A Tale of Two Pedros

An Almodóvar retrospective irons out the kinks

The "best of" Almodóvar raises some questions—namely, which Almodóvar? The Pedro gloriously festivaled and now happily familiar to middle-class filmgoers is an aging, camp-centric teddy bear, a man who has made transgender game-playing and comic vamping safe for the art house and has done more than any other filmmaker to modernize the throbbing '50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Idealizing the family, thumbing his nose at antique authority, celebrating the impromptu bonds of women in a careless man's world—he's virtually a Spanish Nora Ephron, only with a man's libido and a yen for tastelessness he can no longer always indulge.

The other Pedro is one of the most reckless, diabolically inventive voices to arise from, or at least alongside, the postpunk years of Reagan culture. (Of course, his real incubator was the oppressive Franco dictatorship, which ended with the generalissimo's death in 1975, when Almodóvar was 26 and eking out a non-living making shorts—among them 1976's Tráiler de 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'—that established his reputation in Madrid's alt-culture circles.) Take, for a sharp-edged example, the opening act of 1986's Matador, which conflates bullfighting carnage, a depressed ex-bullfighter masturbating to TV slasher gore, and the sexual day trip of a sultry lawyer-seductress who picks up a loser, kills him in midfuck with a hairpin through the back of the neck, and then rides his corpse to orgasm. The film, arguably Almodóvar's most vividly outrageous, proceeds from there along a path of psycho-romantic sex-death that deliberately echoes hysterical Hollywood classics like Duel in the Sun, and in the process shines an X-ray on Spanish blood-sport culture that felt brand new then and seems remarkably savvy still.

This kind of pretty poison, executed with Almodóvar's customary flair, was a rare drug in the '80s; Almodóvar himself more or less gave up his nasty streak in 1988 with the lovable detour that became his international calling card, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It's hard to begrudge that deadpan, Gummi-colored farce its success, but it's easy to mourn the loss of the danger and disrespect that permeated the previous year's Law of Desire, a fierce soap opera parody unfolding in a gendernaut demimonde of movie directors, stalkerazzis, transsexual lesbians (Carmen Maura, sassily trumping Felicity Huffman by almost two decades), fetishes run amok, and crazed man-love obsessions.

The selective "Viva Pedro" retro at Lagoon Cinema is structured for maximum convenience: Each of the "best" features is given what amounts to a re-release. But the remaining films are the safety-belt misses of the '90s and hits of the '00s, leaping right over the uneven but sparky psychomania of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), High Heels (1991), and Kika (1993). Instead, we get The Flower of My Secret (September 22-28), a strangely limp woman's drama about an unhappy middle-aged writer (Marisa Paredes); the promisingly titled Live Flesh (September 29-October 5), a Ruth Rendell-derived romantic quasi-noir that knots up rather contrived entanglements for five characters after a fateful shooting; and All About My Mother (September 22-28), Almodóvar's second career spike in popularity. As unrebellious a film as one could imagine coming from a once-terrible enfant (even considering Penélope Cruz's pregnant nun), My Mother's womb-like warmth and post-camp bathos has only led the director to more conservative areas. If well-considered grand slams like Talk to Her (September 22-28) and Bad Education (September 29-October 5) dance with "scandalous" material (coma rape, priest lust), they do it off-camera, ironic and affectionately amused, as if nothing were at stake. Look at the difference between Matador (October 6-12), which boils down convention into acid rain, and Talk to Her, which, though sweet, interrogates nothing much at all.

Calling Bad Education a Vertigo/Mildred Pierce mishmash gets at its failings as well as why it is so beloved. Derivativeness can be read as homage, and the mere presence of sexually ambiguous characters suggests a sop to compensate for the film's convoluted evasiveness; just compare the experience of Maura's quasi-vamp in Law of Desire (September 29-October 5) to Bad Education's clichéd tragi-queen. What's missing in these later movies is risk, and the sulfurous charge to be had from the earlier films—including 1983's Dark Habits, a very special doped-dyke-nuns comedy—and from Kika, which transgressed perhaps further than any other film in the oeuvre (specifically, with a long, comedic rape scene that revolted many but called the cards on our pop-entertainment amusement with some kinds of violation, like murder and torture, and not others). An utterly fearless carnivale, with enough plot for three movies and a Gaultier costume-design attack that verges on cyborgian hysteria, the unjustly maligned and hilarious Kika is the most Buñuelian of Almodóvar's movies, and seems the one in need of a re-release.

 
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