The Queer Heart of Pedro Almodóvar
Is there anyone like Pedro Almodóvar?
For those who know his work—and for a sometimes-experimental queer Spanish director, that’s more people than you’d expect—he is a rara avis: an artist whose work has grown over the decades, who has known both commercial and critical success, and whose 20 films run the gamut from hysterical slapstick (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) to serious family drama (All About My Mother).
Now, the Museum of Modern Art’s film department, which has previously premiered several of Almodóvar’s films, is hosting a retrospective of his 35 year career.
At the festival’s kickoff, the New York premiere of Almodóvar’s new film, Julieta (which goes on general release December 21), the adoring crowd was peppered with downtown art celebrities and even a few politicians.
The co-curator of the festival, Rajendra Roy, aptly noted that “you may think you are the only one who loves Almodóvar as much as you do. You are wrong.”
I first discovered Almodóvar in 1988, with Women on the Verge, which came eight years into Almodóvar’s feature-directorial career but which was his commercial breakthrough in the United States. It was probably a good introduction; as a 17-year-old closeted kid in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, I’m not sure I could’ve handled the nymphomaniacs, gay nuns, gay terrorists, and fetishists of some of Almodóvar’s earlier films.
Just seeing a transgender woman taken seriously on film was a revelation to me back then, even if we called them something else.
What stands out to me most, nearly thirty years later, is the vibrancy of the film: the bright color palette, the wacky plot, even the title, which gives you a hint of what you’re in for. But I think its humanity provides the real throughline in Almodóvar’s work, especially viewed in a retrospective like MOMA’s.
Over the years, Almodóvar has mellowed. His more recent films mostly don’t have the frenetic pace, the wild camerawork, and the joy in perversity of his earlier work. (His previous film, I’m So Excited, was an exception, for better or for worse.)
The filmmaker even apologized to the MOMA audience before the screening, saying “I’m sorry this is a serious film… There is a lot of sadness in all the main characters.”
But what hasn’t changed is the humanity with which Almodóvar imbues his characters. Julieta is told mostly in retrospect, as the title character, a broken woman in late middle age, reflects on how she lost the great loves of her life, her husband and her daughter. The story is tragic, but Julieta is not quite a tragic heroine. She is trapped by grief and guilt, both a victim of circumstance and an accomplice in her own predicament. But while there is pathos in the film, Julieta is not pathetic either. She emerges as thoroughly human.
That is true, too, in the great majority of Almodóvar’s films, whether they are sensational or subdued on the surface. Almodóvar’s mostly female leads have been novelists and cosmetologists, everywomen and necrophiliacs, but they have all (even the necrophiliacs) been drawn humanely, rather than as caricatures. Even the criminals and terrorists who populate his films are usually treated with empathy.
Remember, Almodóvar came of age during a time of double repression: Franco’s fascist Spain, and the particular repressions visited on LGBT people during that time and beyond. Influenced by the surrealist Luis Buñuel, Almodóvar began with absurdist scenarios depicted in outrageous ways.
Yet as a flamboyantly “out” director, gay artistically as well as personally, Almodóvar also knew marginalization and repression. Almodóvar never stoops to sentimentality; he doesn’t give us a Movie of the Week dramatizing the harms of homophobia. Instead, he invites us into the lives of “freaks,” normalizing them only insofar as we see they are actual people.
This empathy, I think, has increased over time, even as the frequency of queer characters has decreased in Almodóvar’s films. Some of Almodóvar’s early work approaches the more avant garde stylings of Bruce La Bruce and other radical queer filmmakers, whose satiric gaze extends to the act of filmmaking itself. (The two also share an obsession with the intertwining of sex and violence.)
But as time went by, and Almodóvar tiptoed into the mainstream—he helped launch the careers of Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, and Javier Bardem, and they have continued to appear in Almodóvar’s films even after becoming famous—a different cinematic tactic emerged: storytelling that focuses on the emotional and erotic bonds that bind people together across social boundaries.
Queer concerns continue to appear in these later films. In Julieta, religious homophobia plays a subtle but essential role in the plot. In Bad Education, priestly pedophilia is central (and treated seriously, not camp at all). But more often than not, the same humanism once extended to porn stars and transvestites is now extended to characters facing mortality (or transcending it, as in Volver) and regret.
None of these characters “get it right.” None can quite perform the social roles assigned to them. Almodóvar’s queer sensibility hasn’t disappeared; it’s expanded.
It’s hard to think of another filmmaker who has evolved in quite this way. Plenty of filmmakers go from maverick to mainstream, especially in this weird age of superhero franchises being helmed by indie directors.
But it’s hard to name too many living directors who have deepened their core sensibility and maintained such a high level of artistic integrity even as they have matured and evolved. Woody Allen, perhaps, though his most fully realized films now lie decades in the past. Darren Aronofsky; the Coen brothers; Wim Wenders, for a time; Kathryn Bigelow; Scorsese. It’s a rare feat.
There are still glimmers of Almodóvar’s flashy style in Julieta. The ambiguous opening image could’ve been red fabric, a flower, or a vulva (it turned out to be a dress). The lifelike way in which shocking events happen in the film, often suddenly and without foreshadowing, echoes his earlier work.
But I’m not nostalgic for the early days. Julieta and other recent films like it are their own delights, even if I walked out of MOMA this week full of sadness and despair. Thank you for making me feel this way, Pedro Almodóvar. Thank you for continuing to open my heart.