Director/Screenwriter: Pedro Almodovar
By Roderick Heath
After the high-wire tonal balancing act of All About My Mother (1999), Pedro Almodovar seems have been attempting a return to the artist he was before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987) established him as everyone’s favourite cuddly genre-and-gender-warping Spaniard. Truth of the matter is, Pedro’s always been a hit-and-miss filmmaker, and the distance between his best and worst movies seems less a matter of the ingredients he puts in—which are more or less consistent—and more of the confidence with which he attacks them. This confidence can make his wildest fancies seem organic rather than contrived to keep ahead of expectations. Thus, Bad Education and Volver finished up as occasionally interesting, but finally rambling, clumsy concoctions, the work of an artist trying to feel his way out of his usual affectations but sometimes only chasing them around like a dog after its own tail.
Likewise, Dark Habits, his fourth feature-length film, and Law of Desire, his seventh and the one that gained him some international repute, are both looking older than they actually are. Part of that’s obviously because of their low budgets, but it’s also because Almodovar the filmmaker wasn’t yet up to pace with Almodovar the ideas man. Both films are provocative in a playful, dated fashion and disappointingly slack in the pacing and lack of zesty design that make films like Women on the Verge or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) seem to float like silk in the wind. Nonetheless, although they never quite catch fire, they’re both intriguing and absorbing in their own right, and reveal glimmerings of Almodovar’s best instincts.
Dark Habits follows a Yolanda Bel (Cristina Sánchez Pascual), nightclub singer, junkie, and former teacher who runs from the police after her sometime boyfriend Jorge (Will More) dies from injecting a bad batch of heroin she bought. She finds in her purse a card given to her by the Mother Superior of a skid row mission who is a fan of hers, so she decides to head to the mission and hide out there. The mission itself has fallen on times as hard as her own: once a shelter for the desperate demimonde, now no self-respecting junkie or prostitute will come there, and the money promised by a wealthy, fascist Marquess to sustain their operation has dried up because his widow, the Marquesa (Mary Carrillo), glad to be free of her asshole husband, doesn’t want to pay up. The Abbess, Julia (Julieta Serrano), has given her nuns absurdly penitent names: the irascible Sister Rat of the Sewer (Chus Lampreave) writes trashy but widely beloved novels based on the lives of the women who used to come to the mission. She publishes these through her sister, who happily keeps all the money and acclaim. Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) raises a pet tiger. LSD-dropping Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) is a murderess for whom the Mother Superior lied on the stand to protect, causing the guilty sister to feel bound in everlasting repentance to her. Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) is in love with a priest (Manuel Zarzo), who’s a musical fan.
Abbess Julia herself is the film’s dominant character: a drug-abusing, conniving, closeted lesbian, she’s as lovable and intriguing as she is two-faced and occasionally cruel. In love with Yolanda, she’s haunted by two other women. One is Merche (Cecilia Roth), a former nun who returns to the Mission briefly, on the run from the cops, and is taken away the next day. The other, Virginia, was the Marquesa’s daughter, a wayward girl who became a nun herself, and ran away to Africa and was thought to have been eaten by cannibals. The obvious joke—that these ladies of mercy and religion are variously crazed and depraved—is leavened by Almodovar’s genuine interest in them as people, and his delight in the hazy boundaries between sin and sanctity, a purgatory where Julia is the queen. This dialogue of impulses is a key to Almodovar’s whole oeuvre. His inability to hate anyone sees the initially obnoxious Marquesa become a figure of sympathy, and Yolanda, to aid her, must finally outwit Julia, who, desperate to keep her mission going, tries to blackmail the Marquesa into coughing up funds in return for information about Virginia’s fate: yes, she’s dead, but her son has been brought up, Tarzan-like, by apes.
In much the same way, neither Almodovar nor the main protagonist of Law of Desire, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), can bring himself to hate Antonio Benítez (Antonio Banderas), who kills Pablo’s former lover Juan Bermúdez (Miguel Molina) in a crazed effort to secure Pablo’s ardour. As the title indicates, Pedro feels that desire has its own laws, and adherence to such laws will occasionally have such a result. Pablo is a writer and director, and his transsexual sister Tina (Carmen Maura) often acts in his erotic movies and stage plays. Juan, Pablo’s long-time lover, is flirting with girls, feeling uneasy with the uncommitted Pablo and finally moving away to reconsider his life. Pablo, as an artist, struggles to assert control over the strange gaps and absences in his life by inventing personae on the page, and dictating for Juan the perfect kind of letter he’d like to get from him. Enter Antonio, a shadowing, shadowy momma’s boy who claims to be largely straight, but aggressively seduces Pablo. Right at the point when Pablo finally realises he really loves Juan, Antonio get onto his motorcycle one night, and travels out to the coastal bar where Juan is working. Their confrontation concludes with Antonio pushing Juan off a cliff into the sea.
A constant motif of Almodovar’s is the act of writing, of creativity, and its intricate relationship to sexuality, fellowship, and coping with life. So many of his protagonists are scribbling out sketches for stories that invoke the past and set a template for the future, often scrabbling to rewrite basic matters of identity and history. Just as often, these creations take on a life and velocity of their own. Simultaneously, the commonly accepted boundaries between real-life individuals become as porous as in the imagination. Families are composed on the spot, sexuality reaches an ecstatic flux, and biology comes in a constant second to love. Pablo’s on-the-page character, whom he adopts as a pseudonym for writing letters to Antonio to fool his mother, is mistaken for a real person by the police investigating Juan’s death, and they believe she may have killed him.
Pablo finally is so horrified by the way his fantasies and life become intertwined and result in two deaths that he hurls his typewriter from the window of his apartment, and the infernal device explodes in flames. On the other hand, Julia berates Sister Rat for stealing the lives of their mission’s former charges for fiction, and yet Rat’s books simply reflect how Julia and all her kind are people who withdraw from life and rely on other, engaged, passionate people to supply them with a purpose. The characters in Almodovar’s films rewrite their lives with perpetual energy. A major subplot in Law of Desire is Pablo’s relationship with Tina, whose teenage affair with her own father before her sex-change has left a gaping hole in hers and Pablo’s lives, a yearning that Pablo expresses through his plays and films. Antonio becomes almost an aggressive personification of the emotional mines that keep detonating under Pablo’s life.
Law is fondly recalled as a landmark of both gay cinema and the early cult of Antonio Banderas. Banderas, dripping charisma and other bodily fluids, tackles his part with a raw gusto, bringing to his character a boyish enthusiasm that counteracts his noxious acts. The comparison with the prissiness of his relationship with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993) isn’t complimentary. Almodovar’s highly un-Moral Majority outlook is delightfully realised in scenes such as when Tina’s adopted daughter Ada, (Manuela Velasco), left in her charge after her mother, who had an affair with Tina and then left the country, finds Pablo’s gay porn and dismisses it as a comic book. Law’s unabashed homoeroticism and nuanced feel for gay relationships is still amazingly rare on the mainstream screen. Even Almodovar hasn’t really pulled it off in his later works, hiding to a certain extent in the loopy Sirkian colours and comedy. But Law is never quite as tight or tense as it wants to be, and the attempt to build Hitchockian dread anticipating when things will turn sour doesn’t come off. One scene in Law anticipates his later, troubled Bad Education (2003)—when Tina encounters a priest who had an affair with her when she was still a teenager—confirms that the relative inertia that afflicts both films is founded in an anxious appraisal of some vividly personal themes.
Both films are loaded with Almodovar’s expertly weird supporting characters, like the two cops who investigate Juan’s death, one of whom is a prissy young homophobe and the other an older, grizzled, laissez-faire dude. There are also the nearly inevitable moments of cabaret-mime: in Dark Habits, Yolanda lip-synchs a saucy ditty, with several of the nuns pretending to back her up, for Julia’s entertainment at her climactic birthday party (“It was so obscene!” Julia congratulates Yolanda gratefully), and in Law, Tina and Ada do the same in a staging of Cocteau’s The Human Voice. These are amongst the flourishes that make Almodovar seem like the almost caricatured paragon of queer aesthetics. Law’s funniest moment is its opening sequence in which a young man on a bed is directed by an unseen voice to undress and act as if masturbating, and then the camera finally cuts to the two actors who are actually post-dubbing this scene, pretending to be in the throes of passion. It’s a seemingly irrelevant, but funny moment that Denys Arcand stole for his Jesus of Montreal (1989), but it neatly introduces an ironic dialogue that conflates watcher and watched, artist and subject, film and audience, top and bottom.
Law of Desire is by far the most interesting and well-realised of the two films. Dark Habits never quite focuses its narrative, remaining a bunch of amusing ideas in search of a story. Almodovar’s distrust of story would crystallise into something far richer, and Law of Desire’s hesitancy seems in part informed by how unsure he is to play the material—as psychodrama or black comedy? Carmen Maura is present in both films, and though she doesn’t get much to do in Dark Habits, she hits the screen with authority as the quick-witted, two-fisted Tina in Law, where her self-determining spunk contrasts Pablo’s more passive self-indulgence. Other members of Almodovar’s stock troupe who appear in small roles include Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes in Habits and Rossy de Palma in Law. The major weakness of Law is Poncela, who’s a drippy and uncharismatic presence. It’s hard to believe all this bother revolves around him, really.