All about Almodsvar

The Spanish director introduces his colorfully garish new film in New York with three actresses and a transvestite.

Published September 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You don't need a key to get to the heart of Spanish director Pedro Almodsvar's "All About My Mother," which will have its U.S. premiere Friday at the New York Film Festival and opens nationwide on Thanksgiving. The picture is so open, so emotionally accessible, that Almodsvar fans will tumble right into its arms. The film, which opened at the Cannes Film Festival, won an award for best director, but there was visible disappointment in the audience when the movie itself failed to take the top prize. The fact that none of its actresses took any honors -- particularly Cecilia Roth, who plays a bereft mother -- also met with grumbling.

The movie seemed to be well-received at its New York screening on Wednesday. In a press conference afterward, Almodsvar ("Tie Me Up, Time Me Down," "Kika") gathered with his ensemble of actors -- three women and one transvestite who, between the four of them, had just about every angle of feminine beauty and allure covered -- to answer questions from the audience. The director, a pleasingly jocular-looking bear with a thatch of scrub brush for hair, talked about certain autobiographical aspects of the movie. Many of the characters, he said -- including a transvestite who fathers a son and whose partner resents the fact that he parades around in bikinis and miniskirts -- are based on real people. The director has dedicated the picture to all women, to everyone who wants to be a woman and to everyone who wants to be a mother. The fact that Almodsvar's own mother died only two weeks ago, as he revealed at the press conference, puts the movie into a particularly poignant context.

"All About My Mother" is an emotionally rich movie, but it's also visually inviting. When Almodsvar was asked why he chose Barcelona as opposed to his favored Madrid for the movie's main setting, he explained that, in addition to being a hotbed of transvestite culture, it has so much visual splendor that it made his job easy. He referred to an ornate, stately column that you see through the kitchen window of one character, a transvestite hooker. "That column exists. It's a real location," he said, and noted that it can be seen outside an apartment with only a modest rent.

Almodsvar said that some critics have had trouble with the clashing colors and patterns he used in the movie's settings, particular the interiors. "I think they felt I went overboard with the style and the art direction of the film," he said. But the movie's jumble-sale aesthetic is a thing of beauty unto itself -- as well as being the perfect backdrop for the story's emotional complexity. Geometric '70s wallpaper bumps against baroque brocade, and richly painted borders adorn the hallways of both expensive apartment buildings and cheap ones; the only difference is that the better buildings have been kept up more carefully. Some of the color combinations would make Martha Stewart shriek. In Almodsvar's eyes, that's probably exactly the point.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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