Pedro Almodóvar was born a scrapper, which is to say that he invented his own life as an artist one gesture at a time: improvising a film education during the Franco era (by going to the movies—lots of movies); showing his first experimental Super 8 films on the underground circuits of Barcelona and Madrid and performing his own live soundtracks; developing a loyal team of collaborators who banded together to make his first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom, in 1980, and quickly following that up with Labyrinth of Passion (1982), Dark Habits (1983), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987), and his international breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). With these brilliantly colored and wildly inventive films, Almodóvar would develop a fresh, unique approach to cinema that swooped and soared between dark and light comedy, camp and straight melodrama, often from moment to moment within scenes. As in Hitchcock, the tone is often playful but the material itself is always serious, and at the heart of the work—really, at the heart of every Almodóvar film—is the law of omnisexual desire. The director’s “vision of desire,” as he once explained in an interview, is “both very hard and very human. By this I mean the absolute necessity of being desired and the fact that, in the interplay of desires, it’s rare that two desires meet and correspond.” When two desires do meet, as in the controversial 1990 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Átame!), they collide violently (and entertainingly), before they finally synthesize.
Would it have been possible for Almodóvar to explore the terrain of desire so freely without his devoted collaborators, including editor José Salcedo, director of photography José Luis Alcaine, and the director’s brother and producer Agustín Almodóvar? This list of cocreators also includes a rotating stock company of actors whose core member, Antonio Banderas, is the unhinged “romantic lead” of Tie Me Up! We started thinking about Almodóvar over coffee in the East Village by talking about teamwork in movies. —KJ
KENT JONES: Almodóvar puts me in mind of Bergman and Oshima.
WES ANDERSON: I think Bergman and Almodóvar may be the two best examples of great filmmakers who are writers at least as conspicuously, who have worked regionally, in their own country and their own language, over and over again, and have never particularly left them, at least so far, to go make a Hollywood movie or any other kind of international thing—except we know Bergman had some tax problems, and he had to do a couple in Germany or Norway or somewhere—and who have been completely true to their own particular, idiosyncratic, refined kind of filmmaking, with their own group of collaborators, working over and over again with their own stock company of actors, who we’ve gotten to know well, their own director of photography, designer, composer, things like that.
KJ: And in both cases, working in countries with relatively small film industries.
WA: There are other Spanish filmmakers we know, but—tell me if I have this wrong—I think there are two giants: there’s Buñuel and Almodóvar. And Almodóvar sort of follows from . . .
KJ: Buñuel left. He made films outside of Spain.
WA: He did, but then he came back.
KJ: And then he went back to Mexico, and then he went to France.
WA: But Almodóvar, I think he picks up the thread from Buñuel. You certainly register that he comes from the same place. There’s a sensibility and a surrealism in Almodóvar, a different kind, there are things that link them. They both make movies where there’s great drama but that are always still funny. There’s a kind of sexual strangeness and peculiarity and violence that’s usually funny. There are dreams, and there are terrorists.
KJ: Something that’s not in Buñuel: a close relationship with forties and fifties Hollywood, with the imagery of those films, the glamour of the actors, the light and the color. There’s nothing ironic about it, because entertainment is just as important for Almodóvar as it was for the Old Hollywood directors and producers and studio heads. “It’s important not to forget that films are made to entertain,” he once told an interviewer. “That’s the key.”
WA: I like that he wants them to be ultra-entertaining, and he’ll put everything in. He’ll go as far as he wants to go, and they’re very beautiful—and some of them are wilder than others, whereas some are very contained and focused, but they all still have his sense of humor, even the most dramatic, saddest ones.
KJ: Like All About My Mother .
WA: Well, All About My Mother has lots of funny stuff. I mean, the film has the character of the partially transgendered friend— Agrado, she’s called—and she is a comic character through the whole story, but with a big heart, whereas—
KJ: Talk to Her , on the other hand, is more of a melodrama . . . And Bad Education .
WA: What’s your favorite?
KJ: Talk to Her.
WA: My favorite is All About My Mother.
KJ: They’re very close.
WA: I mean, they’re one and the next, right?
On the IMDB page for Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! recently, there was a reader’s post with the heading “Teacher showed this in class, got suspended.” This might be the last gasp of controversy for a film that created a stir when it was released in the United States in 1990. Almodóvar’s uproarious story of the gradually blooming love between a recently released mental patient (Banderas) and the woman he has kidnapped, a former porn star and drug addict and the object of his single-minded obsession (Victoria Abril), was slapped with an X rating by the MPAA, which was unsuccessfully appealed by the film’s American distributor, Miramax (this was one of the films that led to the introduction of the NC-17 rating). It was also targeted by feminists because of its heady mixture of Stockholm syndrome and comedy. All of which has exactly nothing to do with this baroquely plotted comic plunge into the mystery of human bonding, which begins, like many of Almodóvar’s movies, in an artistic world— in this case, filmmaking. Part of the beauty of the film, and of Almodóvar’s cinema in general, is the harmony between the collective spirit behind the camera and the surprising and often unlikely intimations of camaraderie among the characters.
WA: Almodóvar has a real solidarity with artists. It’s very moving, his feeling for artists, for musicians and dancers and actors and writers and filmmakers. They’re living all the time with art, creating it and talking about it—in Talk to Her, Pina Bausch dances, and then they talk about her; in All About My Mother, they’re doing Streetcar, and then they’re talking about it.
KJ: And there’s also lowbrow art, like in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
WA: Where they’re making a B picture, like a horror picture. You have this feeling, with all his movies, of a collection of artists who he’s guiding. There’s also a sort of—I wouldn’t say it’s deadpan, because obviously they’re not deadpan, but there’s something very special about these serious actors who are playing their roles exactly the way they would play a TV soap opera, but their dialogue and their situations are punctuated with things that would never be found in a TV soap opera.
KJ: The moments that are blacked out of soap operas.
WA: In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, they’re dubbing movies, they’re dubbing these melodramas, which are gravely serious on the surface, and also what’s happening to them in real life is like a melodrama, but it’s sort of so melodramatic it’s funny, and it all reflects on the situation of Carmen Maura’s character, who you care about from the start to the finish.
KJ: Everything feels like it’s being refracted in Almodóvar’s . . .
WA: Brain prism.
KJ: Or hall of mirrors. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Banderas’s and Abril’s characters are so singularly odd that they could never have been accommodated by straight melodrama.
WA: Antonio Banderas’s role in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, that’s a sort of motif—a wild Spaniard on the lam, escaped fugitive—and it brings us to something else. There are many people in Almodóvar movies who get raped, and there’s rarely anybody who’s that upset about it. Not many people can express that point of view in a way that is so easily, readily accepted by an audience. Really, rape jokes don’t usually go over, but Almodóvar never missed one. We trust him and his movies.
KJ: But you’re not going to be doing rape jokes.
WA: Noah [Baumbach] and I had a rape joke in The Life Aquatic [with Steve Zissou] that’s not in the movie. There’s a thing where— there’s the topless script girl, Anne-Marie Sakowitz, played by Robyn Cohen, and they’re tied up by pirates and blindfolded, and Bill Murray says, “How you holding up over there, Anne-Marie?” and she says, “Not that great, Steve.” It used to be, “Not that great, Steve. I’ve been raped.” That was the gag, and we cut it out, and I expect it wouldn’t’ve left them rolling in the aisles.
KJ: But maybe that’s because you often can’t really say, within the world of Almodóvar’s movies, whether it’s a rape or not. That’s certainly true of Tie Me Up! What got people upset here was not the movie itself, I think, but the threshold that was crossed.
WA: Yes. In The Skin I Live In , it’s the brother who’s on the loose from the insane asylum. And in some of the earlier films, there are groups of terrorists who are sort of the living embodiment of just crazy danger for the other characters.
KJ: And the danger often opens things up and takes the more stable characters to new, unexpected places. Desire rules. Like in André Téchiné’s movies, which are very different in many ways, although they both love melodrama and Hollywood cinema. Their films are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, they’re just sexual. Everything becomes sexual, and the characters could go in any direction at any moment. That’s why Tie Me Up! feels dangerous and funny and strange and kind of natural all at the same time.
When we were talking about Almodóvar, we kept getting the films all mixed up—the characters, the situations, the stories. This is as it should be. For us and for most of his admirers, I believe, his body of work feels like one ongoing movie, a great traveling caravan of endlessly unfolding and evolving beauty, emotion, and desire. And as audience members, we are all welcome to come aboard.
WA: Remember how they did The Godfather for TV? They cut both films together and put it all in chronological order? I think the Almodóvar movies could be treated in that way. They could be intercut as a great saga.
KJ: One grand gesture. A never-ending story.
WA: Because they’re held together by his voice, which is so
distinctive as a writer and a director—you just feel his presence.
KJ:Like Bergman and Oshima and Chabrol.
WA: Or Woody Allen. But Chabrol is a good comparison to Almodóvar, because they’re both drawn to a certain kind of people, a certain kind of relationship, and people who are doing something particular with their lives. But maybe unlike Chabrol, Almodóvar mainly writes about people for whom he has tremendous sympathy.
Writer, filmmaker, and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the editor of a collection of essays on Olivier Assayas. His latest film project is a documentary based on the book Hitchcock/Truffaut. Wes Anderson’s most recent film is The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Ralph Fiennes.