10 things to say if you’ve never seen an Almodóvar film

With The Skin I Live In out today in the UK, here’s a handy guide to the films of director Pedro Almodóvar, and what to say if you’ve never seen one of his films…

We’ve all been there. You’re out with some friends eating tapas and drinking sangria, and someone mentions The Skin I Live In, the excellent new film from Pedro Almodóvar. But what if you don’t know the director’s work? Never fear. Here are ten things to say if you’ve never seen an Almodóvar film.

1. On women: “It’s all about his mother…”

If you’re watching an Almodóvar film, you can bet that women are involved. Most evident, perhaps, in 2006’s Volver and 1999’s All About My Mother (both five star films), is that he’s a director keen to emphasise female identity, repeatedly highlighting their solidarity and resilience in the face of loss and society’s constraints. Like Spanish playwright Federico Lorca before him, Almodóvar’s female characters (some of them transsexuals) are always independent and well written. 

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2. On historical context: “What would Franco make of that!”

When he was eighteen, Pedro ran away to Madrid to learn filmmaking, just as General Franco shut down the National School of Cinema. Learning about direction in his spare time, Almodóvar surged to the forefront of culture as soon as Franco died. He produced taboo-breaking work that helped establish the identity of a country without a dictator.

In essence, he grabbed a camera and spent his time running around Spain with his clothes off (more or less). You can bet General Franco wouldn’t have approved of that.

3. On Spanish cinema: “It’s classic La Movida Madrileña…”

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Almodóvar wasn’t the only director pushing boundaries in the 70s. Celebrating Spain’s newfound liberalism, he was part of La Movida Madrileña, a Madrid-based movement that countered society’s controlled culture with boisterous urban comedies. Their energetic work didn’t have much structure, but who needs narrative when you have a healthy dose of drugs, guns and prostitutes? You can still see all three elements in his work today. Especially the guns. And the drugs. And the prostitutes.

4. On religion: “Can you say ‘allergic to Catholic upbringing?’”

There’s nothing like a Catholic upbringing to bring out the radical in a young Spaniard. Sent to religious boarding school by parents hoping to make him a priest, Almodóvar swiftly followed in the footsteps of Luis Buñuel, offering criticism of the church in both 2004’s Bad Education (hello, abusive Catholic teachers) and 1984’s Dark Habits (a deadpan comedy that plays out like Sister Act, but with more drugs).

5. On Antonio Banderas: “His best role will always be that gay terrorist with a supernatural sense of smell.”

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Reunited with Almodóvar for The Skin I Live In, Antonio Banderas gets one of the best roles of his career in plastic surgeon Dr Robert Ledgard. But Antonio has been working with Pedro for years. His part in the blackly comic 1988 masterpiece Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (another five stars) made him an international star, leading to Shrek 2 and The Mask Of Zorro, but even before then he played a porn star fanatic (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) and an unhinged bullfighter (Matador).

But none of these roles compare to his on-screen debut in Almodóvar’s 1982 barmy sexcapade Labyrinth Of Passion, in which he plays a gay terrorist with a supernatural sense of smell. Seriously.

6. On casting: “If Marisa Paredes is in it, you know it’ll be good.”

Almodóvar’s had several favourite female performers over the years, including Carmen Maura, Cecilia Roth and, more recently, Penélope Cruz. But one of the great constants across his work is the talented Marisa Paredes. She got her leading role in The Flower Of My Secret in 1995, but her straight-faced delivery was a vital presence in the director’s early comedies, particularly her turn in Dark Habits as an LSD-influenced nun called Sister Manure. Like the casting of Carmen Maura in Volver and Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother, the return of Marisa Paredes in The Skin I Live In is a reassuring indication that Almodóvar’s still got something special on the way.

7. On writing: “It’s the best episode of EastEnders ever!”

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Old Pedro isn’t afraid of a bit of melodrama. In fact, he embraces it. Ever since What Have I Done To Deserve This? in 1980, his frankly bonkers writing has matured into a unique combination of lewd humour and female-driven tragedy. This bizarre balance of surreal comedy and domestic drama is best exemplified in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, which sees an overblown soap opera storyline (woman puts sleeping pills in soup after messy break-up) burst into hysterical farce (stuff involving terrorists). There’s even a demented car chase at the end. Drugs, guns and prostitutes? It’s like the best episode of EastEnders ever.

8. On cinematography: “He likes red and stuff.”

You can spot an Almodóvar film from a mile away. Just look for the colour red. Whether working with 80s regular Ángel Luis Fernández or modern director of photography José Luis Alcaine, Pedro’s films have a vibrant colour palette that goes hand in hand with his love of passion, hatred, and blood. From the sexual explosions of his youth to the maturity of his later work, Almodóvar’s exploration of vulgarity and subversion ranges all the way from bright red shoes and vivid dresses to blood-splattered kitchens and garish wallpaper.

9. On post-modernism: “He’s even more meta than JJ Abrams!”

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Saying that sentence will turn people’s heads. As post-modern as they come, Almodóvar is a director who knows his form in and out and loves playing with its artificiality. He frequently inserts references to classic cinema as well as his own work, so you’ll often find films-within-films, plays-within-films and films-within-plays-within-films.

Volver’s plot, for example, comes from a book within 1995’s The Flower Of My Secret, from which All About My Mother (which refers to A Streetcar Named Desire) also originates. Broken Embraces, meanwhile, follows a blind screenwriter as he recalls his previous movies, including a fictional recreation of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (which in turn steals its demented car chase from Labyrinth Of Passion), and a romance with an actress from that film.

Unafraid to echo scenes or ideas, Almodóvar’s the kind of filmmaker who enjoys making films about films. The Spanish J.J Abrams? Sort of. But with more drugs. And guns. And prostitutes.

10. On Penélope Cruz: “Penélope Cruz’s backside is amazing.”

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Because it is. And Almodóvar clearly knows it.