The darling of foreign film studies

A Spanish Labyrinth
January 18, 2002

After 20 years of film-making, Pedro Almodóvar, Spain's most celebrated director, is a modern classic. Having devoted the 1980s to candy-coloured farces such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Almodovar shifted in the 1990s into more sober melodramas, culminating in the magisterial All About My Mother (1999), which was consecrated by an Oscar for foreign-language film and a Bafta for best director. If this remarkable career is familiar to art-movie aficionados, less well known is the role of English speaking scholars in Almodóvar's success. A prophet long without honour in his own country, Almodóvar earned vital early respect in Anglo-American academe. The first retrospective of this most urban of directors was held at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.

The academic love affair with Almodóvar is related to the fact that his favourite themes coincide all too well with three hot topics in cultural theory: gender, nationality and sexuality. More particularly, Almodóvar's obsessive theatricality suggests the theme of identity as performance, perhaps the most pervasive postmodern motif of the past decade. Young students, alienated by Michelangelo Antonioni's ennui or bored by Luis Buñuel's anti clericalism, fell in love with Almodóvar's queer performativity. Even Jean Douchet, highminded veteran of Cahiers du Cinéma , named his study of Almodóvar "L'amour du cinéma".

Given this love affair between foreign film studies and Almodóvar, not to mention the sometimes grudging reception he has been awarded in his home country, it is no surprise that publication on him in English now far exceeds that available in Spanish. Mark Allinson's monograph is a welcome contribution to this burgeoning field. Allinson divides his study into four sections: context, content, construction, and conclusions. While the introductory context situates Almodóvar in time-honoured style as the " auteur of a free Spain" and the conclusions reaffirm views of his cinema as "performance, postmodernism, and parody", the content chapters add a further category to the triad of gender, nationality and sexuality: "social structures" include such little-studied, but important themes as power, money, class and television.

But perhaps the most original and striking analyses in the book come under the heading construction. Allinson's chapter "Madrid: cinematic and sociocultural space" reveals an insider's knowledge of the Spanish capital and a deft exposition of the myths and realities of what Marvin D'Lugo has called Almodóvar's "city of desire". The lengthy chapter on visual style is also excellent. Too many critics of Almodóvar, trained as literary specialists, fail to consider the cinematic properties of the Almodóvar "look", as unmistakable as it is difficult to define. Thankfully demolishing the cliche that Almodóvar's aesthetics are merely "kitsch" or "camp", Allinson displays an attention to detail rivalling that of his subject, a famous control freak. Here the strategy of juxtaposing films from different moments of Almodóvar's career pays off as Allinson both traces the "clear process of development" and recurring motifs in Almodóvar's cinema and stresses how visually distinct many of the films are from each another. Allinson thus gives a meticulous account of camerawork in some opening sequences (including the dazzling introduction to Live Flesh ), comments sagely on the "importance of objects" to characterisation and narration, and deals deftly with such elements of mise en scène as decor and costume, colour, and the use of mirrors. If the following chapter on music and songs offers less chance to shine, still it shows enviable familiarity with Spanish and Latin American popular culture, as does an earlier section on Almodóvar's language that elucidates some opaque items of madrileño argot .

Allinson's study takes us up to All About My Mother . Most recently Almodóvar's production record has been clouded: he abandoned an allegedly autobiographical project just before shooting began and is now completing yet another female centred narrative. Moreover the overwhelming Anglo-American emphasis on Almodóvar has overshadowed the rest of Spanish cinema, which remains one of the most dynamic in Europe. Almodóvar's relatively austere art movies, although still massively popular at the home box office, are now outgrossed by crude local comedies, the Spanish equivalents of American Pie . And younger directors such as Alejandro Amenábar, whose first English-language feature The Others was one of the biggest successes of 2001 in the US, are now stealing the limelight. But if Almodóvar is no longer an enfant terrible , he remains a unique figure in European cinema. This book is a major step towards a greater and more sympathetic understanding of his astonishing career.

Paul Julian Smith is professor of Spanish, University of Cambridge.

A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodóvar

Author - Mark Allinson
ISBN - 1 86064 507 0
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £14.95
Pages - 258

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