If one reads my reviews from the livejournal name I post them under, one finds that I was pointed toward Pedro Almodóvar when reviewing, of all things, La Noche del Terror Ciego, a cult, low-budget Spanish horror film. I’d also run across the box set I purchased this in on occasion at work, but shrugged and thought it was yet another foreign director I’d never get around to, though I ended up snagging Volver toward the end of last year. Strangely, though, I skipped over that film and went straight for this one. Why? A strange bit there, first off I found a copy to give to my sister (the one who actually directed me toward Almodóvar) and this was the lone film from the set floating off in–well, I have a complex system for determining what movies I’m going to watch, and I’ll just leave the explanation as being this one was isolated from all the others, both in the box and overall.
I don’t know what I thought Almodóvar was as a director or writer, though I’d started to read, hear and infer vague hints of woman-oriented and/or gay-oriented films making up much, if not all, of his ouevre. I was thus not overly surprised when the film began with a woman being told of the braindeath of her son by two doctors. I was not, however, prepared for the fact that said woman, Manuela (Kiti Manver), would be filmed as if she were the subject of an interview for a television show of the variety that uncovers the seamy underbelly of carnivals and fast food establishments (you know who I mean). Intercut with this is a woman typing out a letter to someone obviously not present, saying that she wears something of his every day, and this day it is the boots he gave her and had to help her remove that night in the hotel. Suddenly, the strange, infomercial style interviewing camerawork made sense. The “real” character was Leocadia “Leo” Maćias (Marisa Peredes), the woman typing a letter to one Paco, her estranged, soldier husband and telling him of the boots she is wearing. Manuela is acting, a part of a seminar on introducing grieving family members to organ donation given by Betty (Carmen Elías), a friend of Leo’s to whom she pays a visit when she finds herself stuck in the boots her Paco gave her. She is sent to find some solace in journalism, approaching Ángel (Juan Echanove) who works for El Pais, a newspaper. We are introduced to her taste in literature (mostly women, rarely optimistic) and this conflicts with what Ángel wants her to write about–the latest romance novel of Amanda Gris. What Ángel does not know is that Gris is none other than Leo herself. She now feels the need to distance herself from this flowery, saccharine style and write something darker and more “real.” This is symptomatic of the way she sees her life itself, and is the basic core of the entire film.
It’s sort of interesting, on the surface, the film is almost a romantic comedy, of sorts, yet Almodóvar’s writing and direction elevate it to something much, much more. It’s hard to describe the story without it sounding like he does, so let me see if I can tell you how it is not that. Leo is a recognizable emotion in most of the film; Almodóvar himself in a comment behind me just encapsulated it in a way I wouldn’t have thought of but that is (shocking–the writer knows? Surely you jest!) absolutely correct–she feels abandoned. At first I thought perhaps Paco had died and she was writing a letter for her own health, but indeed he is stationed in Brussels (later Bosnia) as a NATO soldier. I don’t think, though, that this is an unfair feeling to have been given by the way the film opens–and in seeing the film in its entirety, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were intentional (though perhaps I’m just trying to feel smart, or avoid feeling that my exhaustion hampered my comprehension). The relationship between the two of them is most thoroughly dead. We can see that Leo does not recognize this–that her friend Betty knows it for certain but does not wish to tell her, that Leo may even know it herself on some level, but is madly in love with Paco and cannot see this crumbling of her marriage occurring. Almodóvar absolutely brilliantly illustrates it when Paco (Imanol Arias) comes home for a brief visit–the first kiss the two of them share is shown in the mirrors beside them, a set of small, square ones, framed in just such a way that the actual contact between the two of them is obscured, as if it were non-existent. When Paco quite obviously keeps some measure of disinterested, weary distance from his wife, she asks him why, and he decides to answer–his face captured in a small shaving mirror, isolated from the larger mirror behind it which holds Leo’s form.
One of the most amusing relationships (or sets of relationships) is the interplay we see between Leo, her mother (Chus Lampreave), and her sister Rosa (Rossy de Palma), who is caring for their mother and providing her home in Madrid. Leo is the source of sanity, somewhat ironically in light of what we know of her mental state, and the other two bicker constantly. It’s an overly familiar situation which I’ve seen myself–more than once–where an aging parent was considered simultaneously in desperate need of care and completely irrational by one child, and reasonably sane and just in need of more attention by another. It does not carry quite the level of drama it usually does in reality (which I feel is appropriate for the film, mind you) and is in fact highly entertaining. Their mother calls Rosa “crabface” and constantly accuses her of terrible mistreatment and misjudgment, while Rosa constantly defends herself, often to extremes, as she occasionally borders the line of insult to their mother. But, as amusing as this is (and it is quite amusing, indeed), the funniest bit for me was the description of first Leo’s contract as Amanda Gris, stating the limited nature of what she can write, the requirements of each romance novel–which were hilariously biting for those of us who work with books and can see the limited range of said novels–and second the romance publisher’s incredulous reaction to Leo’s new, dark crime-based novel. And herein lies the most potent and beautiful of ironies in the film, and the very thing which tortures Leo most: she demands that her novels now be more realistic, her publishers arguing that the books they put into the market are to avoid that reality, to spare people that oppressive negativity–and yet, we have Leo ignoring some of the most obvious reality of all. Something I won’t name, but isn’t subtle and I had seen even before Leo had, which can be the worst horror of abandonment of all–denial.
A pretty fabulous little film, and if people think this is toward the low end of Almodóvar’s work–I’m in for some good stuff in the weeks and months upcoming.