may ‘indeed have commissioned it’(p.246) with Roy Chanslor first writing the novel as a lengthy treatment in the film.
In the bottom quarter of the poster we see a lot of other things the film promises: Sterling Hayden with a gun, a posse with Mercedes McCambridge, small but dead-centre in the lower section of the poster’s composition. We also see fire and explosions. Below the title are the other famous people in the film in order of importance and in relatively small print, amongst them Hayden and McCambridge but also Scott Brady. That the film is in ‘Trucolor’ is also advertised; as is the fact that the film is a Republic Picture, in yellow and on the bottom right. This might have been unwise as Republic was known as the cheapo studio even though this was one of its priciest products, ostensibly budgeted at $2 million. That Nicholas Ray directed is shown in half the size of the co-stars billed under the title and a mere fraction of the size of Joan Crawford’s own billing. This is significant because it is so unlike the poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa.
If the original poster promised a ‘kiss-kiss, bang-bang’ western with Joan controlling the kissing and the banging, the later poster offered something else: a ‘Nicholas Ray Film’. As you can see in the poster above, Nicholas Ray is billed first, in lettering that seems the same size as the title but in a font that makes it seem less; the title of the film seems twice as large as the name of the director. Thus the poster conveys a particular message, which could be relayed as: the director, the film, the image; the dialogue or one of the most exchanges of dialogue in a superb scene from one of the most famous films by one of the greatest directors. The scene is of course, the famous ‘Lie to me’ scene; a gorgeous composition with Joan Crawford as Vienna, carefully framed and looking onto Hayden, occupies much of the centre of the poster. The image gives more importance to the stars than the billing in the poster does, in which Crawford is billed below the title and on the right, thus after Haydn: she might be rolling over in her grave now at the very thought.
Underneath is the dialogue (which I’ve taken from the film itself), some of the most famous in the history of cinema:
Johnny: ‘Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited. Tell me.
Vienna: ‘All these years I’ve waited’
Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t returned
Vienna: I would had died if you hadn’t come back’.
Jonny: Tell me you still love me like I love you
Vienna: I still love you as you love me
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
One could say that comparing the two posters indicate a shift in the appreciation of the importance of the director versus that of the stars. However, as we know from the tortuous billing of The Towering Inferno in the 1970s right down to the discussions of how much money James Toback can raise on the names of Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell in 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned (only 4-5 milion) stars remain central to the whole commercial cinematic apparatus. It would perhaps be more true to say that the posters for Johnny Guitar are addressing two different types of audience, one commercial, contemporaneous with the film and seeking to highlight what might attract it; the other, a later cinephile audience seeking art and film history. Does this shift over time and in terms of audience address not carry within it a soupçon of sexism? It’s almost like Joan Crawford and all she once meant has to be buried so that ‘Nicholas Ray’ can acquire its own set of meanings; auteurism, so founded on particular sets of specialised knowledges, as a kind of unwitting and socially unaware sexist erasure.
What incurred that moment of Cinephilia at the Cinemateca Portuguesa was not just the reference to the film, although that is potent in itself: I admire what David Thomson called its ‘bold incursion into camp’ and even remembered Truffaut’s assessment: ‘a string of preciosity, truer than truth…The bold, violent color (by TruColor) contributes to the sense of strangeness; the hues are vivid, sometimes very beautiful, always unexpected.’ However, at the Cinemateca there were also posters for so many other films that had meant as much to me just next to it (see the lovely one for the Astaire and Rogers Top Hat below).
What thrilled me at the Cinemateca was the memory of how Almodóvar had deployed the exact dialogue displayed in the poster in one of the most famous scenes in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pepa (Carmen Maura) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her lover has just left her. She’s got something important to tell him and he won’t let himself be found. They’re both actors who dub films. She’s at the studio dubbing Joan Crawford’s part in Johnny Guitar, her absent lover has already over-dubbed Sterling Hayden’s voice with his own.
As you can see above, Almodóvar starts with the mechanics of the film projector, cuts to an over-head shot that places the light thrown by the projector in the very middle of the frame, amidst the darkness of dimming lights, and creates a dream-like tone of feeling, of sadness and longing, that Pepa ads her voice to, that she voices but that also speaks her (and by turn Almodóvar and many of us).
In a stimulating round table on Cinephilia and the work of Jacques Rancière, Erika Balsom cites Serge Daney’s notion that ‘Cinephilia is not only a love for cinema. It’s a relation to the world through cinema’. That’s what we see in Almodóvars integration of the ‘Lie to me’ scene into the very narrative of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As her absent lover whispers in her earphones what Johnny (Hayden) is telling Vienna (Crawford), ‘Lie to me. Tell me something nice’, the camera resting on Carmen Maura’s face, lined, lived-in, so much more human than the architectonic iconicity Crawford’s conveys. But we do not see Crawford. Indeed, as you can see in the clip, we do not see Johnny Guitar in this moment of the film. It’s only the dialogue, the dialogue from the Johnny Guitar poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa, overdubbed so that it’s what Pepa and her lover, who cannot say this to each other in ‘life’, may do so through film. Johnny Guitar speaks Pepa’s relation to the world through cinema, and indeed, I would argue, as we can see through so many of his films, Almodóvar’s.
Later in the Rancière round-table, Balsom cites Raymond Bellour’s notion that the film body is a body that flees from us and we’re always left trying to recapture it through different kinds of practices. Not just a love of cinema but a set of practices that happen after and that try to recapture this lost experience. Perhaps that is what Almodóvar is doing in Women on the Verge. For me, the sight of the poster ignited a concatenation of old memories and new questions: What did the poster advertise? Who was it made for? Did Almodóvar see it? Were those bits of dialogue generally famous with a cinephile audience? Were they also part of a shared queer culture of the moment? My cinephile moment was not just an attempt to recapture the feeling of seeing this moment in Johnny Guitar, or in Women on the Verge, or in the relation between the two, though it was all of that; it was also a spark to action: to realise there’s more to discover and to know; a moment of trying to recapture something lost that simultaneously leads to the accretion — perhaps creation — of something new.
I’ve been trying, whenever I remember, to signal articles that I wrote elsewhere but are easily available online. This was one of the interviews I did with Almodóvar in his middle period for The Guardian:
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.
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.