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skin i live in
Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In”

Dissecting the creative genius of Pedro Almodóvar

Following the announcement of Almodóvar season at BFI Southbank, we spotlight the trans prostitutes, tortured porn stars and lesbian punks that populate the director’s unique universe

Few Spanish filmmakers have enjoyed critical and commercial success on the same level as Pedro Almodóvar. The revered filmmaker has landed numerous prestigious awards over the course of his career and he’s showing no signs of slowing down, this year releasing Julieta, his 20th feature film to date. To coincide with its release, BFI Southbank recently announced an entire season dedicated to the cinematic visionary; there will be roundtable discussions, guest appearances from Rossy de Palma and Jean Paul Gaultier, a Q&A session with Almodóvar himself and, of course, ongoing film screenings of some of his greatest work.

It’s easy to forget that Almodóvar emerged in post-Franco Spain, a nation which had recently rid itself of violent and oppressive censorship. The young Spaniard took full advantage of this creative freedom, instantly launching a career based on layered portrayals of debauched women. His controversial work unapologetically dealt with topics such as rape, incest and paedophilia, yet there was a dark humourous undercurrent which set his work apart. To commemorate this celebration of his legacy, we scoured his back catalogue to underline the key themes that recurred throughout his singular vision.

SUBVERSIVE WOMEN

Almodóvar has become famous for his nuanced depictions of female protagonists. His debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1983) set the tone for the rest of his career; this was a tale centred around a young woman, Pepi, her lesbian punk rocker friend Bom and a masochistic housewife named Luci. The story begins when Pepi is raped by a corrupt policeman after her marijuana plant is discovered; this act of violence becomes a catalyst for a revenge mission which starts when she enlists Bom and her band to attack him – but, accidentally, they attack his identical twin brother. So, what’s the alternative? Befriend and seduce Luci, his wife, obviously.

The director’s debut has been equally praised and criticised for its portrayal of women. The themes of complex sexuality and female fetish take centre stage, but many have criticised Luci’s return to her violent husband which, she admits, is a decision taken to fulfil her own masochistic desire. It may be controversial, but these women were neither one-dimensional nor conventional – instead, they were nihilistic deviants hungry for sexual gratification (exemplified by one the most famous golden shower scenes in cinema history) and vengeance.

BLACK HUMOUR

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) is one of Almodóvar’s most famous films – the satirical exploration of female hysteria won him numerous awards and scored him an Academy award nomination for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’. The plotline is driven by the story of Pepa, a woman jilted by a lover that impregnated her before he left.

While frantically trying to track him down and break the news she encounters Lucia, his estranged ex-wife condemned to a psychiatric hospital, Candela, the lover of a Shi'ite terrorist and also Marisa, a woman frustrated by her boyfriend’s refusal to propose marriage. Sure, there’s attempted suicide, terrorist conspiracy and gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills, but Almodóvar’s light-hearted approach proved there’s humour to be found in madness.

CONTROVERSIAL COSTUMES

It’s a little known fact that iconic designer Jean Paul Gaultier had a hand in some of Almodóvar’s most memorable costumes. There was the nude bodysuit which played a starring role in 2011’s The Skin I Live In; there was the show-stopping iridescent gown worn by trans actress Zahara in a famous cabaret scene which left little to the imagination, and finally, there were the controversial costumes modelled by Kika’s femme fatale, Andrea Scarface.

A TV star plagued by an obsession with all things morbid, Scarface shows her sadistic side when she screens footage of an eight-minute rape scene on her show. Her psychotic tendencies and ruthless penchant for commercial exploitation are represented by fantasy goth sequinned gowns shredded to expose the artificial breasts beneath; she may be a sex-crazed android with no discernible moral compass, but she looks damn good regardless.

TRANS VISIBILITY

The most refreshing revelation to be found in Almodóvar’s back catalogue is his refusal to cast token minorities. The director spotlighted trans character in an era which was largely less accepting than the one we see today; perhaps his most famous portrayal of a trans character can be found in the form of La Agrado, a witty trans prostitute that features in the 1999 classic All About My Mother.

There are several elements that make La Agrado’s character so necessary, the first of which is her occupation as a sex worker. Her struggle mirrors that of thousands of trans individuals worldwide to raise enough money to pay for the various treatments required to align the biological body with the true gender identity; many are forced into sex work to fund an expensive and drawn-out process of physical transition which involves various painful and invasive treatments.

There’s her touching monologue which basically summarises five decades of queer theory into one concise and completely brilliant soundbite. She stands on stage slowly dissecting her physical appearance and outlining its financial price before making one brilliant statement which roughly translates as: “A woman is authentic only in so far as she resembles her dream of herself.” In just two short minutes she succinctly explains that the assumed link between sex and gender is complete bullshit – which, in the context of an Academy award-winning film, is pretty groundbreaking.

THOUGHT-PROVOKING THEMES

Controversial topics do not deter Almodóvar. Incest and paedophilia are not uncommon in his films, rape scenes are depicted with alarming frequency and the director even used his voice to destigmatise the Aids virus. Penelope Cruz plays a nun in Todo Sobre Mi Madre; but, in true Almodóvar style, she is a nun that falls pregnant to a trans protagonist and subsequently contracts Aids. Her illness proves a key point – that the virus is not specific to the gay community.

1988 film The Law of Desire was similarly provocative, a tale of turbulent gay desire released in the midst of the Aids epidemic. Though the film never explicitly made reference to the issue itself, some critics argued that Almodóvar was stigmatising gay men and others wrote reviews laden with homophobic connotations. One such example came courtesy of a British journalist named Tim Clark, who made the mistake of asking whether the film deliberately set out to imply the dangers of casual gay sex – Almodóvar’s response? “You have to accept you’re living in a country under heavy censorship, and I feel very sorry for you... The kind of sexual intolerance you mention is more dangerous than Aids itself.”

LOTS AND LOTS OF SEX

Despite being critically-acclaimed, 1990 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was hugely controversial as it was said to blur the lines between feature film and porno flick. It’s hardly surprising considering the story follows a drug-addicted porn star, Marina, that finds herself kidnapped by a 23-year-old stalker, Ricky, fresh from a psychiatric institution. His goal is simple – make her fall in love with him. But, instead of doing things the traditional way, he tracks her down to subsequently drug and kidnap her.

Marina is, at first, understandably pissed at the whole situation, but when she is eventually freed she takes the surprising decision to stay with her captor and engage in a long, steamy sex session with him. They live happily ever after. Of course, many have dismissed the film as misogynistic but it’s yet another example of complex female sexuality – it’s worth remembering that the first time Freud talked about  ‘perversion’ he argued the concept didn’t apply to women, so to see a character confronted with her own masochism is weirdly refreshing.

CAMP COMEDY

2013 saw Almodóvar once again try his hand at comedy for the first time since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988. The result was I’m So Excited, a spectacularly camp masterpiece set almost entirely aboard an aircraft. The overarching storyline is centred on speculation that there might be a fault which could cause the plane to crash; this is, however, eclipsed by a hilarious psychic passenger, a maybe-gay co-captain that claims fellatio made him retch and one man that boards the plane with a drug-filled condom hidden literally inside him. 

Chaos ensues; passengers liberally engage in chemsex after accidentally drinking spiked cocktails and there’s a really fantastic musical interlude performed to the tune of The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”. It’s easy to forget that, despite the heavy themes he’s tackled over the course of his illustrious career, there’s always an underlying, cheeky sense of humour which seems to override the gravity of any topic.