I’m So Excited
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz
Released in the UK on 3 May
Pedro Almodóvar’s new film begins with León (Antonio Banderas) in a back-to-front baseball cap as the cheesily affectionate husband of the equally loved-up Jessica (Penélope Cruz). Both are airport ground crew with their minds on the news of Jessica’s long-awaited pregnancy rather than the safety of their colleagues (Jessica runs one down as she blows kisses to her husband) or their passengers (in a rush to help, León fails to secure the chock that is swallowed up by the aircraft and causes the ensuing near-catastrophe).
This brief encounter signals that a very different film is ahead of us from Almodóvar’s last, The Skin I Live In (2011), where Banderas played a ruthlessly sinister plastic surgeon bent on perverse revenge. In I’m So Excited there is nothing like a revenge narrative, or even a linear plot, but rather an anarchic maelstrom of circulating hysterias and paranoias, all served up by an outrageous collection of high-voltage characters in an airborne hothouse of repression and excess.
The film is set mainly in business class on board Peninsula Flight 2549, as the three stewards, Joserra, Fajas and Ulloa, attempt to keep everybody entertained and happy in the face of impending disaster. The swallowed chock means that the aircraft has to make an emergency landing, but no clear runways can be found in Spain because of a UN security summit in Madrid, a Formula 1 championship in Valencia and the world motorcycle championship in Seville.
The pilots are liaising with the control centre to try to find somewhere to land, while also wrestling with their personal and sexual crises. One is a married father of two but is having an affair with the head steward, Joserra. The other is unhappily married and curious to further the homosexual experiences he has been toying with over the years. Into this cockpit comes a virginal psychic, Bruna, keen to lose her virginity and account for her supernatural intuitions.
The other business-class passengers include an ageing lothario flying away from a string of broken hearts; a renowned dominatrix with a thriving sideline in blackmail; a hired killer employed to assassinate her; and a swindling banker who is fleeing the scene of his many financial crimes. Each of these characters has a purpose in flying to Mexico City, and each will undergo a journey in the cabin of Flight 2549 that they did not expect.
Adding to the intensity and peculiarity of the scenario is the fact that the economy-class passengers have all been drugged by the crew to keep them from knowing what is going on, and to prevent unrest. The three business-class stewards proceed to drug their passengers, too, but with a concoction they call Valencian Water, made from champagne, vodka and orange juice, to which they add a handful of mescaline capsules smuggled on board by a honeymooning groom. This is ladled out freely to the passengers, who become loquacious, confessional and ardent, leading to even more rampant and extravagant behaviour.
Blow-job gags come thick and fast, with masculinity and sexuality at the core of the comedy. Most of the men are either caricatures of camp, conflicted or closeted about their homosexuality. Female sexuality is bipolar: paranoid dominatrix or prescient virgin, madwoman or ingénue. Sex can also happen to you in your sleep, as the groom drugs the bride because she has sex when she sleepwalks, and the virgin seeks out a comatose but horny economy-class stud to impose her virginity loss upon. The dream-like evocation of the back of her bouncing hair is balanced by the fact we know which orifice is being penetrated: while watching the honeymooners having sex in their seat she specifically asks the groom, “Are you doing it from the back or the front?” before she goes on to re-enact the encounter.
This sequence of events is, like many others in the film, a peculiar challenge to watch. It is amusing, but a bit disturbing. There is a great deal that is not laugh-out-loud funny, but rather a hallucinogenic set of laboratory conditions, as in many films where “all bets are off” for reasons such as a heat wave, a war or a zombie invasion. This scenario poses the question: if you had an aircraft full of sleeping passengers, plentiful alcohol, drugs and the possibility of impending death, what wouldn’t you do?
The experience of watching the film is itself oneiric. Stories get repeated, familiar faces and characters drop in and out of screen space and time. Maria Elena, the crazy hot-headed and suicidal artist played by Cruz in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), is echoed in the small role of Alba, the mentally ill painter and partner of the lothario Ricardo, who is seen commencing a suicide attempt by clambering on to a viaduct, only to be distracted by a phone call from her duplicitous lover. Her phone then falls off the bridge into the bicycle basket of another of his lovers, Ruth, whose innocent appearance is at odds with the role of mistress.
Ruth sounds a delicate and mournful note when, at the end of the film, she establishes that she will not be continuing a relationship with him. When she saw Alba, she says, she feared she might end up like her. Ricardo says that she won’t, and she replies that she knows this but she needs to be careful. This is a touching moment which hints at the devastation a man such as Ricardo can leave in his wake, occurring alongside manic humping in extinguisher foam and burgeoning love between hit man and target, and demonstrates the potential for genuine emotion that runs alongside the broad farce of so many of the on-board antics.
For long-standing Almodóvar fans there are many familiar faces, alongside those of Cruz and Banderas, from films such as Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), Dark Habits (1983), All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), Volver (2006) and Broken Embraces (2009). Recalling Pepi, Luci, Bom or Law of Desire (1987) and other early films in both its screwball pace and sexual content, I’m So Excited has an emotional register that is crazy and outrageous, reassuringly familiar and cheekily crude. A couple of moments are fairly repulsive, such as when the stewards sniff the packet of mescaline that has been smuggled in the groom’s anus to assess its pungency, or when one steward takes a bit of semen from another’s chin and tastes it to establish what - and whose - it is.
The distaste is gentle, however, and the redemptive undertone to some of the characters’ air-bound catharses lends the film a tenderness and affection that could almost be described as innocent. It combines heartfelt quandaries of sexual honesty and familial priorities with contemporary comment on Spain’s financial meltdown and a desire to “out” the characters’ pretty meaty secrets. Above all, it is a screwball sex comedy from a master of the genre revisiting his roots. This is what Carry on Cabin Crew looks like in Almodóvar’s hands: a cabaret of camp and confession that more closely resembles Airplane! than All About My Mother.