OK, some of you may be aware of my love/hate relationship with Pedro Almodóvar. I love elements of his films and hate others. I saw his latest film tonight and need to brain dump. Apologies for any lack of coherence; I could write a whole lot more but don't have the time. I do, however, welcome any feedback and am happy to discuss my opinions or yours, whether you agree with me or not.
In case you're wondering, my Week in Review for last week has been quickly written but requires a basic proof-read. I simply haven't had the time, but hope to post it in the next day or so.
Absent fathers and their now adult sons constitute a recurring theme in Almodóvar films, not surprising given that the director reportedly grew up without his father. In visiting and revisiting the theme, one wonders what Almodóvar is trying to say, given that this potentially heavy subject is usually treated with frivolity or even disdain. The subject appears repeatedly in Almodóvar’s seventeenth film, Broken Embraces, a film that is perhaps his most subdued, nuanced and finely-written, at least of those he has written alone*1. In spite of this compliment, the climactic nature of a crucial revelation is completely undermined by the director shooting himself in the foot – yet again.
One of my biggest criticisms of Almodóvar’s films (and I have many), is his mixture of genres often undermine each other. In Volver
I was surprised by Almodóvar’s restraint in this film. Knowing the basic premise before-hand, I went into the cinema a little cynically, thinking that this would be just more of the same Almodóvar. Having watched all his films at least once (and most of them in close succession), it seems to me that he keeps repeating himself, referencing not just other famous films, but even his own (which he does in this film, too, but more on that later). So a story about a director who falls for his star, whose elderly husband has rejected his gay son didn’t sound overly welcoming to me. The restraint is welcome and yet at times feels laboured and too long. Unusual for Almodóvar, the film tends towards boring at times.
That’s in spite of Penélope Cruz’s breasts, which we get to see not once, but twice. And another gorgeous babe’s as well. For me, it’s just ho-hum, like “so bloody what?”. The view of them on each occasion is so set up, so contrived, like any other artifice in an Almodóvar film – and let’s face it, an Almodóvar film is simply one artifice after another. I love sex and nudity in film as much as anyone, but I found the handling of them in this film quite tacky and distasteful.
Almodóvar raves about Cruz and her acting techniques, but it’s all hype. OK, she can shed tears on tap, so what? There comes a point in time when the repetition become boring and self-conscious. And promoting her as if she were the most beautiful woman on earth? Oh per-lease! She’s ten year’s past her prime – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but if this is how she’s going to allow herself to be represented, then her longevity as an actress is about to wear out.
Almodóvar trademark misandry is given a light treatment in the film. It’s still there, as it is in virtually every one of his films, but perhaps not quite so overtly. It’s main manifestation is in the depiction of Ernesto Sr., the magnate who acquires who and what he wants, to the detriment of others. Most of the other males assume roles as artists or musicians of one sort or another and as usual, Almodóvar treats this class of male much more sympathetically (get it? Gays and artists are OK, all other males are bastards). And - yet again - women can do no wrong. We can forgive their sins, no matter how massive, because they're such loving and adoring mothers. This, quite frankly, is becoming increasingly tedious in its repetition from one Almodóvar film to another.
Another Almodóvar device that I have pointed out previously is his depictions of drug use, as if it were a natural and normal part of society. In my opinion, illegal drugs are one of the many scourges of modern society and while the liberation of Spanish society from the repressive Franco period may have been welcome, the consequent proliferation of drugs there (and anywhere else) is anything but good. I don't see why Almodóvar needs to keep hammering home in a subliminal manner that drugs are OK.
The colour red is a recurring aesthetic in virtually all of Almodóvar’s films, varying stylistically from film to film. In his more frivolous comedies (like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Kika), the colours are even more heightened, or sometimes pastels. In one sense, the frequent appearance of red in Broken Embraces is expected, and I tend to feel it gets too predictable and contrived. Aesthetically, I still find his use of colour very pleasing and it’s variation from film to film minimises the impact of the contrivance. The use of colour in this film is different to any of this other films. It tends more towards natural tones – blues, greens and greys – reflecting the more serious tone of the film, but highlighting the reds when they appear. I have mixed feelings about this because I sense that Almodóvar is perhaps just a bit too conscious of his auteurship and wanting to stamp his signature on each of his films. It seems to me that he doesn’t have enough new ideas and just keeps recycling the same tricks over and over again.
There’s a Tarantino-esque moment (think Inglourious Basterds) of grand self-evaluation at the end of the film when the film within a film is deemed to be a masterpiece. That 'film' is basically an amalgam of various Almodóvar films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Kika and others, using previously used scenarios like gazpacho with sleeping tablets, a burning mattress, and both zany production design and characters. It’s obviously planted as an indulgence, a conceit, to be especially appreciated by Almodóvar’s fans. It certainly made me smile.
My conclusion: if you like Almodóvar, chances are you'll like this one. It shows that the man's work is evolving but again falls well short of greatness. This film, in spite of welcome restraint, is laboured. For what it's worth, the missus was bored shitless and wanted to leave early. Out of a possible five stars, she would give it zero - yes, zero stars! I don't usually discuss films in terms of such numeric terms, but if I were to, I'd give it three and a half.
*1 Four of Almodóvar’s films credit co-writers – and tend to be among my Almodóvar favourites: Labyrinth of Passion (Terry Lennox), Matador (Jesús Ferrero), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Yuyi Beringola) and Live Flesh (Jorge Guerricaechevarría).
*2 Of course, many love Almodóvar, and consider him a darling of European auteurs. He’s obviously capable of writing but his work, in my opinion, never exceeds a basic level of capability. It’s sufficient for an audience that welcomes quirkiness, but it’s never great, never profound. Rather, it’s just entertaining on a superficial level.