The critical success of ‘Julieta’, released this summer, makes this boxset of newly restored versions of Pedro Almodóvar’s early movies all the more timely. The collection, available on DVD and Blu-Ray from StudioCanal, includes six films: ‘Dark Habits’, ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’, ‘Law of Desire’, ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Kika’ and ‘Flower of My Secret’, each looking bright and clean and sounding clear after a restoration from the original negatives supervised by Almodóvar’s brother Agustin. Together they give a real sense of the origins of many of the Spanish director’s preoccupations and predilections, but also provide a satisfying and engaging taste of Almodóvar’s subversive but colourful cinematic universe.
‘Dark Habits’ (1983)
‘Dark Habits’, directed in 1983, is a black comedy set in a convent occupied by a group of nuns each struggling with their own collection of neuroses and addictions including drugs, writing racy novels and homosexuality. Cristina Sánchez Pascual plays a cabaret singer who, following the death of her boyfriend, takes refuge in the convent and is the half-instigator/half-witness to the moral decline of the institution.
It contains all the characteristics of Almodóvar’s later films: heightened performances, a bold use of colour, and transgressive themes. The treatment of the nuns is subversive to say the least, reminiscent of the approaches of Luis Buñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and is a powerful if absurd reaction against the establishment. The film is blunter and less crafter than his later movies, but the ingredients of Almodóvar’s quirky style are already present.
‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ (1984)
‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’, released the following year, is another black comedy, but one that has at least one foot on the ground. Set mostly on a housing estate in Madrid in the 1980s, Almodóvar’s fourth film focuses on Gloria, played by Carmen Maura. Gloria is a housewife whose husband is in love with another women. She has two sons, one of whom is a drug-dealer, and the other ends up being adopted by a paedophilic dentist, her best friend is a prostitute and her mother-in-law is an eccentric who collects sticks. There are touches to Italian neo-realism throughout the film, most notably in the claustrophobic detail of the flat and the way the housing estate is shown to be hemmed in by a motorway.
Unlike his previous film, Almodóvar choses to shoot this in real locations, streets, kitchens, cars, but for all this realism, the director’s preoccupations with transgressive characters and scenarios tip the film firmly into a fantastical world. It ends up being a curious combination of the early, realist work of Federico Fellini, and his later, sprawling and poetic movies. This seems to me to be Almodóvar attempting to make a movie along the lines of Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, but to ground it in the un-romantic, gritty world of working-class Madrid.
‘Law of Desire’ (1987)
The third movie in the boxset, ‘Law of Desire’, directed in 1987, is a darker film than the previous two. Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo Quintero, a homosexual film director who ends up in a triangular relationship between him, him obsession, Juan, and an unstable man who is obsessed with him, Antonio, played by Antonio Banderas. In the meantime his sister Tina, played by Carmen Maura is harbouring a secret from her past concerning her gender reassignment when she was a child and his niece has been abandoned by her mother, played by transsexual actress Bibí Andersen. When Pablo’s love Juan is murdered by Antonio, suspicion falls on him, and gradually Antonio becomes embroiled with this entire family.
It’s more a heightened movie than ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’, taking a step back from the neo-realist influences and instead taking Almodóvar’s preoccupations with transgression, transgender issues and homosexuality and using them to infuse the visual style of the film. Hence there are moments of abstraction and occasional forays into soap-operatic melodrama which in the hands of a less committed director would come across as divertingly silly but Almodóvar uses them to complement and, at times, underpin his twisty narrative. The standout performance in the film is from Carmen Maura who plays the tortured transgender sister with bravery and real unsettling emotional depth.
‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1988)
‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, directed in 1988, is a return to the farcical comedy of Almodóvar’s earlier movies. Pepa, played by Carmen Maura has been dumped by Ivan, but unknown to him she is pregnant with his unborn child. She then accidentally runs into his son from a previous relationship and ends up having an informal party with her ‘stepson’, her suicidal best friend, her stepson’s girlfriend, two policemen and a blender filled with gazpacho soup doped with sleeping pills.
It’s a riotous movie that includes many of the themes of his later film ‘All About My Mother’, but with a lighter touch. Almodóvar wears his melodramatic sources on his sleeve – Pepa and Ivan are voice-over artists dubbing American movies, in this case ‘Johnny Guitar’, but oddly his film is based on a Jean Cocteau play. There seems to be a running theme of broken communication throughout the film from the dubbing of the American movie, through Ivan’s use of his ‘dubbing’ voice when wooing, to Pepa’s frustration with and repeated destruction of her telephone. It’s about fractured and disjointed ways of talking, through much of the film telephones act as barriers to communication, and when the characters get together in Pepa’s flat, an abstract and purposefully fake looking set, they still have problems speaking mostly because Pepa accidentally drugs many of her visitors. It’s a fun, colourful film that appears to be superficial, but the superficiality is an intentional comment on the communication problems of modern life. It would be interesting to see what the movie would look like in the age of social media.
‘Kika’, released in 1993, sees Almodóvar continuing the light, screw-ball farcical mode he adopted in ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. The title character, played by Veronica Forqué, is a make-up artist looking for love. She becomes involved with Ramón and his step-father Nicholas, played by Peter Coyote, and becomes involved in a tortuous plot involving murder, a reality television series fronted by Andrea Caracortada, played by Victoria Abril, an escaped former pornographic actor turned rapist and a voyeur.
The tangled nature of the plot makes it difficult to follow, but the vibrant set design and Jean Paul Gaultier’s excessive but unmistakeable costumes, mean that you surf over the plot and, when you lose the thread you can always enjoy the spectacle. It’s filled with Almodóvar’s traditional kinkiness, this time featuring extended sex scenes and eroticised murders. One scene, featuring the extended rape of the title character, is uncomfortably presented as a comedic moment which tips from kinky and amusing into being unacceptable. Unfortunately, this scene, for me, distracts from the rest of the movie and sours the overall sense of abandoned charm and wit that Almodóvar achieves elsewhere.
‘The Flower of My Secret’ (1995)
The final movie in the boxset, ‘The Flower of My Secret’ from 1995, is the most accessible film in this collection, and the most likeable. Leocadia, played by Marisa Paredes, is a writer of pseudonymous erotic fiction who has a mid-life crisis. Her remote relationship with a military officer is failing, she is increasingly drawn to darker and more serious writing despite her publishers insisting on another romance, and her immediate family is stifling her with their eccentricities. ‘The Flower of My Secret’ is a love story, one that has an entirely satisfactory ending, but one that retains the cynicism and darkly humorous, skewed world-view with which Almodóvar imbues his earlier films. Unlike many of the other films in this boxset, the plot is simple and relatively free from excess, but instead it is the rich and bizarre characters, including the mercurial Leocadia, that give this film its ‘Almodóvar’ quality.
It’s less subversive and almost conservative in tone, but the movies in this set feel rather like a progression towards a consistent style, almost as if Almodóvar is oscillating between the farcical excesses of ‘Dark Habits’ and ‘Kika’ and the restrained (at least – restrained for him) subtlety of ‘Law of Desire’ and ‘The Flower of My Secret’ in order to find the perfect balance. Gathering the ever shifting tones of his early movies together in this boxset encourages the viewer to chart the director’s journey from experimental movies to mainstream successes, and at the very least, regardless of which Almodóvar you like best, you’ll find it here.