Pedro Almod

The Spanish director on his delirious new movie-movie with Penelope Cruz, and how the New York Dolls fought Franco

Published November 14, 2009 12:14AM (EST)

Director Pedro Almodovar (L) and cast member Penelope Cruz arrive on the red carpet for the screening of the film "Los Abrazos Rotos" at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival May 19, 2009. Twenty films compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or which will be awarded on May 24.    REUTERS/Regis Duvignau (FRANCE ENTERTAINMENT)      (Reuters)
Director Pedro Almodovar (L) and cast member Penelope Cruz arrive on the red carpet for the screening of the film "Los Abrazos Rotos" at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival May 19, 2009. Twenty films compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or which will be awarded on May 24. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau (FRANCE ENTERTAINMENT) (Reuters)

Whether by accident or design, Pedro Almodóvar never utters the name of Francisco Franco. He refers to the self-appointed generalissimo who cast such a long shadow across 20th-century Spain only as "the dictator." Yet there will always be a strange historical linkage between the two men. It was Franco's death 34 years ago that began to open Spain to the world, and it was Almodóvar's emergence as a major film director that symbolized his country's post-fascist cultural renaissance.

Having reached the implausible age of 60, Almodóvar today is no longer the hedonistic queer-cinema rebel who exploded out of Madrid's underground art scene with such mixtures of high camp, wrenching emotion and frank sexuality as "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," "Law of Desire" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Both the filmmaker and the world around him have changed immensely during the intervening decades, and with his new film, "Broken Embraces," Almodóvar reveals himself as one of the last great champions and defenders of classic European cinema.

Mind you, even as "Broken Embraces" openly channels such influences as Fellini's "8 1/2," Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" and Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," it's very far from a dry film-school exercise. This is Almodóvar, after all, in whose hands the most extreme forms of melodrama become high art. "Broken Embraces" features a blind movie director with a double identity, a beautiful woman shoved down a spiral staircase by her scheming husband, hidden secrets within films and photographs, two different films-within-the-film (one of them a hilarious tribute to "Women on the Verge," Almodóvar's first international hit) and a self-loathing gay character so unappealing that only a gay filmmaker could get away with having created him.

Once again Almodóvar has cast Penélope Cruz, the star of his worldwide smash "Volver," in a principal role. In becoming the muse of Almodóvar's late career, Cruz seems to have discovered new range as an actress, while suddenly lending global star power to his pictures. Lena, Cruz's character in "Broken Embraces," is a more cryptic figure, the lost love of a middle-aged director and screenwriter who used to be called Mateo Blanco but has renamed himself Harry Caine (played by the suave Catalan actor Lluís Homar). While that name sounds like a figure from American pop culture -- a mixture of Harry Lime, the Orson Welles character in "The Third Man," and crime novelist James M. Cain, perhaps? -- it's partly just a puckish Almodóvar joke. (Say it fast.)

When the story begins in 21st-century Madrid, all we know is that Harry is blind and Lena is dead, and that Harry's assistant Judit (Almodóvar regular Blanca Portillo) burns with long-unrequited love for him -- and may know more about the byzantine back story to the tragedy than she's letting on. Piece by piece and outrageous detail by outrageous detail, Almodóvar puts the scrambled chronology and gorgeous scenery of this story together, in a visually spectacular, sweepingly romantic and thematically ambitious film that is also, as he says, a "declaration of love" for cinema, which he describes as "not only a profession but also an irrational passion."

I got the chance to discuss that passion with Almodóvar over coffee during his recent visit for the New York Film Festival premiere of "Broken Embraces." Warm, expansive and utterly charming, he jumped back and forth between Spanish and English in a way I wish I could replicate on the page, leaving me and his interpreter scrambling to catch up.

Visiting New York always makes him think of his youth under the dictatorship, he said. "You know, all the biggest influences for young people at that moment were happening in New York and London. So for me New York has this romantic idea, it's where the ideas come from. We were hooked on John Waters -- well, John Waters is not New York. But Andy Warhol and the Factory, all the underground directors.

"And you can't imagine how important the music was to us. I had a group at that time, but it was no big deal, there were lots of other groups who were better. A group like the New York Dolls, or the English New Wave -- you can't imagine how important that was to us. I don't get the same feeling when I go to London today. For a Spanish boy in the '70s, London meant freedom. But I don't have that feeling in London anymore. London is just another place to visit. New York for me still feels like a place of fantasy."

How much culture from outside, from New York or London, reached you during those years? Were people able to smuggle in records and books and films?

It came in a very surreptitious way. One found a way, especially during those last five years. When the dictator was older, it started seeping in, from Paris and London. Andy Warhol's Factory films came to us from London. During the last five years of the dictator's life, we started to be a part of Europe. I remember that in the Spanish Cinematheque, for example, we could see films that were forbidden to run commercially.

You know, it seems as if "Volver" was about the places that shaped you -- La Mancha in Castile, where you were born, and Madrid, where you grew up. And this movie seems to be about the culture, and especially the films, that made you who you are.

It's true that "Volver" is very much tied to my childhood memories of the region, of my mother, of the neighbors, of the place. Those stories in the film were all stories that I heard. I heard ghost stories, I heard stories about rape. I got to feel the female solidarity that was all around me.

In this particular film, yes, it's very much about my relationship to cinema, my love for cinema. It's about cinema's capacity to be healing, in many ways, and to present a world that is a little less imperfect. If life is imperfect, cinema makes it just a little less imperfect. Given the fact that the main character [Caine/Blanco] is a film director, through him I'm expressing my admiration for film and filmmakers. For example, when the character says, "I want to hear Jeanne Moreau's voice," I'm speaking for myself. On the one hand he's blind, but of course hers is one of the greatest voices in cinema.

When a younger character starts to list the names of all the DVDs on Harry's shelves -- Fellini, Bergman, Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin -- well, of course there are many more directors that I love, but those are the ones that mean the most, those are the ones I've been watching on DVD.

This movie also feels sometimes like one of those symbolic American melodramas from the '40s or '50s. Like a Douglas Sirk movie, maybe. You've got a main character who is blind, a beautiful woman who's in a wheelchair, a spiral staircase, all these elements.

Douglas Sirk is a director I very much admire, and I love that period of American drama. But I think a film like "High Heels" is more in line with the spectacular and lavish drama of Douglas Sirk. In this film the pain is much more palpable, and it's a film that is less welcoming of tears, because of its hardness.

Now, there's this puzzling fact that the main character has two names. He's Mateo Blanco and he's Harry Caine. One of the simplest ways of looking at that is he's got a Spanish name and an American name. And as a filmmaker, maybe you've got a European side and an American side.

[Laughter.] I don't know, it's curious to discover that. I like the name Harry Caine. If you just pronounce it all together, it means huracán. I like that, for a director's name. It was more, maybe, about creating this kind of Orson Welles character, even though the rich guy, Martel [husband of the Penélope Cruz character], is more like a Welles character. But there's some sense there, some flavor, that that's the way Orson Welles worked.

You know, there have been lots of films about filmmaking, films about directors. You definitely refer to several of them! But I'm not sure anyone's ever used the making-of -- the documentary about the film, that shows up later on the DVD -- as a major plot device before.

Yeah, I've fantasized about this for years, about making a film that would just be the making-of, a fiction about a fiction. If you push the genre of the making-of a little further, you enter the terrain of voyeurism, of stealing images and stealing a particular intimacy. It enters a very secretive terrain. I've always fantasized that it would be through the making-of that you would discover some other story, the real story that is being told. That's what I pulled into this movie, that motif.

Then there's the damaged young gay man who shoots the making-of, and who becomes an important figure in the plot in several different ways. He bears a strong resemblance to the main character in Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," which is like the voyeur-thriller of all time.

Yes, they talk about that in the movie, in fact. The difference is that he doesn't want to hurt the director. He just wants to know more, to see more, to be present in his life. He likes the director very much, I'm talking about, he physically likes him.

Yes! I think you made that clear.

If I look back to my films and all the different references I have to other films, it is true that Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" comes up with some frequency. It's not always very explicit, sometimes I only realize it in retrospect. What it is about "Peeping Tom" is this desire to capture an extreme sensation. In my film that is actually death itself, but it doesn't have to be that. The desire to steal, to capture, an extremely strong sensation. In "Kika" you have it maybe even more explicitly. All reality shows have a little "Peeping Tom" in them, and those were what I wanted to denounce in "Kika."

There's a case in Brazil -- maybe you've heard about this -- about a man, a politician, who had a news show. It was known for always arriving before anyone else at the scene of a crime. Of course it turned out that he was actually organizing the crimes, organizing murders. That's why he was always the first one there!

Another film that influenced me very much is Antonioni's "Blow-Up." That idea that a photograph -- not necessarily a moving image -- can reveal particular kinds of secrets, things that the naked eye cannot see.

I can only hope we're going to see more of "Chicas y maletas" ("Girls and Suitcases"), the unfinished film that Harry and Lena were making. It's really fun!

There is a lot more of "Chicas y maletas"! I could not refuse it. It was so funny when we were doing it, and I kept writing more and more things. At the end, I knew I couldn't put so much footage into the real movie, because, you know, it was unbalanced. There's at least 10 minutes more, and it's a very funny piece.

Those will be on the DVD, and there were two or three sequences that I cut from the main film that were very good too. There's one scene I really like that's in a restaurant for blind people, where everything happens in the most incredible blackness or darkness that you can imagine. Have you heard about this? They started in Berlin. I've never experienced that kind of darkness, there's no light that comes through. It's as if you were in a void.

These restaurants were actually started by blind people, partly to educate their family members about their experiences. Now there's one in Paris and it's become a hot place to go. It's not just for blind people, it's for regular people who want to have a new experience. The theory is that all your other senses become more acute when you have no vision. So there's a take -- you can hardly see it -- where a girl is giving a man a blow job in this restaurant.

You know, the one film by another director that we actually see in "Broken Embraces" is clearly important, and it could hardly be more different from your own film. On their last night together, Mateo and Lena are watching Rossellini's "Journey to Italy" on television, a very spare and restrained film, shot in black-and-white.

Well, there's an emotional relationship between the two films. You know, I don't only like directors who are as flamboyant as I am, or as my films can sometimes be. "Journey to Italy" is a film I love, and the scene I show is a scene that always moves me very much, and in my film it moves Lena, my character, in the same way.

We see a moment where Rossellini captures a couple that was petrified at Pompeii, in the lava of Vesuvius. And the tour guide says, "This is a love that has been immortalized for eternity." This affects Ingrid Bergman's character very much because she recognizes that her relationship with the George Sanders character is not like that. It's awful, it's the opposite. She's overcome with emotion and she turns away. On the other side of the screen, Penélope's character is also very much moved by this scene, and wonders whether the love she shares with Lluís Homar's character will survive through eternity. This is something that is inside her, but obviously she doesn't say it. For me it was a voice-over that we don't hear.

She does the opposite, holds on to her lover, and Lluis Homar does yet another thing. He stands up and takes a photograph of their embrace. He's trying to immortalize their embrace in his own way.

You know, it's delightful to sit here and talk about film with you. But you and I are old enough to remember when a new film by Bergman or Fellini -- or maybe an early film by Almodóvar -- was a major cultural event. People had to go see it, discuss it, argue about it. But there are so many other distractions these days, and I wonder whether cinema still matters in the same way.

I do get the sense that it's not as important as it used to be. I think there are of course people like ourselves who are very much excited and moved by the discovery of new film. But in general, and speaking especially about younger audiences, I don't think that film really has the same kind of significance.

If you think of Antonioni's films, like "La Notte" or "L'Eclisse" -- if they were released today, would they even find a market? Would they find an audience? It would be impossible to find that kind of reception and reaction. I just don't know, we'll have to see. As long as there's a cinephile that is still willing to see those kinds of films, then those films will still mean something.

"Broken Embraces" opens Nov. 20 in New York and Dec. 11 in Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Beyond The Multiplex Broken Embraces Movies Pedro Almodovar