At this point in film history, there are really only two Spanish directors who stand head and shoulders above the rest, at least in terms of critical acclaim and mainstream popularity. Surrealist deviant Luis Buñuel and our subject today Pedro Almodóvar are two filmmakers whose careers served in tandem to one another, separately breathing life and energy into a national cinema that has sometimes been nullified by governmental and social patrolling. In 1977 Buñuel released his final film, a dark comedy about male sexuality and lust, That Obscure Object of Desire, whilst in 1980 Almodóvar burst onto a Spanish cinema scene that was licking its wounds with the campy, almost grotesque comedy, Pepi, Luci, Bom. There are always going to be slight similarities between the two icons of Spanish film but what this new collection of Almodóvar’s early films prove is that he occupies an island all of his own, an island mostly decorated with garish wallpaper and filled with people wearing coconut bikinis.
Almodóvar’s films may have a surrealistic edge to them but they are certainly not dreams in the way that Buñuel’s were. Even at his most coherent, Buñuel was a trickster who never wanted his audience to sit in comfortable ecstasy and always wanted them to feel like the screen was a window to the inner mind. Almodóvar is far more interested in people, in the decisions we make in everyday life and how these decisions would be effected through the lens of melodrama, noir, horror, screwball comedy and any other genre his schizophrenic tongue can taste. His films are not dreams but parallel universes where the movies we watch have become the life we live but nobody is aware of it. Coincidence, fate, realism, fantasy and solipsism collide and create something that is difficult to dismiss in terms of iconic Latin cinema.
These five early films are not all examples of the director at the zenith of his complex, exotic weave of Latin tapestry but they are all fascinating insights into a career that has veered from one cinematic movement to another whilst never losing that extreme sense of creativity and inspiration. An indicator of how antagonistic and almost surly Almodóvar could be is the first film in this set, Dark Habits (1983), a illicit yet humorous comedy (an already developing trend) that follows a young woman taking shelter in a monastery full of nuns who are as morally bankrupt as the rest of the world. Shot with a grimy tinge around the edges to match its pitch-black tone, it’s a shame that the ideas here aren’t approached with enough finality or fluidity. It feels like the early film that it is and serves as an example of a young director being unable to match his own creativity with a cultured virtuosity.
That being said, his subsequent film, the smartly titled What Have I Done to Deserve This? is the best of this particular bunch and worth its place in any sort of Almodovar canon. Putting a satirical shine on the bland story of a lonely housewife and infusing it with a biting wit and a jarring, yet sensual, tonal imbalance makes for an instantly vibrant and captivating piece of cinema. Each character, no matter how big or small, is given much detail and verve to work with, a key way in which Almodóvar builds his worlds and then embellishes them. The director himself had described this film as a nod to Italian neo-realism but you can’t help but feel this is more of a platform to build his ideas up from. Neo-realism had characters of juxtaposed strength and pitiful sorrow but very rarely did it imbue them with such style and the comedy that is found here. And Carmen Maura? Nothing but one of the best leading ladies of all time.
Law of Desire (1987), Kika (1993) and Flower of My Secret (1995) are deeper cuts into Almodóvar’s catalogue, films which showcase all of his famous trademarks (complex female characters, lust getting in the way of life, sexuality as perversion and as purity) but don’t quite resonate as much as his more streamlined efforts. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), quite possibly his most acclaimed film, is a stagey, hilarious assault on the role expected of the female in a screwball comedy (and in a screwball society) and acts as the easiest entry point into a career that a few paragraphs cannot really do justice to. Nevertheless, Almodóvar is not simply a director for the Spanish but a director for everyone, a comedian, a masochist, a fighter and a lover, much like Bunuel there won’t be another director like this out of Spain for a long time. Enjoy him whilst you can.
The Almodovar Collection from Studio Canal came out on September 19th and is available to buy here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Almodovar-Boxset-Blu-ray-Cristina-Pascual/dp/B01GQ26MIE