Pedro Almodóvar probably more than most directors understands the fundamentally but often forgotten fact cinema is first and foremost a visual medium. He came out of the cultural movement La Movida Madrileña which happened immediately after the death of the Fascist dictator Franco. It was kind of like the Spanish answer to Punk Rock but also to the new-found freedom of expression which came with the death of a dictator. His first handful of films dealt directly with this.
This new Blu-Ray set contains mostly his ’80s films but misses out his very punky debut Pepi, Luci, Bom, the increasingly hard to find Labyrinth of Passion and one of his very best and a favourite of Quentin Tarantino Matador. Hopefully this is rectified down the line with a second volume of films. The first film in the set is Dark Habits which is one of his weakest sadly despite a promising premise.
Dark Habits is a bit like those early Cronenberg films Stereo and Crimes of the Future where reading about is probably more funny that watching it. It’s about the nightclub singer Yolanda (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who seeks refugee after supplying her lover with smack which he overdoses and dies out. She hides out with a convent of Nuns who are lesbians and snort smack. However it never gels completely, the pacing is totally off, Almodóvar’s humour isn’t quite perfected and even Almodóvar himself considers it one of his weaker efforts. Almodóvar basically had to rewrite the entire film last-minute because Pascual simply wasn’t as good as actress as he really needed for the film but it was too late to recast.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? is the first film Almodóvar did which he really gels his trademark style down. One of his many go-to actresses Carmen Maura plays the lead of Gloria who is a housewife who lives with her husband and their two sons, one who is a homosexual and the other a small-time drug dealer. It’s all set in tower blocks in Madrid and has an air of Sirkian melodrama (something he constantly goes back too) and also an influence from Italian Neo-Realism. However he can never escape being a part of lineage of Luis Buñuel so there are surrealistic elements including a telekinetic girl and a ridiculous scene where the mother sells her son to a paedophile dentist. It’s an important stepping done in his work to the films he would become world known for.
The next film Law of Desire is perhaps my favourite of his films and also undeniable one of his two most autobiographical films, the other is his masterful Bad Education. Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela) plays a roman-à-clef of Almodóvar a Gay film director who falls madly in love with Antonio (Antonio Banderas) and they go on a crazed love affair which involves murder, rape and eventually a suicide. Alongside the crazed love story Tina (Carmen Maura) who is Pablo’s sister who once was his brother and is having a sexual relationship with her father, typical crazed transgendered fun from Almodóvar. Her biological mother is played by a transgendered actress which is a deliberate choice by Almodóvar which I’m sure in today’s day and age would be frowned upon. Almodóvar is one of the few directors who has constantly hired transgendered actresses as well.
Even thought the events obviously didn’t happen to Almodóvar you can’t help but see a parallel to him he was finally get international renown for his films but obviously was dissatisfied his films. He may have been in an increasingly unsatisfying relationship but who knows. However Almodóvar along with his previous film Matador really cements himself as a master filmmaker, the cross dissolve of Quintero and his lover snorting cocaine which become snowflakes when they drive on his motorcycle is spellbinding. It also marked Antonio Banderas as a bona-fide star, Madonna famously wanted to meet him after she saw the film and they briefly dated.
The final film of the ’80s for Almodóvar is perhaps his most well-known Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. He was already a solid cult figure in World Cinema but this film made him an auteur to be reckoned with and got his films seen where they hadn’t before. It even spawned a musical which played both Broadway and The West End of London.
The film is partly based on Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice but it’s only a jumping off point and then Almodóvar’s cinematic insanity comes in. The TV actress Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura) has been dumped and is frantically calling her boyfriend who has just dumped her. Her friend Candela (María Barranco) has been frantically calling her with her woes and comes around. However Pepa’s boyfriend’s son and his fiancée come around to look at the apartment because they are apartment hunting. Everyone is more connected than previously believed and it becomes just pure farce and always check what is in the gazpacho before you drink it.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown remains the pinnacle of the campy farcical comedies Almodóvar made his name on. It’s also really the first film where he had enough money to fully indulge in the Sirkian production design he always wanted but couldn’t afford. The backdrops and models used have a feel artificial look which was one of Sirk’s trademarks but also recalls much of the classic Hollywood films Almodóvar adores. Everything really gels from the humour, the production and costume design, the performances he had found all his key players who he would constantly work with at this point except for Penélope Cruz. It all runs at a breakneck speed of 89 minutes which is really the the best length for a comedy.
It was a huge successful across the world and also was one of the first of his films which was a critical hit in his native Spain where he was not liked by the establishment film critics. He had it made and would soon become infamous in the US due to the release of his next film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! which had a dealt with sadomasochism and the Feminists despised it which is funny given the fact you couldn’t get a more feminist filmmaker than Almodóvar. The discs all include a introduction with José Arroyo and a featurette on each film and for the most of the films the theatrical trailer is also included.