Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother. Photos: Teresa Isasi.
Mainly women," says Leo, the desperate, devastated, lovelorn romance writer played by Marisa Paredes in Pedro Almodovars eleventh feature film, The Flower of My Secret. "Adventurous, suicidal lunatics." He might as well be talking about the characters found in Almodovars films, for his is a body of work dominated by actresses, peopled by heartbroken women and absent men. And in his most recent film, All About My Mother, Almodovar further indulges his fascination in their transparent despair, their resilience, and their capacity to heal.
Of all his work, All About My Mother is a film consumed with theater, with artifice, with adopted identity, worn like a costume. The plot is gnarled with coincidence, reduplicated characters (no fewer than three named Esteban), with tragedy. And like so many of his films, it is taken with the spontaneous solace and solidarity women provide to each other, bound together by trouble.
He is one of a handful of international directors whose name is an adjective, whose signature encompasses a visual style, a favored cast, a city (Madrid) and an abiding appreciation for sexual antics and the high jinx they bring. He is, in fact, the author of his own genre, the self-styled "screwball drama." And as much as he protests the burden of audience expectations, his films remain doggedly accessible and routinely popular. All About My Mother, which took the Best Direction Prize at this years Cannes Film Festival, has been called by many his best work to date (though for others, its tough to top the brilliant mess of his 1988 breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown).
If Almodovars tone has darkened a degree in his last three films (The Flower of My Secret, the somber sexiness of 1998s Live Flesh, and this current film), his preoccupations have deepened. He remains fixated by American movies, the lush melodramas of classic Hollywood. Even this title is a riff: a deliberately revisionist take on Joseph L. Mankiewiczs 1950 All About Eve. References to films like The Apartment and Casablanca litter his work. But here he most deliberately invokes theater specifically Tennessee Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire" to reflect, refract and amplify the emotional condition of his characters. It is a film consumed with roles and stages, with scripted lines that ring like the truth. Here particularly, Almodovar is interested in his womens ability to, in a word, perform.
Filmmaker: There are scenes in The Flower of My Secret where a woman takes part in a hospital simulation, role-playing a mother whose young son has been killed. Here that same idea becomes the jumping-off point for a more involved story. What interested you about this aspect of your previous film that made you want to return to it? How did this new story develop?
Almodovar: When I start writing, I always have a lot of notes for one subject, or I try to. And then of course, you dont know where youre going. The first note that I wrote which then led to this script did come from that scene in The Flower of My Secret. And in the beginning it was much more present than at the end of the script. I was very interested in the capacity of people who are not actors professionally to act, or to represent. It is amazing how many professions need you to act even without being an actor. But you have to act, and sometimes even disguise yourself.
I make fiction films because I like representation. Thats why I dont make documentaries, and I dont think Ill ever make documentaries. The colors of my movies are not completely real, because I like that distance, that this is a movie, and reality is over there. I dont want to make something that looks completely real. I want a representation of that. And this is what was appealing to me and why I started making movies.
Filmmaker: Its something you share with American filmmakers like Douglas Sirk: the very heightened production design, along with the sense of melodrama. It sometimes seems like youre commenting on a kind of emotional truth through an artificial style of filmmaking.
Almodovar: I dont think the way I do things has to do with telling the truth. But the style doesnt mean you are lying. No. The style sometimes gives you more strength to say things. Because there is something that the spectator has to identify himself with, and for me, the thing is the emotion. And that emotion can be isolated on a set that is completely artificial. I dont mean that everything is represented, fake, stylized. Not everything. There is something that should be very clear, and it is perhaps your guts, your heart, your sensibility.
Filmmaker: In this film particularly, you incorporate a lot of references to film and theater. The title, of course, comes from All About Eve; then theres the play-within-the-film, "A Streetcar Named Desire." You present a number of situations where your characters can see their lives reflected in fiction.
|Director Pedro Almodovar.|
And also I like that sometimes reality, in terms of the story Im telling in the movie, happens on the stage. And on the contrary, that scene that takes place outside the theater in Madrid that billboard outside the theater theatricalizes the exterior of the theater its a set, and in a way, its more theatrical than whats inside on the stage.
But these things are meanings that I take for myself and that help me to not feel gratuitous. And I need it: I need to give an explanation to myself for everything that I do. I am not used to clarifying those private things, because sometimes they are very serious, sometimes they help you, sometimes they are not so meaningful.
Filmmaker: A lot of the drama in All About My Mother takes place actually backstage, in the actresses dressing room.
Almodovar: The dressing room for me is like a center of the female universe. I very much like to see the actresses when they are making up or getting dressed. Its very intimate. They talk. It seems to me that women cant lie in a dressing room or in the toilet or in the kitchen. These are spaces in which you can only say the truth. I dont know why. Like at a party, where women are usually in the kitchen talking about their husbands because they are more drunk than usual and are a little more sincere. And also in the bathroom in many situations, you are more sincere, talking about desires, like "I want to do that if possible," or "I want to sniff that if you invite me," or just talk in the bathroom about very important and serious matters. These are places that invite you to talk.
Filmmaker: People have commented that your films seem to have gotten darker, more introspective in the past few years. The Flower of My Secret and Live Flesh, as well as this new film, do seem to take on more serious subjects.
Almodovar: Thats true. It seems to me now that I didnt intend to do it. Im conscious, of course, after making the films that these three movies create a sort of trilogy. They are very different, but for me, when I think about them, they are a trilogy. Because since Flower I have tended toward greater sobriety, greater simplicity, and greater transparency in the resolution of each shot and each image. And more than ever in my previous films, pain is much more present. There is humor as well, like there is in everyday life. But it seems to me there is more pain than desire in these films.
Filmmaker: And why is that?
Almodovar: Perhaps because Im aging! I dont know. But I really wanted to make it like that. I rejected all the primary colors. I used black and white which are colors I never use. I used very dark green in the last two movies, which is a color I had always rejected. Always, my movie will be very bright for the American audience, because my culture is very colorful. But my palette is obviously changing, I think because I was very saturated with myself and what I did in the 80s. I was very fed up with being "Almodovar." I dont have any kind of identity crisis or problem. Everything that was brought to me by the crew that could have been said to be very "Almodovarian" I rejected immediately. Thats one of the problems I had with the crew.
Filmmaker: Before The Flower of My Secret?
Almodovar: No, even in these films. In The Flower of My Secret, supposedly my style was already very defined, and so the crew, the art director, the costume designer, etc. would always bring examples of things furniture, clothes, etc. that were very much in that style. And I rejected them immediately. Sometimes its dangerous to have a trademark, especially when that trademark has been successful, because suppose that you do not evolve? After making these three films, I feel more free to do really what I want because I think that the audience has now recognized that I can do all these different things. I can take all these different styles and work in all these different themes. I do notice something that audiences demand of me, as if I were a singer and people were telling me what I should be singing: gay people, sex and comedy.
Filmmaker: Its identifiably yours. Its true.
Almodovar: And I think I have to! In Spain, I have direct contact with the audience, because people just stop me and talk to me. And sometimes they ask me that, and demand it of me: "I love this movie, but Pedro, will you put a little more sex in the next one?" "Are you going to make a new comedy because you are gifted in that." This is very funny, but its true that many, many people, not only in Spain, demand it. And I really would like to do it.
Filmmaker: Now you are going to do an all-English language film.
Almodovar: Perhaps. We are working in that direction, and are working on the script. But I have to say that it doesnt feel right yet for me. I have not decided that the script is exactly what it should be. My project that is most developed to this date is the English-language project, The Paper Boy. But until I say "Action" Im not really sure what film Im going to be making. The audience demands of me gay people, comedy and sex. Because they know that the emotional heart is a given. And I think that it has the three. Its a very dark story, but it has a lot of humor. There is a big sex sequence, and there is a lot of desire. And also there is a gay man.
Filmmaker: Its Almodovar then. Youre all set.
Almodovar: Its an American gay which is very different, completely different.
Filmmaker: Its interesting that American audiences have always responded to your work. Why do you think that is?
Almodovar: I dont know, but Im flattered. There are many fictional things in my movies, there are many ideas. And one of the more flattering comments I received in The New York Times was that Hollywood can make 20 different movies out of this movie. Perhaps the American audience has this wonderful childlike attitude in front of a movie: "Give me things happening, movement." And in my movies, many, many things happen. This may be a basic explanation, I dont know. But also, I think Im a big symbol of liberation for Americans. I think they go see one of my films and after coming out, they think, "God, I am so liberal, so liberated. I have no prejudices, because I love this film."