Almodóvar also repeats his tendency to shock. He has a reputation as a director who traffics in the outrageous—and, for the most part, that's well-deserved. Look at his two Oscar-winning movies: All About My Mother, which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, concerns lesbian junkies, prostitutes with tits and dicks, and an HIV-positive pregnant nun; Talk to Her, for which Almodóvar took the award for best original screenplay, involves coma patients, stalking, rape, and suicide.
At the beginning of his career, this outrageousness had a political and commercial purpose. Almodóvar started filming his first feature release, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls From the Heap, in 1978, just three years after the death of Franco. Would-be Almodóvar completists, take note: The director did make a feature-length Super 8 movie called Fuck, Fuck, Fuck Me Tim earlier that year, but according to his production company, it is not available in any format. Pepi, Luci, Bom, for its part, was shot on 16 mm and serves as a record of the movida Madrileña, the flowering of Spanish democracy and cultural liberation. It’s a disjointed mess, in the way that early films shot on a minuscule budget usually are, but the shock elements—a masochistic housewife who enjoys being peed on, a teenage lesbian punk, a cross-dressing drug dealer—struck a blow for freedom. Almodóvar had to include those things in his movie just to prove that he could. For his second release, Labyrinth of Passion, he was commissioned by the Madrid art-house cinema that showed Pepi, Luci, Bom to create another cult hit using the same scandalous recipe of nymphomaniacs, junkies, and women whose laxatives take effect before they reach the bathroom. Gradually, and especially after 1993’s Kika, the shocking elements started to seem less gratuitous. It’s not that rape, incest, and child molestation disappeared from his films, but they served a clearer purpose, which was to tell viewers that if the people on the screen could endure these terrible travails and still communicate, so could they.
Of course, some of his recurring motifs are simply creepy. The Almodovarian trope that makes me most uncomfortable is that of the loving kidnapper/stalker/rapist. In 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, for example, Ricky stalks Marina, hits her in the face, keeps her tied to the bed in her apartment, and … eventually wins her love with his devotion, his sad life story, and his excellent skills in the sack. Twelve years later, Talk to Her’s Benigno is an incredibly loving partner, tending to Alicia with astonishing dedication; the problem is that she is in a coma, and he is the nurse entrusted with her care. (Perhaps the clearest indication of Almodóvar’s maturity is his decision to cut to a black-and-white silent short when Benigno has sex with Alicia; a welcome contrast to the grotesque scene in Kika, where a crazed rapist continues to thrust away even as two cops attempt to pull him off the woman he is assaulting.) Of course, these men are all psychopaths, albeit charming, likable psychopaths; Almodóvar has produced cinema’s most loving portraits of the criminally insane.
I suspect the outrageous storylines cause less offense than their descriptions would lead us to expect because they’re told with love and humor. Almodóvar is famous for his sympathetic portrayals of women, and while he has worked with some of Spain’s most celebrated female talents (Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, Penélope Cruz), his greatest gift is for hiring comedic actresses and writing wonderful scenes for them to perform. (I’m sorry to tell you that if you don’t speak Peninsular Spanish, you’re missing half the laughs. Subtitles can’t possibly do justice to the linguistic playfulness of these comedic character sketches.) Quick, think of an iconic Almodóvar face. Odds are you conjured up funny women Rossy de Palma, Chus Lampreave, María Barranco, or Loles León. These actresses show up in Almodóvar’s casts with such regularity—Lampreave eight times, Maura seven times, and Paredes six times—that they start to seem like family. In fact, members of Almodóvar’s birth family show up even more frequently; his mother appeared in four of his films, and brother Agustín has made cameo appearances in all but one of Pedro’s movies. (I’d love to know why he missed out on The Flowers of My Secret.) Even when casting, Almodóvar can’t resist repetition!
Tabulating all these tics hasn’t diminished my love for Almodóvar. On my way to see The Skin I Live In, I predicted to a co-worker that it would involve a hospital of some kind, a rape, voyeurism, and stairs. Reader, I was 4 for 4. I’d been typing the email as my subway train crossed from Brooklyn into Manhattan, and if the bridge had been a little longer, I’m sure I could have nailed a few more prognostications. Does that mean the new movie was predictable? Absolutely not. Despite my scientific study of the great Spanish writer-director, I was as stunned by the film’s narrative twists as the next viewer. Almodóvar obsessively returns to themes and scenes not because he lacks imagination, but because he has the creativity to remake them afresh every time he comes back to them.
Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The Skin I Live In.