In praise of Pedro Almodóvar's early, funny ones

Pedro Almodóvar has another arthouse hit on his hands in the form of sincere drama Julieta, but we wonder if his best work was back in his puckish youth

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 07 Sep 2016

Earlier this year, the venerable New Yorker critic Richard Brody tweeted a typically didactic thought into the world: “If you think that someone’s first or second film in a long career is their best, you don’t really like their work. Artists grow.”

Twitter took the bait, and before long people were lining up to disagree with Brody. On the whole, however, I tend to go along with his thesis. Early films are for experimentation, finding your voice. It’s only after honing your craft that a great filmmaker sharpens his/her style, becomes more focused. As Brody notes in a follow-up post on his Front Row blog, “It’s in later years that artists tend to be freer, to give less of a shit than they did when they were younger, to affirm their ideas and their passions with less inhibition.” It was while watching Julieta, the 19th film from director Pedro Almodóvar, that I realised I’d found an exception to Brody’s rule.

Drag queens and bullfighters: Almodóvar 's early career

Emerging in the 80s in a nation recently freed of Franco, the Spaniard was once the most mischievous figure in world cinema. Those early films were wild and subversive and bursting with life. His characters, whom he clearly adored, such is the sensuousness of his images, were, like him, misfits. He told stories about drag queens and nymphomaniacs, homicidal bullfighters and pornographers; he provocatively set his third film (Dark Habits) in a convent with LSD-taking, porn-loving nuns. These films flaunted the post-Franco cultural freedom in Spain. They’re filled with heat and passion.

I felt little of this vitality watching his latest film. Based on a trio of short stories from Canadian writer Alice Munro, Julieta spans three decades of the title character's life, looking back at moments of love, loss and guilt. Like many of Almodóvar’s later films, the story is densely plotted, told in flashbacks and peppered with subtle twists and ironies. And it’s gorgeous. The images are bright and crisp, with costume and decor to die for. It’s also cosily middlebrow.

Brody's notion that artists are “freer” and “give less of a shit” as they become more established doesn’t seem to fly with Almodóvar. Now he’s an arthouse darling and his films are respectable dinner party conversation, he seems more interested in creating tasteful films rather than delirious ones. There’s nothing especially terrible about this impulse. Subtle often trumps hyperbolic, but in Almodóvar’s hands it’s an uneasy fit.

Rewatching some of Almodóvar's early films on a soon-to-be-released box set, I realised how much I miss his hysterical and freewheeling style. It suits his penchant for melodrama. How are we meant to get worked up about Julieta’s opaque feelings of guilt and abandonment if we compare it to the family life of What Have I Done to Deserve This?'s put-upon cleaner Gloria (played by Carmen Maura, Almodóvar's favourite muse in his early years)? As well as her multiple jobs, she’s putting up with her skinflint husband and his scheme to forge Hitler's memoires; her life-sucking mother-in-law with a lizard obsession; and her youngest son, who’s renting out his body to old men. It’s no wonder she’s popping pills to keep on top of it all. She’d love, like Julieta, to have a night to herself to wistfully reminisce about her past. Not all of the ad hoc plotting makes sense, but who cares when it’s this alive?

Well-timed gags

Even in the earlier films in a darker register, such as gay stalker melodrama Law of Desire, Almodóvar would throw in a joke or two to punctuate the brooding. The best gag in that film is in the eccentric casting: cis actress Maura plays Tina, the trans sister of a porn director in the middle of a deadly love triangle; Tina’s lesbian ex-lover, and the biological mother of Ada, the adolescent girl whom Tina cares for, meanwhile, is played by famous trans actress and singer Bibi Andersen.

It’s typical of Almodóvar's fluid attitude to gender and sexuality. Brilliantly, the casting also accentuates another great joke later in the film when young Ada looks up at Tina’s ample chest and asks, “Will my boobs ever be as big as yours?” “Oh yes,” says Tina, knowingly. “When I was your age, I was flat as a board.”

The peak of Almodóvar’s early period is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a breakneck farce that brought the director his first taste of international acclaim. Almodóvar’s fondness for rollercoaster plots, retina-searing design and expressive mise en scène hit its apex here. With each subsequent film he’s dampened the hysteria and stripped out the kitsch. More awards and film festival treasure would follow, but it was only the surface of the subsequent films that were more sophisticated. The emotions bubbling under can't touch these early treasures.

Restored versions of Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Kika and Flower of my Secret are released on 19 Sep by StudioCanal as The Almodóvar Collection