To coincide with the release of Parallel Mothers, Fedor Tot delves into the great Spanish filmmaker's vast and transgressive canon...
Emerging from the Spanish La Movida Madrileña movement in the 1980s, Pedro Almodóvar’s career spans high-art melodrama and low-art sex comedies, provocative queer transgression and festival-feted acclaim. His films, known for their bright colours and flamboyant characters, have dealt frankly with the LGBT+ community and the lives of women. What almost always emerges, even in his rare misfires, are deep reserves of understanding – a willingness to grapple with the ugly flaws of his characters.
With the release of his latest work, Parallel Mothers, starring Almodóvar’s regular collaborator Penélope Cruz, it’s time to take a look back at the director's vast body of work and separate the wheat from the chaff…
22. The Flower of My Secret (1995)
Most critics divide Almodóvar’s career into two halves – his early work that of a youthful, punkish provocateur, a succession of high camp and lowbrow sex comedies; his later years that of a European high-art auteur, referencing the melodramas and women’s pictures of Hollywood’s Golden era whilst putting his own distinctly autobiographical spin on them, with The Flower of My Secret viewed as something of a dividing line. There’s some truth to this distinction, but the lines are a bit blurrier than that. His first concrete shift into the latter mode is his worst film. The gears of said melodrama clunk and crunch to precious little effect. The basic familiar ingredients of later classics are in place but without any of the magic.
21. Live Flesh (1997)
Almodóvar continued his initially fruitless efforts with the melodrama that would bring his name up to the higher echelons of Euro-auteurism with Live Flesh. The set up is that of a juicy film noir, with Javier Bardem in fine form, but the result is similar to The Flower of My Secret – the ingredients are there, but it's all a bit laboured. Still, that course would be corrected soon enough.
20. I’m So Excited (2013)
Almodóvar has only really returned to the madcap screwball comedy with which he initially made his name once since The Flower of My Secret, as though he has lost the energy to build them. It’s easy to see why on the evidence of I’m So Excited, which lacks the transgressive panache or sheer imagination of his early works. An airline sex comedy with a starry cast, most of its satirical punches don’t quite land – though there is the odd excellent set-piece.
19. High Heels (1991)
The core of High Heels includes a sensitively portrayed mother-daughter relationship between Marisa Paredes and Victoria Abril, two quintessential Almodóvar actresses at the top of their games. But unfortunately, the rest of the film is too overcooked and over-stuffed with plot details that add nothing and go nowhere: the wheels are spinning, but there’s no engine.
18. Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980)
If nothing else, Pepi… is an evocative, fascinating document of early ‘80s Madrid at the epicentre of the La Movida Madrileña art movement from which its director emerged: a youth revolution for Spanish culture, emerging from the dark years of Francoist fascist rule and smashing its conservatism with an explosion of sex, queerness, art and music. The film plays more like its director simply finding an excuse to put his friends in a film, but for all its rough DIY charms, it lacks the energy of the movement it rose from.
17. Bad Education (2004)
One of the director’s most narratively complex and autobiographical films ultimately ties itself up in knots. It should be heart-breaking, tragic stuff that takes in childhood abuse, closeted relationships and questions of queerness and sexual identity. Despite a fantastic performance from Gael García Bernal, there’s just something abrasive about Bad Education that keeps this writer from going full in.
16. Labyrinth of Passion (1982)
A major jump up in quality from Almodóvar’s debut, Labyrinth of Passion is truly madcap smash-grab stuff, starring Cecilia Roth as a nymphomaniac with a phobia of the sun who falls in love with the exiled prince of a made-up Arabian state, who also decides to join a rock band in Madrid. The jokes are crude and the sex is plentiful, aided by the appearance of Antonio Banderas as a gay Islamic terrorist who can smell his lover from miles away (because of course).
15. Kika (1993)
Lots of Kika is in bad taste – some of it gloriously so, and some of it not so much. It’s probably the most outlandish, cartoonish comedy of his career (with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier adding to the extremity), and yet somehow Almodóvar manages to pull it all together by the end, in a sharp satire that’s able to pan back and find the audience complicit in its menagerie of gaudy exploitation. Perhaps necessary when you opt to make one of your comic set-pieces a rape scene – though whether it works, I’m not so sure.
14. Julieta (2016)
In his late style, Almodóvar has settled into a comfortable pattern of exquisitely crafted melodramas that frequently turn inwards into their protagonist’s desires, psyches, and dreams. Julieta feels like Almodóvar just doing Almodóvar – and at this point he could do it in his sleep. Still, his early attempts at more “serious” pictures are amongst his weakest, so perhaps it's worth remembering just how much effort it takes to merely make something very good, like Julieta.
13. Parallel Mothers (2021)
Politics has always lingered in the background of Almodóvar’s films, but never in so straightforward and as direct a way as in his latest, Parallel Mothers. Perhaps in recognition of the political backdrop of the film, much of which deals with recovering the bodies of those killed by Franco’s forces, this is his most muted film, and the mood is similarly low-key and sombre. The production design is still elegant, but quieter, the performances smaller, but no less brilliant. Admittedly, it’s a rare visual misstep – the lighting in outdoor scenes goes distinctly uncanny valley. Still, this is excellent late-career work.
12. Matador (1986)
Stylistically, Matador was a huge leap forward for its director. Four films into his career, he had become increasingly more confident with the camera, and in set design and costuming, but his fifth saw him fully unleash his eye for high fashion, beautiful lighting and eye-popping primary colours. Even though the plot behind Matador doesn’t always quite deliver on its lurid promise, the sheer elegance on display more than makes up for it.
11. Volver (2006)
Volver is sheer entertainment, carried along by the star charisma of Penélope Cruz, one of those rare actors with the power to simply glance at the screen and set the whole film on fire. Of all the many superb actors and actresses that Almodóvar has worked with in his career, it’s Cruz with whom he seems most well-aligned, their sensibilities matching and cohering: her old school Hollywood glamour, and his passion for the glitzy melodramas which, had Cruz been born 50 years earlier, she would have almost certainly starred in.
10. Dark Habits (1983)
An early classic for Almodóvar after two interesting but faltering features, about a nightclub singer who, seeking refuge from the police, holes up in a convent with a group of lesbian, drug-addicted nuns with names like Sister Rat, Sister Manure, and Sister Snake. Dark Habits also marks the first appearance of Chus Lampreave in an Almodóvar film, who would go on to star in a litany of always-brilliant supporting roles for the director, inevitably as someone’s doddering aunt, mother or grandma until her death in 2016. Amidst the madcap events of the plot – a runaway tiger in the convent, LSD-spiked meals, and copious amounts of sex and drugs – is a film that engages deeply and empathetically with Catholicism as a cultural mindset: institutionally capable of some of the most horrendous crimes and oppression but also personally capable of the kindest acts of generosity and redemption in the hands of the down-and-out.
9. ¡Atame!/Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
Antonio Banderas plays Ricky, a creepy stalker who kidnaps the porn star Marina (Victoria Abril), forcing her to fall in love with him. An outlandish, unabashedly un-PC plot functions as a treatise on an entire country’s Stockholm Syndrome where – fresh out of fascism – the responsibility of liberty brushes up against the beguiling comfort of having all of your major decisions made for you. It's a theme deepened by Ricky’s conservative rural upbringing and Marina's struggles with drug addiction, as she careens between being in control of her destiny and crashing out. Almodóvar balances both the deeply political undertones of his film with performances that are pitched just right between high camp and something much darker underneath. It’s a provocative, out-there statement of a film (and ¡Atame! is easily one of the director's most misunderstood works). But it acknowledges how difficult the path to genuine democracy really is, with no straight paths along that road.
8. Pain and Glory (2019)
A late-career classic as the director hits his 70s, and probably his most nakedly autobiographical work. Now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, he finds himself gazing back at his life’s work in close collaboration with Antonio Banderas, playing a barely disguised stand-in for Almodóvar, down to the trademark spiky hair. The iconic performances in Almodóvar films have historically tended to be from the women, but Banderas’ long-running working relationship sees him as a perfect vessel for the director’s soul-bearing, allowing guilt, melancholia, nostalgia, ego and regret run free. The film’s childhood scenes are some of the director’s most touching, and the diversion to the protagonist’s relationship with troubled, heroin-addicted Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) marks out one of Almodóvar's most empathetic depictions of pained, strained comradeship.
7. What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984)
Carmen Maura’s performances were one of the defining features of early Almodóvar, capable of both OTT soap opera melodrama and down-to-earth naturalism, with more than a touch of glamour to boot. Nowhere is that more apparent than in What Have I Done to Deserve This? where she plays a put-upon working-class housewife in a Madrid high-rise dealing with an abusive husband, an overbearing mother and ungrateful bratty kids. What follows is both an exquisite feminist revenge fantasy (featuring a preposterous Carrie-esque subplot) and a warm, endearing portrait of working-class womanhood. What Have I Done… portrays much of the sensitivity of Almodóvar’s later melodramas, but with plenty of the grunginess and chaotic energy that still marked out his early works.
6. Broken Embraces (2009)
For most, Penélope Cruz’s greatest turn in an Almodóvar film is Volver, and a perfectly fine choice, but for me her pinnacle is Broken Embraces. It’s a tricky feat – the story is told from the point-of-view of Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), a former film director who, following the car accident that took his sight and the love of his live Lena (Cruz) away, now lives as author Harry Caine. Lena, a glamorous actress caught in a love triangle with the lecherous Ernesto (Jose Luiz Gómez) and Blanco, is in many ways a ghost – a memory tragically defined by the egotism and male gaze of the men around her, frozen in the amber of Blanco’s mind. Cruz, then, functions as double: her role is not just about playing Lena, but about playing Penélope Cruz, an A-lister whose life is hemmed in by the public persona imposed on her, searching furiously and determinedly for her own agency. Even when her story is written by Blanco, she emerges as a complete individual.
5. Law of Desire (1987)
It was his early work with Almodóvar that propelled Antonio Banderas to international fame, where throughout the ‘90s Hollywood kept him busy with a litany of smouldering Latin lover roles that traded on the actor’s handsomeness and charisma, but not always on his talent. It’s amusing, then, that Almodóvar nearly always gave him roles as a socially awkward, cuckolded twink in these early days. The greatest of those early Banderas performances comes in Law of Desire, where he plays an obsessive fan of filmmaker Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), engineering a split between Pablo and boyfriend Juan (Miguel Molina). It’s a remarkably layered performance, shifting between complete social awkwardness – that of a young gay man still discovering how to “be” in his own skin, intimidated by the confidence of others in the gay community – and streaks of viciousness and malevolence, his glowering eyes burning with desire and determination. An underseen early classic.
4. The Skin I Live In (2011)
Gender as a violent, oppressive construct, determined and adjudged by the patriarchy, backed up by the biases of supposedly objective science. But a construct with real implications for how we see other. That’s the central thesis behind The Skin I Live In. It may well be the director’s darkest and most sinister film, going into some nihilistic places, guided by a demented – and dangerously suave – performance by Banderas. But Almodóvar’s always a few steps ahead of both his characters and the audience, ready to pull the rug out from under our feet at any moment, and ready to gaze at his protagonists openly and honestly, even at their lowest, most degraded moments. The film’s obsession with artificial surfaces makes for a fascinating counterpoint, every frame dripping with fake-ness, surveillance, and voyeurism. Who gets to decide how we look?
3. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the pinnacle of Almodóvar’s early years, a high-flying sex comedy that crashes into telenovela melodramatics and Sirkian satire via the affairs of the upper classes. His garish, eye-popping early style has never been louder or sharper than here, making glorious use of fractured compositions (broken mirrors, glasses and the like) to reflect his protagonists' exasperated mental states. Performance-wise, it’s loaded with great comic turns by a litany of the director’s regulars: Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano, Rossy de Palma, Chus Lampreave. The plot is ripped straight out of a soap opera – lecherous fathers, cheating sons and terrorist exes driving three women to the edge of their wits, aided from time to time by the Mambo Taxi, the greatest car service that ever existed.
2. Talk to Her (2002)
Transgressive, difficult, and complex in a way that perhaps only Pedro Almodóvar can manage. Talk to Her deals with the interior lives of two men, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), who care for two comatose women. It quickly emerges however that Benigno, a nurse at the hospital, is dangerously obsessed with his charge and – beware of the spoiler – rapes Alicia (Leonor Watling). What follows is a film that refuses to let Benigno off the hook for his crimes, but is instead willing to take steps to understand what sort of gendered constructions and ideologies create a world in which this level of abuse is considered possible. Benigno seems himself as behaving in complete subservience to Alicia, blind to how he dominates, controls and abuses her. Talk to Her eventually arrives at a simple moral message: maybe society should listen to women more often?
1. All About My Mother (1999)
One of the few films guaranteed to have this writer sobbing uncontrollable for pretty much every minute of its running time, All About My Mother is a near-perfect distillation of everything that makes an Almodóvar movie worth watching: production design acting as a heightened mirror of the tense mental states of his characters; melodramatic, expressive performances that are just the right blend of kitsch and reality; generous, empathetic – and yet self-consciously artificial and Brechtian – writing that’s willing to see characters as far more than just black-and-white angels and demons. In All About My Mother, our characters make terrible mistakes and commit acts of love-filled generosity. They’re never judged for their decisions, but simply allowed to grow closer as makeshift families, patched together by their companionship. To some extent, most Almodóvar films highlight the inherently artificial, constructed nature of storytelling through the use of recorded media, distancing techniques, and narrative reveals. Few do it as affectingly, as powerfully, or as touchingly as All About My Mother, which feels like a house of cards ready to collapse at any moment, yet always keeps it together.
Parallel Mothers is now showing in UK cinemas.