Votes for Pedro: Admiring Almodóvar

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. — Photographer… Nico Bustos
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Photographer… Nico Bustos

As Parallel Mothers comes to US cinemas, Pedro Almodóvar fans Aaron Ruttenberg and Carlos Crespo chat about the Spanish filmmaker’s canon, queer misbehavior and cinematic debauchery.

This past summer, we put out a call on social media for writers to pitch us stories that they wanted to share with our film-loving community during Pride Month. We received a bounty of wonderful proposals from folks across the world, leading us to the realization that these stories don’t deserve to be restricted to just one month of the year.

With so many of our members detailing how certain films or filmmakers helped shape the way that queer identities are portrayed in cinema, it was inevitable that more than one pitch would invoke the same artist. Such was the case with Letterboxd members Carlos Crespo and Aaron Ruttenberg, who both wanted to go deep on what the films of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar mean to them.

So we invited these Almodóvar-loving strangers—Carlos in Spain, and Aaron in the US—to have a conversation with one another about the Spaniard’s canon, and his place in queer culture.

Almodóvar’s latest film, Parallel Mothers—the story of two single women (Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit) who form a bond after meeting in the hospital room where they are set to give birth—arrives in US theaters this month after screening in several countries internationally. Whether you’re new to his work or a repeat visitor, this holiday season might just be the perfect time to indulge in an Almodóvar retrospective—with Aaron and Carlos in conversation alongside you.

Read on as they dig into their personal histories with the filmmaker, swoon over his extravagant use of color, and celebrate his complicated, messy portrayals of queer characters.

I'm So Excited (2013) with the director seated at right.
I'm So Excited (2013) with the director seated at right.

Aaron Ruttenberg: To kick off our conversation about the prolific, queer filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, let’s start by discussing his 2013 comedy, I’m So Excited, which is something of an underappreciated film in his canon. It follows an eccentric flight crew and passengers as they distract themselves from an impending plane crash with mescaline, alcohol and sex.

This film was not warmly received upon release and may end up being Almodóvar’s final full-fledged comedy. As a defender of I’m So Excited, what does it mean to you and why do you think it didn’t connect with audiences as strongly as work past and present from Almodóvar? 

Carlos Crespo: Well, I’ll be the first to admit that it might not be his most formally or narratively innovative film. It’s a bit meandering, and the whole plot happens in what would be an ellipsis in any other movie.

However, most of the criticism I have heard on the film comes from people who were a bit ambivalent on Almodóvar’s most extroverted efforts, and found themselves in front of… well, a very kitsch, thinly plotted exercise in queerness, class struggles, and just a rehash of everything that worked for the filmmaker when he began directing back in the 1980s.

I love the film precisely for these reasons; he’s back to his young and brassy self but holds all the power that a successful career has awarded him. It’s the film that shows that he doesn’t have to hold back, and now it doesn’t even have to be underground: he’s made it, and can do whatever he wants.

Pain and Glory (2019).
Pain and Glory (2019).

And while it’s great that he has the range to do Pain and Glory (where an alter ego of Almodóvar, played by Antonio Banderas, rekindles old relationships and reminisces about his past while preparing his newest film) or Bad Education (which follows a couple of children and one of the priests who taught them as they come of age and discover sex and movies), films like I’m So Excited are what got him worldwide attention in the first place.

It definitely feels, at least to me, that this extravagance was what made audiences and critics bail on him on this one, as if they were expecting a more mature, serious work. But you don’t need to become boring just because you are older! Almodóvar’s claim on queer narratives has always been that of putting his characters on par with more traditional narratives, to the point where they can be villains, murderers, or just about anything and that changes nothing about their queerness, because what they do can never change what they are.

I feel it’s messed up that a stance that can be summed up as “queer people should be allowed the possibility to be fallible” is still so controversial, but alas, here we are. What do you think about the film though, Aaron? What was your first contact with Almodóvar’s work and how did you react to it? I am always interested in this.

Bad Education (2004).
Bad Education (2004).

AR: I’m So Excited reminded me of his scrappy, sprawling early movies, right down to the ultra-specific characterization and transgressive comedy, all of which are what I appreciate most about Almodóvar. If it didn’t feel as emotionally revelatory as something like Pain and Glory, it makes up for that with the titular musical interlude, which was easily worth the price of admission (or at least my HBO Max subscription).

What I find most interesting is that I’m So Excited feels like an attempt to do something with mass-market appeal, but he hasn’t let go of his thematic mainstays; crime, psychic powers, alter egos and sex workers. For that, I understand its disconnect with an audience that perhaps needed the film to lean in one direction or the other.

Volver (2006).
Volver (2006).

My first exposure to Pedro Almodóvar was seeing Volver in college. I think, like most of us who appreciate him, the color palette and melodramatic narrative are what left a lasting impression. I thought it was an engaging, dark comedy but it wasn’t until I saw Pepi, Luci, Bom and Labyrinth of Passion that I became more than a casual appreciator. Those are very naked movies. They feel as much about what Pedro Almodóvar was doing on any given Saturday night as they do what he may have been fantasizing about his whole life. I have to take notice when someone can make material feel so specific and yet entirely universal—that’s what most of his work feels like to me.

Thank you for touching on the fallibility of the characters in I’m So Excited, because that’s been a through-line in all of his work: humanized queer characters. All of his films are populated by people who feel like they’ve really lived a life, who have sinned and repented and sinned again and psychoanalyzed themselves all before the film starts. He’s not trying to create aspirational queer narratives and I applaud him for that. As you say, anyone in an Almodóvar film may be a murderer or a thief, and that neither detracts nor contributes to their queerness.

I feel like this is the kind of perspective you get by writing from experience and not fearing debauchery the way other (well-intentioned) queer films might. What are your thoughts on debauchery in Almodóvar’s world? Is it an endorsement or merely a depiction?

CC: I have had a similar discussion to this one about binge-drinking in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round; whether it encourages the act itself or is limited to some sort of objective presentation. And the truth is, in both cases, I think it’s neither. Debauchery is such a persevering theme in Almodóvar’s work. It has become a part of the world of many of his characters to the point that what he is telling would be meaningless without it. Pain and Glory’s intense emotions work all the best (at least for me) because we can picture, via other works of his, the kind of world its protagonists come from.

Pain and Glory (2019).
Pain and Glory (2019).

When he began working, I find it worked well thematically: Spain was just transitioning from a 40-year dictatorship and there was this sense that anything and everything was valid; this hunger for change and progress became such an intrinsic part of Almodóvar’s world that he couldn’t help make it a key element of his movies, even if he was dealing with simple domestic affairs.

In his most recent, sober films, his characters try to escape to that sort of place (and in cases like I’m So Excited, they succeed massively). In a world filled with ennui, where their lives have plateaued and the only excitement seems to come from a reminiscence of the past, as happens to Antonio Banderas’s character in Pain and Glory… maybe resolving to the kind of excess that made their youth so exciting is the only solution. Or… maybe it isn’t, because they now know how much pain it can cause, even if they have not forgotten the good parts about it.

I want to bring up Lucrecia Martel’s speech at the 76th Venice Film Festival. Presenting the Honorary Golden Lion award to Pedro, she said that: “Long before women, homosexuals [and] trans people got collectively fed up with the miserable place we had in history, Pedro had already made us heroines.”

Almodóvar with his Honorary Golden Lion at Venice 2019. — Photographer… Andrea Merola/​Awakening
Almodóvar with his Honorary Golden Lion at Venice 2019. Photographer… Andrea Merola/​Awakening

I find this statement so raw and powerful. The whole speech just makes me emotional every time, but this particular segment is poignant in its specificity of why Almodóvar holds such a relevant place in the world—not only within the industry, but in terms of queer representation at large. What do you think about it?

AR: I think that statement speaks to the creative agency a filmmaker finds when they don’t attempt to placate an audience and instead just make the movie that they themselves want to see. Almodóvar has clearly never been interested in couching queer stories in a metaphor about being Frankenstein’s bride. I like that Martel is essentially saying that Almodóvar was telling stories about queer lives before it was cool.

The queerness is always front and center. His films reflect the lives of people who are out, but not just out in the sense of making your sexuality known—out as in authentic, honest. There are plenty of characters with secrets in an Almodóvar film, but they’re usually well-reasoned in their secrecy. There is no shame in the Almodóvar-verse, just pragmatism. To me, this is the significance of color in his films, it represents the outness of being out.

Labyrinth of Passion (1982).
Labyrinth of Passion (1982).

I think of Almodóvar as an aesthetically minded filmmaker, almost more so than a thematic one, do you feel like that’s accurate?

CC: Most definitely so, yes. Even before I got into his films, I was aware of Almodóvar as someone who liked colors—the brighter and more strident, the better. I really liked what you said: that it represents the outness of the characters, and isn’t simply aesthetics for the sake of it, because I feel like many critics of his focus on his work as an exercise in form without substance, but it is anything but that, in my opinion.

Circling back to something you mentioned earlier, when he developed his style back with films like Pepi, Luci, Bom or Labyrinth of Passion, it feels like he could be a part of the narrative himself, as these are, as you put it, very naked films. In that sense, his style has probably carried over the feeling of being able to be out in a world that was new and ripe with possibility, and thus the color and extravagance mixed with the feeling that this could be just another night out for him.

I am a big fan of how he has kept this unchanged, even as his films have evolved from borderline-slapstick comedies to full-on dramas. Even films with a darker color palette, such as Bad Education, use very saturated tones and deep blacks that add new depths to [them].

The Human Voice (2020).
The Human Voice (2020).

And of course, his short film The Human Voice, which I have grown quite fond of, and feels like a perfect companion to Pain and Glory in this sense, lets us into Almodóvar’s own apartment to see how the interior life of his characters is extremely active, even if they seem like they are constantly going through a rough patch. I feel like only a master filmmaker could translate so well the same style over genres and decades while not necessarily changing that many things along the way.

But do you maybe feel like he has lost a bit of his touch with the times? There’s a strong sense of nostalgia and a melancholic undercurrent that’s growing stronger with each new film of his.

AR: Most filmmakers, over a long-enough career, get lost at some point; they become obsessed with the new tech of the day, they repeat their stories to diminishing returns, they lose favor with fans or, simply, they lose potency. I think Almodóvar is as sharp of a storyteller as he ever was. He’s stayed his own course and continued to mine familiar themes and aesthetics without feeling redundant or impotent.

It’s true, he’s become more retrospective—and, consequently, melancholic—but Pain and Glory in 2019 feels as authentic and specific as Pepi, Luci, Bom did in 1980.

I would imagine he’s never made a movie he didn’t want to make, which sounds over-simplified, but his signature is so prominent in every frame of every film he’s touched for the last 40 years that I can’t help but feel as enthusiastic about his films as he does. As you said, his style has largely stayed the same all these years, and he’s obviously fond of bringing back actors time and again. It’s a testament to creative perseverance. It shows that you don’t always have to adapt so much that you lose your voice in the crowd.

As a Spaniard yourself, can you tell me how Pedro Almodóvar is regarded in his home country? Is there a more mainstream appreciation for him, or is he still considered somewhat of a niche artist?

Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980).
Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980).

CC: I wouldn’t say he’s considered as a niche artist at all—after all, he’s had so much international recognition, and the Academy Awards specifically are so difficult to ignore that he’s made his way into the Spanish mainstream culture.

However, I do find that there is a lot of criticism, where he is almost caricatured as this uber-queer filmmaker who is all about showing off an extravagance… but that, of course, comes from the more conservative segment of Spanish society. One has to assume that it is also due to homophobia that he’s made a scapegoat for those who complain about our industry getting too many government subsidies, or why he is singled out and pointed at when Spanish cinema goes through a rough patch creatively, as if he’s been making the same film for 40 years.

But at the same time, I feel like there is a real sense of value in his figure, and when bigotry is left aside, one can really appreciate how many young queer people feel encouraged by his work. His style has been imitated to exhaustion by students, and his films spark a discussion like few others do. I appreciate that he has stuck to Spain when working, as he seems to get better box-office results in other countries, but I think that he feels some sort of reverence and love whenever he is met by fans.

I’ve talked about how especially young queer people are really fond of his work, but who do you think could possibly be a true heir to Almodóvar?

AR: What I’m looking for in an Almodóvar heir is someone who combines aesthetics and tones that seem at odds with one another. Boiling down what his strengths are as a filmmaker, I think Pedro Almodóvar is best at advertising one thing and then showing another. He subverts expectations to deepen the comedy and tragedy of his stories.

Promising Young Woman (2020).
Promising Young Woman (2020).

Gregg Araki comes to mind as a filmmaker who similarly blends queer stories with crime and genre storytelling, albeit with a more cynical tone. Emerald Fennell is someone I’m excited to follow. Just from her debut, Promising Young Woman, she clearly understands how to use color to accentuate tone, and how to marry comedy and tragedy as effortlessly as Almodóvar. I realize both Araki and Fennell have sex as a theme in their films, but in a more, shall we say, sobering context than Almodóvar.

I would also like to highlight Patty Jenkins as a sort of Almodóvar successor. Jenkins, an outspoken fan of Almodóvar, has largely worked in TV, but her sole feature films, about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos and the superhero Wonder Woman, concern women at opposite ends of the spectrum, who are both at odds with their place in the world. Her doing something more hedonistic that still appeals to a broad audience would be quite interesting.

CC: That is so interesting! I wasn’t aware that Jenkins was such a devoted fan; hopefully she can embrace a more lavish style in her next few big-budget features. When you mention that both Gregg Araki and Emerald Fennell have made sex a big part of their narratives, I’m reminded of Almodóvar’s diss on superhero movies for being sexless and tepid.

To that extent, I think a couple of the more interesting films that I have seen recently and could work as Almodóvar-inspired are Ema, by Pablo Larraín, and El Ángel, by Luis Ortega. Both are colorful and extravagant, both have queer main characters, and in both of them sex plays an important part in the plot; although this might be cheating, as El Ángel was produced by Almodóvar himself, and feels so clearly indebted to him.

El Ángel (2018).
El Ángel (2018).

One of the main issues about trying to find an heir to Almodóvar is that his cinema is so attached to his personality, and has been built over a series of extremely important years for the development of queer narratives in the industry and LGBTQ+ acceptance in the world, that anyone who tried to draw from his work directly would end up feeling like a copycat. As a result, when people saw their film they would immediately think that they were pulling an Almodóvar.

In that sense, maybe someone who could be an heir is Harmony Korine. He is someone who does very stylized, naked portrayals of characters who inhabit a certain moment in contemporary history. While he is very far from the queer narratives of Pedro, and the sobriety and maturity of his latest efforts, I can certainly see in films like The Beach Bum or Spring Breakers an exploitation of the state of the world at that specific point in time, along with the same taste for lavishness and extravagance, where comedy and drama are loosely threaded together.

Parallel Mothers (2021).
Parallel Mothers (2021).

AR: To end our conversation, let’s talk about Almodóvar’s latest film, Parallel Mothers. Due in US theaters at the end of December, the film has already been released in Spain, and I’m so envious you were able to see it already. Without giving anything away, how does it fit within the canon of work we’ve discussed? Does it feel like familiar ground for Pedro, or is he delving into something completely different?

CC: I really loved the film, and I’m excited that it’s getting out there and being released in the US now. It was a bit of a blow when the Spanish Academy decided not to submit it as our Oscar representative, but it feels like it will still do well financially and people abroad are really looking forward to watching it.

I feel like Parallel Mothers falls on the more sober side of his filmography, because the plot deals with certain subjects that are difficult to talk about in Spain—even taboo in certain spaces. Almodóvar has said that this is his most political film, and while I wouldn’t agree with that statement, it is certainly the one that touches most directly on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.

Almodóvar on the Parallel Mothers set with Milena Smit (left) and Penélope Cruz (right).
Almodóvar on the Parallel Mothers set with Milena Smit (left) and Penélope Cruz (right).

I find that one of the best aspects of the movie is how it manages to thread together its narrative with a tone that’s exaggerated, almost theatrical, and a visual appearance that resembles a painting with how it uses light and color—even more than in some of his recent films.

I do feel like it’s going to be one of his most divisive films, but that [isn’t due] to any lack on Almodóvar or his team’s part. The filmmaker’s machine is firing on all cylinders in this one, despite a rushed shoot, and it’s up to the audience to let themselves loose and adapt to a film that doesn’t shy away from showing its true colors and adopting a more artificial approach.

Parallel Mothers’ is in theaters in select countries worldwide, and in US theaters from December 24. Follow Aaron and Carlos on Letterboxd.

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