With his latest film, Broken Embraces, the acclaimed Spanish director has entered a new career phase that nearly mirrors his own life.
All about Almodóvar
As he enters, Pedro Almodóvar's handshakes and pleasantries are in direct contrast to his fierce reputation. There is one hurdle to overcome before we begin, however. "I'm sorry," he says, "but before we start I need something to write and draw with." It appears creativity is a tool the 57-year-old director carries with him always, and his interpreter immediately produces a pen and paper. Almodóvar has a very clear grasp of English, but he answers in Spanish in order to better express his feelings about his latest work.
Since his feature debut in 1980, his body of work has established him as perhaps one of the most famous directors outside of the Hollywood system, a voice unafraid of controversy and resistant to compromise. Films such as Matador, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver and more have explored themes of loss, family and death through his unique style of intricate, twisting storylines and vivid visuals. The film he is talking about today is Los abrazos rotos, or Broken Embraces. The plot centres on a blind screenwriter (Lluís Homar) who must face up to his past when a young director called Ray X approaches him about making a film.
Being that a large portion of the film is set on a fictional film shoot, Broken Embraces has been described as Almodóvar's "love letter to filmmaking". The auteur says that while this is arguably true, it was not his intention when he set out to make the film. "I became aware of this not when I finished the script, but when I finished production on the film," he says. "What I wanted to talk about in this film was the love story, the relationship between four characters. In a very natural way the film they are making provides a backdrop for the story and I realised that, in a very natural way, I was paying tribute to filmmaking in general. These elements have all been an essential part of my life for many years, and without these elements I wouldn't understand my life as it is."
Another, more modern phenomenon is also credited as being an inspiration for the film. "The moving images that once defined cinema are now no longer limited to cinema," he says. "We are surrounded by them the all the time - in advertising, on our phones - so moving images are part of our everyday life and sometimes not in a positive way at all. The role of Ernesto Jr, the way he is documenting the shoot in the film, he's sort of doing a 'making of', that's a reference to that ongoing espionage that people are subjected to every day and there's absolutely nothing they can do about it. Celebrities are being filmed against their will, and people are monitored several times every day by cameras in public places. I'm talking about cinema, but I'm also talking about these other presences that are in our lives."
Almodóvar has sometimes been accused of repeating himself, returning again and again to the same themes and techniques. It's a criticism that he rebuts. "I don't think it's repeating at all. This movie is the most difficult movie I have ever done and it was necessary for me to make the 16 movies before. Of course my movies are reflected in this one, I don't try to hide that, but I think it is misunderstood. I talk about lots of films in my work, but the ones I like the most are ultimately my own. That is not to say that I prefer my movies over others, but when I am working I have opinions that are also expressed in my other films."
This is also notable for being the fourth feature film that Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz have worked on together. Since she appeared in 1997's Live Flesh, many observers have called Cruz Almodóvar's muse, taking that unofficial title from Carmen Maura, who had previously appeared in many of his films. Many things have changed since that first collaboration, most notably Cruz's success in the American film industry, but the director believes that she remains essentially unchanged by her experiences. "Obviously the conditions that she shoots under in the US and Spain are very different," he says. "But when she comes back to Europe and when she shoots with me, she is very much the same actress she was when she started shooting and we made our first movie together 12 years ago.
"Her life has obviously changed enormously. She's been extremely successful and everything about the way she lives and moves around the world has changed considerably. But I don't think that has changed her approach to her roles, or the way she works in any way. Certainly with me she works in the way she always did." But what about the actress continues to fascinate him? "Fortunately she continues to place blind faith in me. She sees me as an utter genius and that is not the way I see myself at all," he says.
"We're very happy with her performance and this character was one of the most difficult I have written for her. This movie, for me, really demonstrates how versatile she is, because this character really doesn't fit her very well. I would love to keep on working with her. She brings to me a great sense of security. She believes in me more than I believe in myself. When you have an actress who will do absolutely anything you ask her to do without even blinking, that gives you a lot of strength."
Despite this reassurance from his leading lady, Broken Embraces represents new challenges and obstacles. Not only is this one of Almodóvar's first films located outside of mainland Spain, he also notes that the unusual way the story is told made for a trying production experience. "I think this is the most accomplished movie that I have made," he says. "In terms of narration, there are three narrators in this film who are all present in the same time and in the same film, and that is an added difficulty when it comes to directing it. When it comes to making a single work, you have to balance out these three narratives and make them work together."
Almodóvar's insistence on not falling back on clichéd filming techniques also comes with a price. "The fact that the movie spans two time periods without resorting to flashbacks was an added challenge. There were many new things that I haven't done before as a director and they're probably not as apparent, but for me I felt they were things I was doing for the first time." Something that is much less challenging for Almodóvar now is his life in Spain, with all the comfort and convenience that fame and fortune brings. However, having honed his vision in what he calls the "explosion" of artistic expression that followed the fall of the Franco regime, he finds that this kind of lifestyle is almost a punishment.
"I live in Madrid in a very pleasant part of town, but I do feel this ongoing paradox between the place where I live and the places where I would like to live," he explains. "I tend to live in very comfortable, pricey parts of town, but I would much rather live in the opposite kind of neighbourhood. The more popular, livelier parts of town. I think those places are far more vibrant." Surely he could move? "I tried to, about 15 years ago, but it was impossible," he answers with a sigh. "That's something that fame steals from you: it robs you of the possibility of living where you want. I step outside of my house and people just won't leave me alone. They have the best intentions, of course, but I just don't have that peace."
Perhaps his lifestyle has been reflected in his work of late. Broken Embraces could be described as one of his least shocking films in certain senses. Certainly, the director sees a correlation here. "It is true that when I was a lot younger the life I led, the things I was surrounded by were a lot more shocking. At my age it is only natural that you lead a more settled life." However, he denies that his films were ever made with the intention of creating a scandal. "Shocking is in the eye of the beholder. I just wanted to tell my own stories with my own mentality. When they say I am outrageous, I accept that, but I never try to get a reaction, never. I've been making movies for 30 years. The way I feel now is less shocking, perhaps, but I never set out to be shocking. I want to connect with people through my movies, so that they are moved or entertained, but I never want to be outrageous. In this moment we live in times of huge scandal, but they come from other walks of life - from politics, from the financial sector - but I don't think cinema is really generating scandal in that way today."
Now completed and on the verge of release, Broken Embraces was Almodóvar's fourth film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival and was submitted for this year's prestigious Palme d'Or (it is, in fact, his third film to have been considered for the award). The phrase "An Almodóvar film" now carries a certain level of fascination and, as the director has found out, more pressure as the years go on. "That pressure is certainly there," he says. "There are periods where I don't feel it. Now, when the film is about to open, that pressure exerts a huge weight. When I'm writing or shooting, fortunately I don't worry about what other people are thinking or how they are going to receive the film, but once the film wraps I do feel that pressure. I would certainly rather not, but I can't help it. Once you put the film on the market, naturally I'm concerned about what people are going to think, what they're going to say, how the critics are going to react."
Finally, and rather reassuringly, Almodóvar insists that, despite this pressure, he will never change the way he works. "At this point, I think it's particularly important not to be concerned with making the best film in my career," he adds. "It's something that the market seems to demand, but I really don't want to feel like I'm making a film that's 'better' than the previous ones. I want to make the film that my heart wants to make."