Stephen Arnell

A film lover’s guide to the best of Almodóvar

A film lover's guide to the best of Almodóvar
Penelope Cruz in Abrazos Rotos, directed by Pedro Almodóvar (Shutterstock)
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After some lengthy troughs and fallows, iconic Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is enjoying a purple patch with critical acclaim for 2019’s autobiographical Pain & Glory and his new picture Parallel Mothers.

Star Penélope Cruz is tipped to have a good chance of winning the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as middle-aged mother-to-be Janis Martinez.

But if anyone believes that advancing years (he turned 72 last September) have tamed the provocateur, they should think again, as the film’s theatrical release poster (featuring a lactating nipple) was temporarily censored by Instagram.

Although not many people in the UK actually pay to see his films, it’s probably fair to say that Almodóvar is the best-known Spanish film director alive today; possibly ever.

Only Luis Buñuel (Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and an acknowledge influence on the director), Carlos Saura (Tango) Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes) and Bigas Luna (Golden Balls) have anything approaching Almodóvar’s name recognition to non-cineastes.

Emerging from the heavy hand of the Franco regime’s Catholic censorship, the young Pedro took full advantage of the new democracy’s cultural liberalisation to begin his lengthy career as a filmmaker and iconoclastic thorn in the side of Spanish traditionalists.

An intensely personal director, Almodóvar has written all his motion pictures, mostly from original ideas, with the occasional adaptation.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that no-one has yet remade any of his movies – barring Richard Benjamin’s aborted attempt to makeWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown with Jane Fonda and wife Paula Prentiss. The film was eventually adapted into the stage musical of the same name, earning mixed reviews.

That’s not to say that Almodóvar is a one-man operation; he has had many fruitful movie partnerships, including launching the career of frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas and working with a stock company of actors (including Victoria Abril, Carmen Maura, Fabio MacNamara, Rossy de Palma and Eva Silva) who regularly appear in his pictures.

Penélope Cruz has featured in six of Pedro’s movies (including upcoming Parallel Mothers), but owes her big break to rival director Bigas Luna, who cast her in the romantic comedy Jamón Jamón (1992) along with Javier Bardem, who starred in Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997).

The director also brought in Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace to provide character costuming on Kika, his prescient satire of exploitative ‘Reality TV’.

One person Almodóvar is unlikely to partner with is Madonna. Pedro still harbours some resentment against the star for the treatment of himself and Banderas in her documentary In Bed with Madonna (1991), saying that, ‘Madonna treated us like simpletons’.

Banderas’ then wife Ana Leza was exiled to the end of the dinner table so the singer could get to know him better.

Ana purportedly approached Madonna when she appeared to be getting too frisky with her husband (who at that point spoke no English): 'I see you like my husband, it doesn’t surprise me, all women like him, but I don’t mind because I am very modern.'

Madonna’s riposte: 'Get lost.'

Almodóvar’s next film will be A Manual for Cleaning Women, his debut English language feature.

Cate Blanchett stars in what I presume will be a portmanteau movie, as Almodóvar adapts Lucia Berlin’s (1936-2004) posthumously published collection of short stories about women with demanding, low-paid jobs and equally hardscrabble lives. In the meantime, here are ten other films worth a watch.

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

This early low budget entry in Almodóvar’s canon displayed his trademark themes of female frustration and family dysfunction, throwing in forgeries of Hitler’s letters, a telekinetic child, drug pushing, a paedophile dentist, amphetamine addiction and prostitution to further spice things up. It owes a heavy debt to Roald Dahl’s short story Lamb to the Slaughter.

All in all, a useful primer to Almodóvar; but best to skip if you’re not willing to enter the director’s sometimes gleefully sordid world.

Matador (1986)

With an opening scene that depicts a retired bullfighter masturbating to a slasher movie, the viewer is thrown into the deep end in this lurid tale of multiple murder and sexual identity.

Antonio Banderas (in his first starring role for the director, after a small role in 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion) plays Ángel, a confused lad who thinks he may be a killer.

Some will recognise co-star Assumpta Serna as Sean Bean’s lady friend Teresa Monero from the British TV series Sharpe (1993-94 episodes). This must have been a happy experience for the actress, as she met husband actor Scott Cleverdon on the show, who she remains married to.

Law of Desire (1987) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Banderas again starred in the following year’s Law of Desire, playing Antonio, a young man from an establishment family who embraces his homosexuality after sleeping with Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela - Intacto) director of the gay movie The Paradigms of the Mussel.

Antonio becomes obsessed with the filmmaker, who regarded the encounter as merely an enjoyable one-night stand; this fixation leads to murder, amnesia, and a final fatal hostage siege.

As in What Have I Done to Deserve This? Germans are portrayed in a less than flattering light, with horror actress Helga Liné as Banderas’ domineering mother.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Still probably the Almodóvar movie most familiar to cinemagoers around the world, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was his breakthrough picture in terms of international recognition.

Loosely based on Jean Cocteau’s play La Voix humaine (1930), this convoluted farce is a lighter romp through Pedro’s familiar themes and none the worse for that.

Banderas again stars, together with the director’s repertory company of Carmen Maura, Rossy de Palma and Julieta Serrano.

If you haven’t seen an Almodóvar movie before, WOTVOANB is possibly the best place to start – before venturing into his more outré work.

Pedro revisited Cocteau’s play in 2020 for the 30-minute Tilda Swinton solo chamber piece The Human Voice his first English language project.

High Heels (1991)

My abiding memory of High Heels is the movie’s distinctive poster, which I proudly displayed on the wall of one of my first flats, a post-university attempt at artiness common at the time.

What about the movie, you’re probably asking? High Heels represents a change of pace for Almodóvar, as this mother/daughter melodrama harks back to the films of Douglas Sirk and Ingmar Bergman, namely Autumn Sonata (1978) which is referenced in the picture.

Of course, the director also riffs on his usual leitmotifs of sex, murder, and jealousy, but the movie also shows Pedro’s more sombre side.

Kika (1993) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Although Almodóvar doesn’t much care for Kika, I rather like the picture, which was ahead of its time in terms of predicting the depressing world of Reality TV.

Decidedly not a family film, as voyeurism, rape, murder, and infidelity feature heavily, which has the rarity for Almodóvar of including an American actor in the cast.

This is the wonderful Peter Coyote, who, as with the previous year’s Bitter Moon (1992 – Roman Polanski) proved that onscreen at least he’s pretty much game for anything.

Live Flesh (1997) – MUBI, Amazon Rent/Buy

One wouldn’t automatically think that Inspector Wexford writer Ruth Rendell and Pedro Almodóvar would be a natural fit, but his loose adaptation of her 1986 novel Live Flesh is an interesting diversion for the filmmaker.

And after all, Rendell’s work has also formed the basis for pictures by fellow auteurs Claude Chabrol, Francois Ozon and Claude Miller.

Javier Bardem’s only role (to date) for the director sees the actor play David, a cop partially paralysed from a hostage situation (another recurring theme for Almodóvar).

When the man responsible for his injury (Victor Plaza - Liberto Rabal) is released from prison, a proverbial can of worms is opened for all concerned.

Almodóvar works well in the thriller genre, and his obsessions with sex and death mesh well with the source material.

Broken Embraces (2009) – MUBI, Amazon Rent/Buy

The director distilled many of his idées fixes into this Penelope Cruz starrer, which has echoes of Hitchcock and Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978).

A now blind film director Mateo (Lluís Homar) recalls his love for actress Lena (Cruz), her possessive millionaire lover Ernesto (José Luis Gómez) and the car accident where she died, and he lost his sight.

As with many other Almodóvar pictures, a revelation of the true parentage of a character forms part of the plot, but to little obvious dramatic purpose in Broken Embraces.

The film includes what must be every director’s nightmare; Mateo’s last movie was released using the worst take from each scene in revenge by Ernesto when he discovered the filmmaker and Lena were lovers.

The picture ends on a happy-ish note when Chicas y maletas (Girls and Suitcases) is finally re-released as Mateo intended.

The Skin I Live In (2011) – MUBI, Amazon Rent/Buy

Although always fascinated by operations and physical change, Pedro plunges full tilt into the ‘Body Horror’ genre with The Skin I Live In, based on Thierry Jonquet's 1984 novel Tarantula.

Reuniting with Antonio Banderas after 21 years (the last movie together was 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), the actor plays a manipulative plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard who forcibly conducts a sex change operation on Vicente (Jan Cornet) who he mistakenly believes raped his daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez).

Ledgard models Vicente into a duplicate of his late wife Vera (Elena Anaya); things unsurprisingly do not end well.

Pain & Glory (2019) - MUBI

Many critics agree that the autobiographical Pain & Glory is Almodóvar’s finest motion picture to date, one which earned multiple festival prizes and an Academy Awards Best Actor nomination for star Antonio Banderas.

Harking back to films such as Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and (to a lesser extent) All That Jazz (1979), Banderas is Salvador Mallo, a film director suffering from both career decline and a host of physical/mental ailments.

An encounter with estranged actor friend Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) results in Salvador developing a taste for heroin, prompting an elliptical reverie of his past.

The director meets old friends, lovers and recalls his strained relationship with his late mother.

Pain & Glory concludes positively though, as a drug-free Salvador undergoes successful throat surgery and recovers his creative verve.