Iconic moviemaker, Pedro Almodovar, has a long history of producing female-centric stories. To mark the release of his latest film, Broken Embraces, Damon Wise discusses the importance of women with the Spanish director.
“I think,” says Pedro Almodovar, “that the reason that there are mostly female characters in my films is that when I was a child – like many children of my generation, at the end of the 50s – I was brought up by women. I was surrounded by women. My mother took me round with her all the time, and when she didn’t, she left me with our female neighbours, or she sat me on the patio. So I was able to observe this kind of family life that was completely governed by women – by strong women, this generation of post-war women.” He sighs. “I don’t know how they got by, but they did. They managed to feed us and clothe us every day. I think my country owes them so much.”
For many people, Pedro Almodovar is a once absurdly camp Spanish filmmaker who, over the last 25 years, has somehow mellowed into something more soulful and classical. It is true that his early films featured penis-measuring competitions, close-ups of splattered diarrhoea and a love story featuring not one but two serial killers locked in a torrid romance. But there’s a side to Almodovar that has always been serious. His films focus on women not as empty, shallow drag queens but as fully fleshed, emotional creations, and even his trashy comedies treasure freedom in a political way, reacting against the tyrannical reign of the dictator General Franco, who held Spain in his ultra-conservative grasp for nearly 40 years.
Almodovar’s new film, Broken Embraces, re-teams him with Penelope Cruz, the muse he discovered on his 1999 film All About My Mother and to whom he gave a blistering role in his last film, Volver. Volver was a film about life after death, in several unexpected ways, and so is Broken Embraces. But where Volver was bright and earthy, Broken Embraces is dark and sad, a melancholy study of loss starring Lluis Homar as a film director who has lost his sight and his lover (Cruz) and lives in a state of denial. Taking the fake name Harry Caine, he refuses to face the painful memories of the past – of the struggling starlet he discovered and fell for, and the jealous millionaire producer who drove them apart.
Like several of Almodovar’s previous films – notably Women On the Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1990) – it’s a film that explicitly references the movie world, but the reason here is not to foreground artifice of the film itself but to reveal how far real life falls short of the movies. “I realise that, over time, I’ve become more aware of what filmmaking means to me,” says Almodovar. “I could almost say that cinema perfects all the imperfections of life. And the gravity of my recent films, the seriousness, is a result of age, I think. One can’t help maturing. Over time, I grew up, I changed, and I believe my films reflect that.”
In person, Almodovar is a surprisingly sober individual; a thoughtful chatterbox who prefers to ‘habla espana’ when talking about his movies but who can’t help interrupting his translator (in English) to clarify certain points. He’s big too, and the shock of wiry, bouffant grey hair makes him look elemental, and much more masculine than his films might suggest. It’s interesting to note, then, that Broken Embraces is as much a film about a man as a woman, in particular the forlorn Harry Caine.
“In this film, there’s much more equality than in the other films,” agrees Almodovar. “There are as many male parts as there are female parts, so it’s perfectly balanced. It’s true, though, that there are usually more female characters in my films, and the female characters are much stronger. Much more tough and solid. Robust. These are women who struggle but they can fight, whereas the male characters are much weaker and more hermetic. They’re darker. Why?” He pauses, then laughs. “Perhaps a psychoanalyst could explain it to me! But I don’t ask myself that question.”
Almodovar turns 58 on September 25, and insists he has loved films since he was small, growing up in a small village out in the plains of La Mancha. He went to the cinema every weekend, and in the early 60s saw pretty much everything that played there, thanks to a doorman that let him in even to see adult movies such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. “I used to see all the movies of the period with my sisters,” he recalls. “And when they went out with their friends they’d say, ‘Pedro, tell us the story of the movie that we saw yesterday.’ And I would. But I was so enthusiastic that, in the middle, I invented completely new scenes. My sisters liked just to listen to me, because it was a new movie that I was making in my head.”
Almodovar still works this way, using the characters to dictate the story, and not the other way round. “In the case of some actors,” he says, “I provide them with the full information before we begin shooting the film. I fill them in on the way I view the character and the way I see the part, but on other occasions I’ll say nothing. I provide no information, because I want them to play the scene instinctively, based on intuition. But, if necessary, I will play all the parts myself on the set. Now, I’m actually very shy, even if I don’t appear so and you may not believe me. But when I’m shooting a film, I’m absolutely prepared to play all the parts just to show the actors. In one of the films I shot some time ago – I won’t give you the title! – I even performed cunnilingus on an actress to show the actor how he was supposed to play the part.”
It’s this attention to detail that gives Almodovar’s films their humanity, and even when the storylines are at their most bizarre – as with the drug-taking, lesbian nuns of 1983’s deceptively tragic Dark Habits – there is always a powerful life force present. “The actors are truly essential in my films,” he nods, “whatever kind of tale I’m telling. And when the film is provocative, or a bit exaggerated, or a bit crazy, then it’s even more essential for the actors to play it in a realistic way. So, in those cases, and even though the situation may appear ridiculous, I ask actors to be as realistic and natural as possible in their portrayal of the characters. That’s the key to all my films. That’s why those scenes appear quite real, and they do look like something that could actually occur in real life.”
This seamless blending of high and low art made Almodovar attractive to Hollywood from the start, with Jane Fonda snapping up the remake rights to Women On The Verge just as soon as it appeared on the release circuit. No movie version has so far emerged, but, according to Almodovar, two other major US versions are in the pipeline and imminent. “The first is a TV series produced by Fox,” he grins. “They’ve finished the adaptation and they’d like this series to go on forever. I don’t know whether they’ll manage to do that, but let’s hope, for them, that they can. Anyhow, the pilot has been shot, and the screenplay writer did Grey’s Anatomy, so who knows? The second adaptation is a musical adaptation on Broadway. They’ve been working on this for more than a year; the dialogue is ready, the songs are virtually all ready, and the director is the director who did South Pacific.”
But despite his enthusiasm, Almodovar has steadfastly resisted all the overtures he’s had to make a studio movie in America. “I have been offered projects – many projects – in Hollywood,” he reveals. “But I feel it’s increasingly unlikely that I’ll take them up. Because the way I work, and the way they work over there, are very different. I would even say they’re opposites.”
To put this into perspective, it’s worth noting that what happens to Harry Caine in Broken Embraces goes beyond just the loss of a woman: his last film, Girls With Suitcases, is taken from him by his enraged producer and deliberately cut to ribbons. “If that happened to me,” Almodovar growls, “or rather one of my films, I think I would kill the producer or the person who destroyed the material that I had shot. In Europe we’re very fortunate because we have laws that protect the rights of authors. The laws are very clear and well established, so in fact this is the kind of situation that could never arise in Europe. However, such a situation could occur in the United States, and it’s even frequent.”
“What’s very important to me is the very last line of the film,” he concludes. “Harry says, ‘Films always have to be finished, even if it is done blindly.’ For me, that’s very important. One shouldn’t let somebody else come between the author and the film. The director must go through with it to the very end, even if he ends up in a wheelchair or has catheters all over the place. Even if he’s being given oxygen, he has to make that film. But I also wanted to add this last line, because I fully believe that the cinema can make life more perfect.” He smiles. “You know, even if the characters go through all sorts of trials and tribulations in their life, in the cinema, everything works out.”
WORDS: Damon Wise
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #19, Sep/Oct 2009