The look of love: Pedro Almodóvar interview
A new film from Pedro Almodóvar has long been a cause for cineastic celebration and we kick our preview of the autmn’s best movies with a look at his newie Broken Embraces. Miles Fielder meets the man from La Mancha, to talk over his 30-year career and relationship with muse Penelope Cruz
Pedro Almodóvar, the most famous Spanish filmmaker since his Aragónian idol Luis Buñuel, and one of the most acclaimed auteurs in international cinema, once described his relationship to his chosen medium of expression thus: ‘Cinema has become my life. I don’t mean a parallel world, I mean my life itself.’
Almodóvar has written and directed a film pretty much every second year since he made his feature debut back in 1980 at the age of 31 with Pepi, Luci, Bom (having learned his craft by knocking out 11 shorts between 1974 and 1978), so the 59-year-old has dedicated most of his adult life to cinema. But what Almodóvar was getting at with that comment is cinema is has not only become his lifelong career, but it is by now also the overriding passion of his life. You can tell that by the way he makes his films, which are beautiful, erotic, outrageous, heartrending, hilarious, labyrinthine and always consummately crafted. They’re labours of love. They’re also cine-literate, films about films loaded with erudite and/or cheeky references to other films and their makers. And Almodovar’s latest, the noirish romance Broken Embraces, is his most explicit love-letter to cinema yet.
‘What I wanted to talk about in this film, this love story,’ Almodóvar says, ‘was the relationships between the four characters, and in some cases their fatal love affairs. It just so happens that these four characters are involved in making a film. And in a very natural way that film provides a backdrop for their story. Later, I realised that when I put my camera in front of the lights and the actors and the editing table and filmed those things I was paying tribute to filmmaking itself, and to all these things that have been part of my life for a long time and without which my life would not be what it is.’
Broken Embraces is a story of amour fou involving a Madrid filmmaker Harry (Lluís Homar), his leading lady Lena (Penélope Cruz), her wealthy sugar daddy Ernesto (José Luis Gómez) and Harry’s assistant Judit (Blanco Portillo). The complex plot is driven by love and jealous passions that achieve critical mass during the making of a comic film titled ‘Girls and Suitcases’. Broken Embraces is punctuated with numerous film references (everything from Robeto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom) but Almodóvar goes a step further by remaking segments of his own film, Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, and using what amounts to priceless little self-parodies as the film-within-the-film.
In doing so, Almodóvar says he wasn’t paying homage to his own work. ‘I decided they would be filming a comedy because it is the opposite genre to the drama the protagonists are living and so their problems would take on greater relevance,’ he says, ‘and I adapted my own material because I could do so with total freedom.’
However, partially remaking a film he shot 20 years ago neatly describes the arc of this filmmaker’s impressive oeuvre. The general consensus is that the films Almodóvar made during the first half of his career were outrageous high-camp romps, and then beginning with 1995’s The Flower of My Secret his films became a lot more mature. His filmography is not quite that polarised, but it’s certainly true that, say, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!, a bondage romance made in 1990, is a scream where All About My Mother, made at the end of the same decade, is a weepie carrying considerably more dramatic weight.
‘I never set out to be scandalous,’ Almodóvar says. ‘That’s what Lars von Trier does. I just wanted to tell my stories from my point of view, although I admit that sometimes my stories can be outrageous. But I’ve been making films for 30 years and, yes, now my films are probably less shocking. At my age it’s only natural that you live a more settled life. Also, I started making movies at that specific point in time when Spain reached its democracy, and I’m a direct heir to how the newfound freedom spilled over into all forms of human, artistic and cinematic expression [in fact, Almodóvar became the star of La Movida, the post-Franco pop culture movement of the late 1970s]. There was this huge, exhilarating freedom of pleasures that we had been denied before,’ says Almodóvar, ‘and of course that affected my filmmaking. And that tied into me being a young man then. You can say that films have run parallel to the evolution of life in Spain.’
Much has been made of Almodóvar’s gay sensibility, reflected in the way he portrays women in his films, but also in the assumption that his films are/were outrageous because their maker is homosexual. Again, Almodóvar rejects this simplistic view. ‘I don’t think the fact that I’m homosexual necessarily influences all of my films. I don’t believe in the Anglo-Saxon description of a gay movie. One of my films, Law of Desire, has all gay characters and that film has had a huge influence on the gay community - a lot of people have told me that they came out after seeing the film. But to me that is not a gay movie. It’s a story about characters who are influenced by a devastating passion. That story would apply just as well to straight or gay people. So I don’t think there’s necessarily a connection between being gay and having a gay sensibility.
‘What’s more important about the way I write, cast and shoot women in my movies is that when I grew up I was surrounded by women,’ says Almodóvar, who grew up south of Madrid in rural La Mancha.
‘I lived with women, my mother, my sister, my neighbour, from a very young age and this time was a real celebration of life. They were very strong women and I think that’s what’s reflected in my movies.’
Almodóvar’s continuing muse and leading lady is, of course, Penélope Cruz, whom he first cast in 1997’s Live Flesh (which, coincidentally Cruz’s current squeeze Javier Bardem also stars in). Of Cruz, Almodóvar says, ‘She’s very much the same actress as when we made our first film together 12 years ago. Her life has certainly changed enormously because she’s been extremely successful, but that hasn’t changed her approach to her roles and the way she works. Fortunately, she continues to place blind faith in me.’
That’s something that cinema-goers have, for a long time now, also been at liberty to do whenever a new film arrives from the man from La Mancha.
Broken Embraces is out on selected release Fri 28 Aug.