At present, I’m having a ball putting together The Bechdel Test Canon, my film blog for Bitch. It’s giving me a chance to revisit and catch up on so many titles and discuss what makes them important, exciting, interesting, and vexing. However, as a result of the parameters of the exercise, there are some movies that don’t make the cut. I always knew I was going to include a movie by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. I’ll bracket off a paragraph or two discussing our conflicting gender politics when I write about the movie I’ve selected to represent his body of work and briefly state that I have lots of opinions about how he represents women and girls in his gynocentric ensembles.
One thing I’ll bring up here and elaborate upon later is that I came to his filmography late and worked backwards, which no doubt influences my preference toward his “respectable” output in the 1990s and 2000s over his mischievous first decade (excluding the shorts he started making in the mid-70s, which I haven’t yet seen). I’ll use his 1980 feature debut Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del monton to expound upon why I’m of this opinion. I screened it for the Bitch series and determined that it didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, though it included a lesbian punk musician as one of the principal characters, which means it aces the Feminist Music Geek test.
Okay, so I have measured enjoyment of this period and only really like Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown of what I’ve seen. My primary reason for this is that Almodóvar’s career-long preoccupations with employing melodrama to investigate intimacy, sexuality, heartache, identity crises, abuse, and addiction seem better-served when given a sensitive touch. His earlier work is interested in this too, but exaggerates it through camp and screwball. While I should theoretically appreciate a lighter, more subversive approach to such heavy material, I’m often nonplussed and unsettled by treating such issues as punchlines.
There’s also the sensitive matter of gay male identification with heterosexual women. Some feminist detractors in my acquaintance view Almodóvar’s representation of women less as complex characters and more as cartoonish drag performers who ultimately have little to do with women with whom they can identify. As many of these characters also survive rape, incest, and partner violence, this potentially implicates the director as misogynistic. I don’t think this is a fair charge against him, but these are relevant points that inform my criticism of his work.
Which brings us to Pepi, Luci, and Bom, a movie concerned with a party girl heiress, the masochistic wife of the man who raped her, and a musician who is friends with one and beds the other. There’s plenty of things I liked about this movie. It stars Almodóvar mainstay Carmen Maura as madcap Pepi for a start, whose angular features and detached cool suggest her to be the older sister of Anjelica Houston and Kim Gordon, which can devastate when employed in surprising ways. Pepi orchestrates much of her social group’s actions. She ultimately jump starts her life from flibbertigibbet to career woman by lucking into a gig in advertising, making her name with a series of amazingly strange TV spots. She wants to parlay her success to make a documentary about her friends’ lives, which never comes to fruition. She also wants to create a doll that menstruates, which I think is genius. She argues that the market is saturated with baby figurines that cry, piss, and shit and intends to pitch it as an educational tool. If she were a real person, I would’ve applied to intern at her office in college.
If any of you read the paragraph above and had pause for concern over how cavalierly I brought rape into the discussion, I gave it deeper consideration than the characters do. Pepi’s rape occurs at the very beginning of the movie and Luci’s husband’s predilection for sexual violence is treated as something of a running gag throughout. I can’t get down with that. Furthermore, I have serious problems with how Luci’s need to be dominated is represented. Part of this has to do with Eva Siva’s limited acting capabilities. Even a more-established actress like Maggie Gyllenhaal faces a hurdle in representing a masochistic character as a triumphant, autonomous, empowered being, as she almost accomplishes in Secretary. But most of the fumbled execution here rests on the script and my inability to digest Almodóvar’s employment of slapstick in framing her desire and an unforgivable ending. At first Luci is represented as a cuckolded shut-in, but becomes invigorated after she meets Bom. It’s love from the moment Bom pisses in her mouth. Before long, Luci is taking orders to give gay men blow jobs at parties, which I read as the director’s way of shocking the bourgeoisie. She’s also briefly committed to her much-younger punk girlfriend, played by Spanish musician and queer icon Alaska. For some, I’m sure it’s hard to resist a girl who calls you a pig in song.
While this scene gets me all excited and confused, I hasten to point out that it’s not my favorite musical moment in Almodóvar movie. Acknowledging the use of La Lupe’s “Puro Teatro” in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, that distinction is shared by Brazilian insurrectionist Caetano Veloso and Costa Rican diva Chavela Vargas. They have respective cameos in Talk to Her and The Flower of My Secret. Noel Murray reminded me of the former in his delightful Popless column for The A.V. Club, which also makes me wanna grab that Veloso autobiography I swiped from Half-Price off my shelf. NPR included the latter in their 50 Great Voices series. Both appearances are pretty fucking sublime, both apart from and within the movies they’re nestled in.
. . . I’m going to have to devote a future “Scene It” post to Vargas’ cameo, aren’t I?
But this movie kinda bums me out. Luci’s husband Juan wins her back by beating the shit out of her, rebuffing her girlfriend’s ovations from her hospital bed. Pepi and Bom (who are clearly the movie’s real couple) leave their former friend and plot their next adventure while the credits roll, while I’m left unsure of what I saw. My inability to process it makes me wonder if I missed something or if I’m right in my belief that Almodóvar is at his most exciting when he brings the superficial thrills of cinematic artifice to bear on women and girls almost tangible enough to encounter off-screen. The ladies who run off into the sunset together are so close to seeming real, even if all their interactions are ultimately about men. However, they left behind a woman Almodóvar would develop from an agenda item to a person in subsequent efforts.