PRINT March 1990


IT'S LOVE WHEN a retired torero and a beautiful lawyer match obsessions and find a perfect fir. Their passion in intense... and lethal. But what about the young bullfighting student whose confessions to a string of murders bring the two lovers together?

You’re not likely to find this part of Spain in a guidebook for tourists. Gloria, a very resourceful working class housewife, is a true feminist heroine who’s on the go 18 hours a day, trying to keep her outrageously wacky family afloat. Comedy and tragedy blend to portray a surreal and perverse fable of contemporary life.

Yolanda, a nightclub singer who goes on the lam after her lover dies of a drug overdose, takes refuge in the Convent of the Humble Redeemers. The eccentric nuns, who greet her with open arms, have their own problems, with the Church, with the Law and with their benefactor. In the end, it’s hard to say who is redeemed, if anyone.

An upside-down inside-out cornucopia of love in all its guises, with murder, amnesia and suicide stirred in to complete the mix.

These are some of the films of the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, as described in a brochure put out by their American distributor, Cinevista. Though its persistently upbeat tone gibes with the plots it summarizes, the brochure does capture the films’ tendency to blur “all repressive boundaries.”1 Almodóvar is very conscious of his cultural surround: a new Spain, only recently released from fascism. He has observed in interviews that the generations now taking over in the country are “unrelated” to earlier ones; however, although he is clearly presenting his vision of a polymorphously perverse post-Franco generation, it is not exactly the case that his characters “utterly break with the past,” as he has claimed. 2 Where precisely in time do Almodóvar’s films take us? Back to the future? Forward to the past? His approach to history is adaptive, a kind of use-it-up-and-wear-it-out attitude that is improvisation at its best. But there’s a contradiction: despite all the joyfulness of his zany films, for Almodóvar, it often seems as if the past is literally the mort-gage (death pledge) on our future.

History grates in Almodóvar’s films—literally. Baroque grilles and grillwork trace the nostalgic pull of the old Spain while geometric bars and grids map its repressiveness. In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1987, we see the romance of the balcony in exterior shots of lovely filigreed old buildings, but the romance in the movie is one of seduction and separation, and almost every woman character struggles against it. Meanwhile Pepa (Carmen Maura), the heroine, has transformed her own balcony, a concrete shelf in a contemporary high rise, into a mini ark, installing two of every species of animal in what begins to resemble a peasant village. What to save of the past, what reject? When Gloria (Maura), the put-upon housewife of What Have I Done to Deserve This?, 1984, starts to commit suicide by climbing over the railing of her box of a balcony, the appearance of her son saves her—that is, it allows her to stay behind the grillwork of tradition by giving back to her a remnant (merely) of the role of loving mother, which she has persistently cast off throughout the film by, for instance, selling the son to a dentist and murdering her husband with a ham bone.

There’s leakage backward and forward through the grate of the past. Dark Habits, 1983, concerns the adventures of a convent of nuns who write popular romance novels, keep a pet tiger, make costumes for the Virgin with an eye on Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, sell and take drugs, and have love affairs—all in a matrix of black, tortuous religious/sexual passion in which the DNA of Saint Theresa of Avila, Billy Idol, Madonna, and Julio Iglesias seems to have recombined. If the metaphoric grille between modernity and the old-Spain world of the convent has failed completely to cloister this particular community, gothic mystery is nevertheless honored. In Law of Desire, 1986, a film about the homoerotic loves of a successful film director and the tribulations of his transsexual sister, it seems at first that a lighter, more pop-ish approach to religious tradition is being proposed, despite the film’s tragic bent. The transsexual heroine, Tina (Maura), uses the forms of religion like an old teddy bear or bathrobe—they are something to cuddle up with or wrap herself in when she’s feeling low. On her homemade altar, a figurine of Marilyn Monroe sits easily next to those of the Holy Mother. But after this makeshift altar bursts into flame at the end of the film, a long shot shows police climbing scaffolding into the burning apartment building, looking like licking flames themselves (and echoing the iconographic tradition of the Deposition, the men removing Christ’s body from the Cross.) In that moment, the grid of authoritarian law overlays a comforting sentimental mysticism.

So that in Matador, 1986, the story about “a retired torero and a beautiful lawyer,” we are not surprised by the reciprocity of law and tradition, of prison bars and the brutal geometry of the bullring. Grids collide in checks and plaids as the tartan-suited attorney Maria Cardenal (Assumpta Serra) figures against black-and-white tiles, or stands in front of a barred window. Glimpses of gates and fences remind us of the advice of the maestro matador Diego Montes (Nacho Martinez) to a novice: “Chicks are like bulls. You need to hem them in—then it’s easy.” This is the only Almodóvar film to feature requited heterosexual “love.” But the traditional dance of courtship has become a mutual “hemming in,” the gridlock of the immovable and the irresistible: accomplished serial murderers both, Maria and Diego kill each other off at the instant of their sexual climax. At one point, the matador’s ex-girlfriend, angry and forsaken, eyes the lovers through the old-fashioned wrought-iron screen of an elevator shaft; she is appropriately anachronized, then, as she is also by dressing in red to attract the bull, her matador. (Colors are significant and heightened in Almodóvar’s films, red being especially emphasized.) She does not recognize that where the lovers are, on the other side of some temporal mesh that separates past from present (or present from future), mutual machismo replaces the victim/ aggressor pact. It’s as though Almodóvar were suggesting that if heterosexuality follows its historical blueprint, it can only survive as a perversity. The joke in this film of rigid right angles is that the “straightest” of Almodóvar’s erotic pairs is really the most “bent.”

At times, in keeping with its osmotic quality, the grille becomes a palimpsest—that perfect symbol, in the post-Modern allegory, for bleeding time, for the shifting uncertainty of the contemporary moment. In Women on the Verge, Pepa, a pregnant woman on the verge of shucking off her outmoded Don Juan, is twice shown through glass panes covered with the texts of advertisements. The image of an overbearing, cruel, and powerful mother dissolves and reforms behind a wall of glass blocks in Matador; she is a recurring figure in the background of virtually every Almodóvar film, the never-quite-exorcised ancestor of the “new,” post biological mother, who is caring, adoptive, and not necessarily born female. And on the verge of a flight that will change her life, Yolanda (Christina S. Pascual), the nightclub singer in Dark Habits, is addressed by a piano player silhouetted behind a scrim. He prompts her to sing the last line of her act: “You’ll come back” (a refrain).

Things always do come back, especially words. On the one hand, there is the script that imprisons. In Dark Habits, Yolanda is caught in her dead boyfriend’s diary, which becomes the text for her conversations with her new admirer, the mother superior of the convent where she takes refuge from the police. Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), the film director in Law of Desire, ends up throwing out of the window the typewriter on which he has composed the various fictions that the people around him are compulsively acting out. Although it lands in a dumpster and bursts into flames, it continues to exert its influence in the form of the narrative we are watching, just as in Women on the Verge, suitcases and answering machines thrown away out the window remain in the plot by landing on other characters’ heads. In several of Almodóvar’s movies, people see films that predict or dictate their destinies. And various forgeries suggest that we slavishly imitate a script, often—like the illiterate forger of Hitler’s letters in What Have I Done to Deserve This?without being able to decipher it. That film alone displays not only fake letters but fake liquors, fake orgasms, fake girlfriends, fake checks, fake drugs, fake commercials, fake sadism.

On the other hand, impersonation is liberating. Yolanda may stick to the script of the diary, but she reverses the roles to put herself in control. Actually, it is by doubling her identity that she has escaped the police in the first place: seeking her in connection with the drug-induced death of her lover, they find her in the dressing room of another of the nightclub’s performers, whom she impersonates, telling them that Yolanda is elsewhere. And once safe in the sanctuary of the convent, she takes over the completion of a painting begun by another, mysteriously vanished nun, somehow making available the resolution to that nun’s story. (What happened to her was in part a sexual liberation.) By likewise following a script, the script for femininity, the transsexual Tina of Law of Desire also liberates herself, to a large extent. Lip-synching to romantic songs, characters in both films may seem to show that if no one had ever heard the word love (or the lyrics of a love song), no one would ever fall in love.

This lip-synching corresponds with the repeated references to dubbing. In Women on the Verge, Pepa is an actress who dubs in Spanish dialogue for old American films. And Law of Desire opens with a scene in which an off-screen male presence directs a young man to masturbate; the words and sighs of both men, we eventually see, are provided by two distinctly unglamorous studio workers, and the whole episode, including the dubbing, turns out to be part of Pablo’s latest film. While clearly about the manipulation of desire, this recurring device also shows desire cut off from its originator. Unmoored, erotic words float freely (if anxiously), belonging to everyone and to no one in particular, neither here nor there. Such ventriloquism allows characters to be in two places at once—in a café, say, and, thanks to vocal sound effects, at Le Mans. This is an increase rather than a diminution of power. Similarly, Almodóvar has produced counterfeit publicity shots and published the ongoing memoirs of an alter ego of his, Patty Diphusa, supposedly an international porn star—giving the director the gift of authorial bilocation.

Regurgitation in the films both is and exemplifies tautology. From film to film, characters vomit, an echo amplifying all of Almodóvar’s recyclings: not only does he continually use the same actors, but lines of dialogue resurface, even trivial, throwaway lines like “Talking about me behind my back again?” (But then the entire contemporary world is unsuccessfully engaged in jettisoning its so-called disposable goods, right up to its typewriters and answering machines.) Prayers of thanksgiving are offered for the return of items never lost, the resurrection of people not dead. In Dark Habits, a mother asks about “the child,” referring not to her missing daughter but to a pet tiger kept by the nuns. Still, her daughter turns out to have been a tiger, sexually, and in telescoping the daughter and this carnivorous coddled beast, Almodóvar collapses William Blake’s two-faced god—the terrifying tiger and the childlike lamb. “This is the lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the lamb,” improvises a priest, in a direct segue from the mother’s inquiry; he is describing a sacrifice of innocence for no purpose, since the lamb has no sins. This oxymoron of innocence punished might be the definition of masochism. (Another ghost of the past: is masochism the essential ingredient of a “woman’s” film like Dark Habits?) The frustration level is accordingly high—highest in this film, but impotence alternates with rejection throughout the oeuvre, and the rare consummated love annihilates.

The reflexiveness of the films, their placement of themselves as fictions, should deconstruct their illusion, but serves only to reinforce it. This reflexiveness is heaviest in the consistently narcissistic or voyeuristic opening sequences; that is, it is couched in terms of deferral, of waiting. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the “fake” masturbation scene that both precedes and constitutes the beginning of Law of Desire. Later in the film, we watch fascinated policemen gaze up through a window at the kidnapped Pablo and his voracious lover/captor Antonio (Antonio Banderas). The scene rivets us even as we realize that we are watching a reflection of ourselves watching this film, entranced. Cinema takes us hostage and seduces us, as Antonio does Pablo. A gesture such as Tina’s highly theatrical wiping away of a tear as she watches with the police makes us aware of the artifice, but no one is consequently disengaged. The way time is suspended during this hiatus—the syncopation of the police cars’ keys and flashing lights makes an audible ticking—is virtually an objective correlative for the suspension of disbelief. Willing? That’s beside the point.

Yet there are moments of breaking through the spell of redundancy, repetition, and regurgitation. The most stunning of these lies, once again, in the pseudo film screened at the beginning of Law of Desire. For the conclusion of this sequence “gives birth” to Tina, who bursts radiantly upon us, throwing open the double doors of the theater. For a brief pause, we see her framed in the red circle on screen marking the “movie’s” end, and containing the Spanish word fin. Thus you might say that Tina is the post-Modern pastiche (in Fredric Jameson’s sense of that without norm) born after “the end” of Modernist self-reflexiveness. Moreover, she seems to have been born out of Antonio’s orgasm; the close-up of his red, parted lips murmuring “fuck me” mirrors the red circle of fin. (For a director who sees the script as the originator of action, and words as genetic templates for lives, it’s fitting that the mouth function as the birth canal. In Dark Habits, the mother of the vanished nun, kissing her daughter’s photo, imprints the circle of her red lips around her image.) Tina, a transsexual, is conceived from the sperm of a masturbating bisexual male and delivered from the womb of film.

Like Yolanda in Dark Habits, with her surprising academic training in botany, Almodóvar specializes in hybrids, new possibilities. His new nuclear family takes root where it can. Children are left behind (Tina mothers one such child of a transsexual) or appropriated from inappropriate mothers. In Dark Habits, a whole community of “sisters” is bereft when their reverend “mother” dies; left to their own devices, they begin to mutate into a new communal shape. Crossbred genres are likewise a commonplace of Almodóvar’s films. What Have I Done to Deserve This?, the tale of an overworked wife, mother, and domestic char, is part soap opera, part surreal fantasy, and part psychic thriller (there’s a telekinetic little girl, who has no effect on the plot), all embedded in a Marxist matrix in which a pet lizard—sought for, bled upon, and witness to murder—is named Money. The movie ends with a long shot, that cinematic device for returning us to the “real” world, which juxtaposes a freeway with the incarceral concrete apartment block in which the protagonist lives her constricted life.

In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Almodóvar posits a new breed of woman. The film plays with the notion of “model,” opening with a collage of photos of fashion mannequins and a shot of a scale model of the modern apartment house in which Pepa lives. Candela (Maria Barranco), a young friend of Pepa’s, makes a living as a model; Pepa’s ex-lover has a model ex-wife; and Pepa provides a role model to her young companions. Having established identity as artifice, Almodóvar locates it in time. Pepa sleeps with four clocks, as if with one for each of the four female characters. The fashion illustrations featured with the opening credits are from the ’60s—when Franco maintained his supremacy—and they are the fashions to which Lucia (Julieta Serrano), the ex-wife of Pepa’s ex-lover, clings even in the ’80s. Lucia is first seen in profile against a butterfly collection; she too has been pinned and preserved. Maddened and made dangerous by her husband’s infidelities and his abandonment of her, she has been intermittently institutionalized. For Pepa, who is younger but no ingenue, Lucia becomes a kind of icon, almost a Medusa into whose face a younger generation of women must look in order to “come through” into a new time. The fourth woman, the young Marisa (Rosy de Palma), who is being groomed for the old position of wife and mother (she’s engaged to Lucia’s son), is (accidentally) put to sleep by Pepa, and remains unconscious through much of the film. Here Almodóvar slyly rehabilitates Medea: it is the “good mother,” Pepa, who makes the drugged food (gazpacho) that her protégés eat. An intermediary generation works out conflict with an older generation and then gives the result as a gift to the younger generation: at the end of the narrative, sleeping beauty wakes up, refreshed and mysteriously no longer a virgin, and Pepa, free from her obsession with her philandering boyfriend, reveals that she is going to have a child. They sit gazing at the view from the balcony and discuss the future.

True to its screwball-comedy format, Women on the Verge is the most optimistic of Almodóvar’s works, and the only one that does not revolve around murder and suicide. Indeed, Almodóvar often seems to conflate the future with death. “When you go to the cinema,” he has said, “the cinema reflects not your life but your end.”3 And end means future, as when he talks about the lovers in Matador using Duel in the Sun, another agon resulting in a couple’s simultaneous death, as a crystal ball. In personal terms, clearly the future is eventually an end, a death, even if it is also, and in an intimately related way, potential, change, rebirth—as with Tina’s naissance out of fin in Law of Desire. In one scene in that film, Antonio shoots targets in a video arcade, waiting to see if he can pick up Pablo, director of the film that has just premiered; the numbers on the machine light up in sequence-one, two, three-as Pablo talks to a fan about his first, second, and third films. (Antonio is a “straight shooter” all right- out of the purity of his passion he will shoot and kill himself.) Numbers also appear in Matador, painted on pillars and abutments for the purposes of bullfighting instruction, but this time they form a countdown: spread out in time are glimpsed first a seven, then six, five, four. We are on our way to the explosive climax (there are lots of targetlike rings on the floor of the school), but the counting goes backward. The action is subliminally regressive. This may seem to reinforce the feeling that the sexual politics of Law of Desire are more progressive than those of Matador. Both films, however, conclude in fatalities. On the other hand, perhaps Matador’s countdown of circled numbers is intended to suggest the numbers on a film strip that mark the seconds before a production starts. In a way, as the lovers march toward death, a film advances to a beginning.

So for Almodóvar, the two terms become interchangeable, subsiding back into tautology, which is his version of fate. Except for Women on the Verge (and the early, less resolved film Labyrinth of Passion, 1982), all of the films discussed end in some form of pietà, a configuration whose air of irrevocable loss seems eternal and therefore inevitable. Yet what succeeds this scene in Christian mythology? A resurrection. Still, while it is surely an innovation to replace the embracing Mary with a man (Law of Desire) and the prostrate Jesus with a woman (Dark Habits), with Almodóvar we are not fully in a brave new world. Tina may have been born after “the end” of history, Pepa may have resolved her conflicts, but both are shadowed by bulwarks of the past. Almodóvar’s world is a soup of tenses. His films simultaneously lock us in the past, celebrate our having come through, and wait for us to be born.

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist and writer who lives in New York.


1. Marsha Kinder, “Pleasure and the New Spanish Mentality: A Conversation with Pedro Almodóvar,” Film Quarterly, Berkeley, Fall l987, p. 34.

2. Almodóvar, quoted in ibid.

3. Almodóvar, quoted in ibid., p. 41.