The cinema of Pedro Almodóvar is inextricably linked to melodrama; the Spanish director’s most famous and acclaimed films to date have all fallen firmly within that genre’s boundaries, even as they tear at and challenge its preconceptions. His greatest works — All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002) — offer complex and innovative reversals of the genre’s trappings, showcasing the filmmaker’s exquisite control of mise-en-scène and tightly-wound narrative corkscrews.
But the melodrama, though it has been the key to Almodóvar’s ascension up to the ranks of vaunted European auteurs, has also hemmed him in at times. The Almodóvar of the 80s and early 90s is an altogether different beast than the one who, after The Flower of My Secret (1995), would tend increasingly to the sensitive, respectable and expertly controlled melodramas that would become his trademark.
For all their qualities, Almodóvar’s weaker 21st century films (Bad Education and Julieta especially) sometimes feel so tightly controlled and crafted that there’s a sense of airlessness to them. Their respectability becomes their own death, vestiges of a thoroughly middle-class arthouse sensibility that privileges aesthetics for their own sake over energy or perspective.
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That sense of auteurist control is still prevalent in Almodóvar’s early works (they are nothing if not unmistakeably his), but there is more fire. The early films have heat and chaos, a sense of exploration that is often missing from the director’s later works. There’s a freedom and liberation to them that just isn’t apparent later. This may just be a side-effect of an artist aging and maturing, becoming surer of what it is he wants to say. It may also simply be a sign of the times. Almodóvar emerged in the 80s in the wake of Spain’s La Movida Madrileña movement, the emergence of a counterculture appearing concurrently with the transition to democracy in the wake of Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. With multiple generations experiencing democracy for the first time, there came a sense of experimentation and boundary-pushing. Such fruitful antagonism might well not appear so shocking 20, 30 or 40 years down the line (though who knows, the recent jailing of rapper Pablo Hasel for tweets criticising the state and Royal family suggests the spirit of Franco still lives on in some form).
That sense of energising freedom through cinema is visible throughout Almodóvar’s first 10 features, up until the aforementioned The Flower of My Secret, which one can readily take as helpful dividing line in the before and after of his career. Whether it is nunsploitation in Dark Habits (1983), the erotic thriller that is Matador (1986) or the screwball comedy of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), each one of these films takes on a genre (or two, or three or 10) and rips apart its conventions in search of freedom. Each one represents a new development in Almodóvar’s process as a writer-director, engaging with different elements of Spanish culture through his own lens.
Very little is off-limits in early Almodóvar. With Dark Habits, he quite directly cannibalises Catholicism, which remains a big part of Spanish daily life and culture, but was even more so during Franco’s dictatorship. As with many conservatives, Franco made a fetishization of the religious iconography of the Catholic church. This obsession with symbolism (no different to most authoritarian regimes whether left, right or centrist) found itself targeted time and time again by the young Almodóvar and none more so than in Dark Habits. Though it stars Cristina Sánchez Pascual as Yolanda, a young nightclub performer who hides in a convent after her boyfriend dies from an overdose, the film focuses more on the nuns who populate the convent, a group of drug-addicted murderesses and ex-prostitutes with names like Sister Rat (Chus Lampreave), Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) and Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas).
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The convent, it seems, functions as a hideaway and recuperation spot for many downtrodden women, looking to escape abusive relationships and substance dependencies, with the nuns taking on the vices of those who pass through the walls. Thus, this offers the director a chance to gleefully delve into subverting Catholic imagery; the Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is addicted to heroin, Sister Manure uses acid trips to enact corporal self-punishment and Sister Rat lives a secret life as a best-selling novelist, appropriating the stories of the girls who pass through and publishing them through her sister on the outside.
Dark Habits happily utilises the tropes of the nunsploitation genre that populated Europe’s bustling B-movie genre industry during the 70s, and Almodóvar sets up the expectations of a lurid, shocking film that leans into its camp and highly stylised world. And although there is plenty of shock value to be found in the frankness of a story about drug-addicted nuns (Dark Habits caused an outcry in a conservative Spain still moving on from Francoism), what’s remarkable is how toned-down the events of the film are. Titillation — both violent and sexual — is the name of the game when it comes to the pleasures of exploitation cinema, so when Almodóvar treats the Mother Superior’s romantic feelings for Yolanda with the utmost seriousness (in early 80s Spain!), the agency he gives his female characters is its empowering liberation, greater than any amount of hedonism.
Dark Habits’ focus remains on the interior lives of the nuns and Yolanda’s recuperation. The fact that they snort cocaine in their spare time is treated as secondary to the love they treat each other with. The absurd humour of Sister Manure’s acid trips is contrasted with the dark side of her desire for self-punishment. The reveal behind Sister Rat’s double life is hilarious (Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave was a truly gifted comic actress), but it is contrasted with the questions around her effectively stealing the stories of the many impoverished women who have stayed at the convent, and her own evident desires to leave the convent.
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Where a more single-minded director might have used the opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy and myopia inherent to organised religious institutions, Almodóvar avoids the obvious targets. Dark Habits is instead filled with a generosity and love for his characters — the version of Christianity that these nuns live is arguably closer to the original teachings of forgiveness and love. The convent itself is beset by financial issues, at the mercy of much bigger forces than religion, suggesting that the real driver of religious institutions has never been about faith, but money and power. There’s nothing new or radical about that statement, but what is radical is how Almodóvar was able to take this huge emblem of Spanish culture — which gives the country much of its vibrancy at the same time as dragging it towards conservatism — and reimagines it in a way that is loving and contradictory, all without judgement.
Almodovar would continue to subvert those genre expectations in his next film, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a working-class mother and housewife whose frustrations with her ignorant husband boil over into his eventual murder. As a symbol of Francoist patriarchy, the husband serves to send up male conservatism — he frequently harks back to an affair he once had in Germany with a Nazi-era singer, and it’s clear he has plenty of fascist sympathies.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? takes on many of the elements of the neorealistic family drama — working-class characters, eking out a living, living in a cramped apartment, constantly struggling to make ends meet. The set design of Gloria’s apartment is a gloriously messy thing, with aging green wallpaper and grime everywhere. The set design in Almodóvar’s films is rarely less than beautiful, but even in later films when he returns to working-class characters (Volver probably being the stand-out), they are beautiful and colour-coded in a way that highlights their film-set artificiality. This is not a bad thing, but rather a consistent feature of Almodóvar’s films. What Have I Done to Deserve This? is one of the rare moments where an Almodóvar set looks lived-in and grimy.
Yet even with all of that effort expended on highlighting the downtrodden predicament of his characters, Almodóvar takes every effort to push What Have I Done to Deserve This? away from its neorealistic origins, using the family drama as merely a point of origin and not an end unto itself. There are bizarre moments that seem to arrive from entirely different films — a side plot that involves Gloria letting her gay teenage son live with a paedophile dentist, and a pre-teen girl in a neighbouring flat who turns out to have Carrie-esque telekinetic powers.
By taking every chance to break out of a neorealistic structure, Almodóvar discovers freedom in Gloria’s story, a shift away from patriarchal modes of control, even if that freedom comes at the cost of murder. He spoke of the film as being “about the liberation of women, even if it takes killing.” It’s that sense of glee and chaos that empowers his early films, sorely missing from much of the later work. Here is a filmmaker taking on a genre generally associated with critically-acclaimed respectable pictures — the working-class drama, the kind that Ken Loach has made a career out of — and flipping it towards thoroughly disrespectable modes: fantasy, shock humour, absurdity. Even when it doesn’t work, What Have I Done to Deserve This? feels refreshingly memorable in a way that sticks.
Early Almodóvar’s peak would come in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, mixing the melodrama of a Douglas Sirk movie and the antics of a screwball comedy. The film, much of it set in Pepa’s (Carmen Maura) penthouse apartment, absolutely revels in its artificiality, with the backdrops referring to Golden-Age Hollywood’s reliance on studio-built sets. The intro also features one of Almodóvar’s patented double-bluff intros, pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes as to what is real and what isn’t. In the opening, Pepa’s ex-lover, Iván (Fernando Guillén), declares his love in what sounds like a recorded message, but it’s then revealed that he’s working on a Spanish dub of Nic Ray’s Johnny Guitar (itself a queer melodrama disguised as a Western). It’s an exquisite foreshadowing of a film about a group of women finding out they’ve been lied to and reclaiming their independence, disguised as a screwball comedy.
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That rampant artificiality is key to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’s deconstruction and re-alignment of its genre elements: female hysteria is a trope with a history far deeper than film, utilised as comic relief and plot driver in many far weaker works of art (crucially however, almost never in Sirk’s melodramas, which treat the interior world of women with as much frankness as Almodóvar). Each of the women who drive the plot are, at the beginning, defined by the men in their lives: passion for Iván drives Pepa’s breakdown; fear of being embroiled into a terrorist plot drives Candela’s (María Barranco) panic; the domineering nature of Marissa (Rossy de Palma) seems to be driven primarily by her partner’s unwillingness to commit.
But as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown consistently fixates on the tools of media reproduction (the dubbing studio, the tape recorder where Pepa agonisingly awaits a call from Iván, a record player playing a couple’s favourite song), the characters replay and re-evaluate their relationships. Recorded media can reproduce what was said and felt at a given moment; being able to replay these moments and analyse them gives the various women the opportunity to find liberation by re-assessing the narrative of what’s gone before. It’s a distinctly postmodern, elegant solution to their concerns, and it’s notable that the one woman most hemmed into a traditional mode of thinking (Iván’s wife, played by Serrano) is also the one who struggles most to liberate herself from conservative ideals of femininity and masculinity.
Almodóvar has frequently returned to many of the core themes from his early 80s films, but rarely with the same glee and abandon. It’s notable that his worst film, the airplane comedy I’m So Excited from 2013, attempts to hit that same streak of absurdity as his earlier films but just feels flat and constrained instead. It is of course, useless to demand a director returns to his early work, especially given that it emerged from a very specific time and place in Spanish history. But for all the praise showered on Almodóvar’s later work, it lacks the wildness, freshness and exuberance of his 80s filmography, which often feels unfairly overlooked as a result.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.