BY ALAN M.D.
Pedro Almodovar is Spain’s preeminent filmmaker and one of the heroes of the European struggle against Hollywood hegemony. An out gay artist, Almodovar’s stock-in-trade is sexual subversion. His first feature film, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del monton (in English, Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls on the Heap), released in 1980, became The Rocky Horror Picture Show of Spain. Originally titled General Erections, the film features a party scene in which Almodovar himself participates in a measure-the-erections competition. One can understand how Pepi achieved cult status in post-Franco Madrid, but it would have been difficult to predict that this ribald production would launch the career that would save the moribund Spanish film industry.
Almodovar’s success says something about the willingness of contemporary film audiences to accept the foregrounding of homoerotic and gender-bending themes. Transsexuals, feminized men, and masculinized women people his films. And Almodovar has gone much further than Hollywood dares in portraying the sheer erotic joy of sexual variation. His films have not been without controversy; he has thumbed his nose both at written and unwritten laws that establish the category of transgression. He does not believe in the church’s God or sin. Almodovar has said that to portray transgression “isn’t my aim, for it implies the kind of respect and acceptance of the law I’m incapable of.”
Although he has grown in stature as a filmmaker, sex is still his central preoccupation. Talk to Her (2002) is typical of Almodovar’s antinomianism. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, the plot involves a man who will have sex with a woman in a coma. Tarantino’s film sordidly portrays the necrophiliac rape, and the victim (played by Uma Thurman) awakens and exacts the violent revenge that American audiences have come to expect. The scene is revolting but it comes to a politically correct conclusion. Almodovar’s necrophiliac is a benign male nurse who takes loving care of his comatose woman patient talking to her all the time in the hope she can hear him. He impregnates her in a scene Almodovar helps us to imagine by creating a film within a film. In it a man takes a shrinking pill and like a sacrificial victim crawls into the cavernous passage of his wife’s vagina. The benign male nurse’s patient becomes pregnant and childbirth awakens her from her four-year coma. Only if you can suspend the written and unwritten laws of rape can you believe, as Almodovar does, that sex with a comatose woman might be the beginning of a miracle.
The unstated premise of Almodovar’s hedonist philosophy of no transgressions is that there are no negative consequences, and therefore the mood of his early films was manic denial. In the past decade, however, Almodovar has been getting real. His latest film, Bad Education (2004) was given the honor of opening this year’s Cannes Film Festival. With its almost total lack of hilarity, Bad Education is a radical departure for Almodovar, who has kept faith with eros and hedonism despite his skepticism about God and law. Even though he is still trading in sexual subversion, Bad Education presents a film-noir, dog-eat-dog world of greed and betrayal in which no one can be trusted and there are no happy endings.
When and if Bad Education comes to America at the end of the year it will certainly raise hackles. But if film is to be judged as an art form, Bad Education is Almodovar’s most important work, with far more complex characters and sophisticated narrative than his other films. With it, he establishes himself as a talent to rival Spain’s legendary filmmaker Luis Bu-uel.
Unlike Bu-uel, however, the lunacy Almodovar portrays is his own, and also unlike Bu-uel he never sits in judgment of his lunatics. Almodovar says his filmmaking is not a posture but the way he understands the world. All of his films are very personal, psychologically his own and with his flamboyant tastes on display.
Almodovar comes from a poor family; he had no university education, no film-school training, and no apprenticeship. He likes to describe himself in these years as an “astronaut in the court of King Arthur.” He realized early on that he was different from other children and was aware even before puberty that he had a gay sensibility. The movie theater became a refuge for the boy, and he began to read films through that sensibility. He identified with the strong women-Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn-and worshiped the vulnerable victims, most of all Marilyn Monroe. Freud famously said that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious; perhaps the movies offer another way to get there. At least for Alomodovar his own unconscious desires and his gay identity were found hidden in the subtexts of the movies.
Almodovar left his small village in the region of La Mancha and moved to Madrid as a young teenager in the 1960s. As he tells the story, evidence of the iron fist of Franco’s fascism was everywhere. But below the surface Spain’s “hippie” counterculture was seething, and Almodovar, a gay teenager, plunged into it. Although it is difficult to sort out the chronology, it seems that Almodovar tried his hand at all of the skills he would use as a filmmaker. He wrote for underground newspapers and adult comic books. He created a popular cartoon character-Patty Diphusa, a nymphomaniac-and wrote his sexual confessions under her name. He joined a theater group. He performed as a drag queen in a punk-rock group, Almodovar and McNamara.
Because Franco had closed the only film school, Almodovar haunted the Madrid movie houses as he had since his childhood and learned his trade by watching. In his first real venture into filmmaking, he bought an 8mm camera and began shooting short, silent films, which he would show in underground clubs in Madrid and Barcelona. Almodovar would improvise a soundtrack as he went along, and these improvisations had the quality of a happening, in which the reactions of the audience were part of the show. He earned an underground following during the 1970s, from which he emerged as the leading light of the Madrid movida (the counterculture of the young) all the while supporting himself with a day job at the national telephone company, a job that exposed him to the middle-class hypocrisy he would satirize in his films. Unlike the many experimental filmmakers of that period who tried to get away from narrative, Almodovar was always a storyteller; his stories bubble up like free associations shared with an audience instead of an analyst.
Almodovar belongs to a generation that no longer needs Freud to find its way into the unconscious. Nothing is repressed. Free association is an art-form, and sex is pleasure without consequences: polymorphous sex is utopia and gets better with drugs and alcohol. One of Almodovar’s most revealing films, Dos putas (Two Whores), came from that utopian unconscious. The ten-minute film is about a prostitute who complains that since the hippies are giving sex away she has no customers. A good fairy appears, waves a magic wand, and customers start lining up. Another prostitute tries to horn in on her customers, a catfight ensues, the good fairy waves the wand again, and the two prostitutes fall in love and discover they have no need for men. The male customers complain, so the good fairy waves the wand yet again, the male customers find love with each other, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Unlike his Hollywood colleagues, who typically present gays as victims, Almodovar’s gay men are on the make. In The Law of Desire, the celebrated but love-lorn director is looking for an attractive young man (a straight man is preferable) who is willing to submit to anal intercourse. The Law of Desire was made at a time when gay men knew that for them unprotected anal sex carried the greatest risk of HIV infection. The Law of Desire’s portrayal of anarchic sexuality without consequences seemed to mock such concerns; it privileges the erotic pleasure of anal sex.
The Law of Desire begins in a fil
m studio, where an erotic film is being shot. An imperious male off-camera voice orders a young man to undress slowly, kiss his own lips in the mirror, caress his anus, position himself on the bed for anal intercourse, and then masturbate. The off-camera voice might be a filmmaker or a voyeuristic client who has brought a male prostitute to his hotel. As the young man becomes more excited the off-camera voice orders him to beg to be penetrated. The climax comes, the off-camera voice compliments the performance, a hand drops cash on the bedside table, and the naked young man counts it and smiles as the film within the film reaches its conclusion.
Lest those of us watching The Law of Desire miss the autoerotic impact, we are shown a virile, young Ricky so aroused by the performance that he rushes directly from the theater to the men’s room and in a seeming frenzy masturbates and begs to be penetrated. Certainly, for the movie-watcher, the passionate excitement of homoerotic submission is an exercise in the stability of one’s own eroticism and challenges the line between disgust and desire, between pornography and serious film. Almodovar is sometimes funny and sometimes disturbing, but as the discordant reactions to this scene demonstrate, members of the audience may not agree on which is which. In the rest of the film, Ricky (who is straight) goes home with the director and is introduced to anal sex. By the next morning he has become a crazed, possessive lover determined to have the director all to himself. He murders his rival, but the power of his midsummer night’s madness casts its spell on the director. Surrounded by SWAT teams who have granted the killer one last hour of privacy, the director and Ricky have incredible sex. It is another triumph of the ultimate romantic notion, even though it will end with Ricky’s suicide.
It seems to me that the non-comedic ending is as crucial to the film as the first scene; it is another demonstration of the rule of desire and Almodovar’s repetitive theme of erotomania that leads to reciprocal love. The film is even more bizarre and extreme than my description of it, and yet Almodovar’s magical compassion redeems all his characters and all his films. What he achieves in this fashion is a psychological dissection of the categories of gender that would astonish Freud and make Foucault proud. But it is psychology as caricature — he does not construct a psychological narrative that provides a believable history of a real person. Almodovar turned his attention to this project in All About My Mother and Talk to Her and he continues it in Bad Education.
Bad Education uses all the elements of The Law of Desire but with greater seriousness and to powerful effect. The successful director character in this film, Enrique Goded (Fele Mart’nez) is lonely and creatively blocked. Into his life comes a man claiming to be his first love from their days at Catholic school. The man claims to have written a screenplay based on their childhood experience. The director suspects something is amiss. He has poignant memories of his first love, Ignacio, and this man does not seem to be that person. And his intuition tells him the man is not gay. The impostor, a would-be actor who now insists on being called by the stage name Angel, is shown the door. But the director reads his screenplay. As he does, the first version of the story is enacted in his mind.
The characters in Bad Education–though more richly developed than in his earlier films-are standard for Almodovar: a priest in love with his beautiful altar boy, a gay film director who is creatively blocked and looking for plot lines in the tabloids, a young actor on the make who is impersonating his gay brother, and the brother himself, a drug addict with breast implants who longs for the expensive surgery that will make “her” beautiful. Almodovar says the film is deeply personal but not directly autobiographical. One of Freud’s disciples suggested that in dream interpretation the analyst should treat every character in the dream as a projection of the patient’s self. That may not be true of dreams but it does seem to apply to Almodovar’s films. It is easy to believe that the priest, the boy, the director, the aspiring actor, and the transsexual are all Almodovar’s alter egos.
Critics at Cannes were quick to notice that the priest in Bad Education is not just a predatory pedophile: he “loves” the altar boy. Almodovar’s blithe response to pointed questions about this was “Why cannot a pedophile be in love?” Almodovar treats him sympathetically and privileges the pedophile’s gaze with slow-motion scenes of half-naked boys frolicking in a lake at the Catholic-school picnic. There is also an aerial shot of these boys in undershirts and shorts doing calisthenics at the command of the priest. It is not clear in the movie whether these particular scenes are intended to demonstrate the sensibility of the priest or of the director. And Almodovar is not about to disclaim the pedophilic implications of these scenes. He has chosen as the advertisement for Bad Education a photograph of the altar boy not as the vulnerable victim but as the inviting object of a pedophile’s desire. There is a love triangle involving the pedophile priest, his chosen altar boy, and the boy’s best friend-a precocious child who has already confirmed his true identity as a hedonist by reading about it in an encyclopedia. The pre-teenage boys, as we are discretely shown, experiment with mutual masturbation at the cinema. Their first love is the only triumph of eros in the film. The covetous priest has his rival, the hedonist, expelled from the Catholic boarding school so he can have the altar boy for himself.
Almodovar shows us the boy escaping from the priest’s first sexual overture. A drop of blood trickles down his forehead and then becomes a torrent that surreally covers half the boy’s face, splitting his soul into halves. When we see the child as an adult, he is a drug addict and a transsexual with breast implants, determined to blackmail the priest and get enough money to complete his sexual transformation. This is the real Angel, nŽ Ignacio, the hedonist director’s first love. Psychiatrists will recognize in this film much that they already know about sexual abuse and its long-term effects, what may come as a surprise is that the pedophile priest “loves” the child and Almodovar wants us to believe even in this form of unreciprocated love.
Still, the theme of exploitation is inextricably woven into Bad Education. The impostor turns out to be Ignacio’s younger brother, Juan, who has stolen his brother’s screenplay and wants to star in the play as Zahara, a female impersonator. He knows that part will make him famous. He is pretending to be gay and will do anything to get ahead as an actor. In truth, his brother’s sexuality repels and humiliates him. The twist and turns of the plot are unrelenting, as the exploited become exploiters. The director, who has discovered the impersonation, nonetheless gives the impostor the role of Zahara in the film, and their relationship begins. Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance as Juan is superb and makes brilliant use of Almodovar’s method and his own great talent. The audience can see that he is acting the part of a gay man and can also see what it costs him: the director informs the audience that the impersonator several times allowed “me to penetrate him.” And Almodovar shows us their faces side by side, one tortured and the other ecstatically torturing; in Bad Education, there are transgressions, they do have consequences, and the darkness is made visible.
Almodovar ruefully acknowledges that he is getting older. “Only a genius,” he says, “can remain immature.” But if Americans are allowed to see this film they may well conclude that the mature Almodovar is now ready to take his place alongside the legendary Bu-uel. Almodovar’s film ends with the word “passion” filling the screen as the voiceover tells us the director (Almodovar) is still making films with passion. The New York Times and other mass media hav
e made the obvious comparison with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But what I think psychiatrists will be struck by is Almodovar’s compassion. It is the virtue that redeems all his films and all his sexual subversions.