Pedro Almodovar is already probably the single most hyped director in world cinema.
He seems to represent most of the things this newspaper so rightly despises. He inhabits the world of celebrity, gross wealth and media sycophancy.
But just this once, I don’t think we should hold that against him. Underneath the bling, Almodóvar is an always interesting and often brilliant filmmaker.
Partly this must be because Almodóvar is 56, Spanish and gay. Hollywood has always had a niche for gay directors (usually making movies for women). But Almodóvar grew up gay under the sexual terrorism of Franco’s viciously Catholic Spain. It was hard enough being discreetly gay in 1950s Hollywood, but under Francoism it was a matter of life and death.
Almodóvar’s formative years were also very different to the Hollywood brats who customarily made their first movies from their trust funds and parents’ credit cards.
He grew up poor in La Mancha, the poorest region of a dirt poor country. He migrated to Madrid, where he became part of the emerging La Movida, the “counterculture”, and he made his first movies basically with his mates.
It seems to me that even now these experiences give Almodóvar movies a special edge.
His early films are probably best seen as part of the “festival of the oppressed”, as Almodóvar (and Spain) revelled in the new freedoms that followed the collapse of fascism.
What built Almodóvar’s popularity in these films was his relish in using sex to mock staid, bourgeois Catholic Spain. Looking back, these movies are often visually exuberant and they are sometimes hilariously funny.
But the desperate need to shock soon becomes not just unshocking but boring and then annoying. In a way they reached the inevitable pits in 1993’s Kika, where Almodóvar chose to show the rape of Kika as a comedy (and the biggest “laugh” of all is that Kika is too stupid to realize she is being violated!).
But since that nadir, Almodóvar has re-invented himself as a much more “mature artist” (his words not mine) with a series of acclaimed movies - Live Flesh, All About My Mother (my very favourite film), Talk to Her and Bad Education.
The style and form of Almodóvar’s films make them not just ravishing in themselves, but very distinctive. Almost all mainstream movies go to great lengths to persuade an audience that what they see on screen is an image of a “real” world.
Almodóvar can’t be arsed with this and his movies use sets that look just like sets (often just curtains). They often hop and skip through time with just a title card (“One year later”) and Almodóvar again and again uses “performance within performance” - where characters are filmed while appearing on stage or in a studio “acting”.
There’s nothing intrinsically radical about any of this - daytime TV does it all the time after all - but Almodóvar seems to be stripping away some aspects of film’s pretences to external “realism” to emphasize emotional realism.
Almodóvar has (mainly) dropped the sex comedy and curbed his need to be shocking, and has instead moved to making melodramas. These used to be derided as “women’s weepies” because they focus on “relationships” and “emotional crises”, but they were the principle basis of women’s cinema for fifty years.
Talented gay directors such as Douglas Sirk, Busby Berkeley and George Cukor tended to make melodramas and musicals, and they produced some of the truly great, and truly radical Hollywood films. Today Hollywood has moved on from “the woman’s film” to the “chick flick”. There is a downside to melodrama, but what these films do is focus on women’s stories and women’s experiences.
In All About My Mother, the only adult male characters are two transsexuals and a bumbling idiot led around Madrid by his dog. And because of this, Almodóvar creates the most wonderful parts for actresses like Carmen Maura, Cecilia Roth and even Penelope Cruz. One of the great pleasures of Almodóvar films is watching great actresses given roles worthy of their talent.
The final quality that I see in Almodóvar is his compassion. Again this is clearest in All About My Mother. In Hollywood terms the “baddy” of this film is the transsexual Lola, and he/she would be defined as bad exactly by having a less than straight sexuality.
But in Almodóvar’s world view Lola is not a “baddy” and she is certainly not a “freak”. Indeed the emotional centre of the movie is as much the transsexual Agrado as it is the bereaved mother Manuela. In fact, in Almodóvar’s film world there is just no such thing as “normal” and “abnormal”. As Jean Renoir said, “Everybody has their reasons.”
In the direct meaning of the word, I could not claim that Pedro Almodóvar is a political filmmaker, let alone a left wing one. Neither could I claim that I much admire what I’ve read about him as a person. But in a broader sense, Almodóvar’s movies have a freshness, an empathy and an insight which can help us see our world more clearly, the better to change it.