Labyrinth of Passion,
Matador, & Pain and Glory December 4, 2019
The evolution of Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas
ntonio Banderas knew right away that Pedro Almodóvar was special. They met for the first time at a café, where Banderas and his friends were having
coffee. The spiky-haired Almodóvar had just made his directing debut with Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls Like Mom (1980), a microbudget, John Waters-esque shock comedy. Critics and audiences didn’t think much of it. Banderas later recalled that, while at the café, one of the people in the group quietly suggested to him that Almodóvar was purely a charming dilettante, and would probably never again make a movie.
Banderas was nonetheless entranced by Almodóvar, who had a fast and funny sense of humor and was noticeably self-possessed. “You could tell he was a genius,” Banderas has said. That could have been the end of it — a memorable encounter. But the interest was mutual. Almodóvar thought Banderas, who was working at the Spanish National Theatre at the time and hadn't given much thought to a film career, had something. Said the director to the actor, “You should do movies,
because you’ve got a really romantic face.” (Banderas recalled responding with a demure “OK…”)
Then Almodóvar gave Banderas an opportunity himself. A week later, the former offered the latter a role in his second project, Labyrinth of Passion (1982). Many more duets materialized throughout the 1980s. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, from 1989, was their last partnership until 2011's The Skin I Live In, in part because Banderas decided, in the early 1990s, to pursue a movie career in America.
Banderas is now recognized as a member of Almodóvar’s Robert Altman-like stable of actors, which memorably includes the likes of Penélope Cruz, Cecilia Roth, Carmen Maura, Rossy de Palma, and others. Banderas is also (alongside Cruz) among the few to have experienced a kind of U.S. success that has in a lot of ways overshadowed his
work in his native Spain. With crossing over, though, has come several a not-so-interesting film. So it’s become easier, with time, to with more and more gusto eagerly await the next time Banderas will work with Almodóvar, who is able to harness his talent in ways few directors have been as adept at accommodating.
Antonio Banderas in 2019's Pain and Glory.
hat makes Banderas fascinating muse-wise is that there’s some inadvertent (or not) mirroring going on. Because the actor and Almodóvar are fairly close in age and with enough attention to physical
presentation can arguably look like relatives, it sometimes feels as though Banderas is a closer indication of Almódovar’s own coming of age than his other go-to actors. This seemed especially unavoidable with The Skin I Live In and now with their latest collaboration, Pain and Glory (2019). The Skin I Live In was an updated take on the horror-thriller Eyes Without a Face (1960) that of course was not to be taken at face value, since Banderas is essentially playing a supervillain. But its everywhere existential crises and amped-up fears over physical change had what felt to me underpinnings of probable truth, however allegorical.
The Skin I Live In was highfalutin and more so a case of Almodóvar falling back on the shock values which defined the earlier part of his career. Pain and Glory, in contrast, is among his most personal and painstakingly constructed films. In it, Banderas portrays a graying movie director suffering from a mezcla of health ailments and an artistic dry spell. What we understand immediately is that he's playing a semi-autobiographical version of Almodóvar. After years of pondering how much of himself Almodóvar had inculcated in one of Banderas’s characters (if at all), Pain and Glory so dramatically blurs the lines that the blur eventually becomes a large smudge.
Looking back at early, key collaborations between Almodóvar and Banderas over the last few days to prepare for their latest partnering — the earlier mentioned Labyrinth of Passion and 1986’s Matador — I found that an arc of sorts had been built. Labyrinth of Passion is representative of Banderas and Almodóvar the fledgling but seriously passionate artists; Matador an embodiment of the delectable moment where we could tell they were finally coming into their own, their star and director personae recognizable if still yet to be firmly established; Pain and Glory a through-the-looking-glass sort of movie where the past seems far away and one is meant to wonder where so much of the vibrancy of (and lust for) life went.
To get a movie like Pain and Glory nearly 40 years after the kick-off of an iconic director-muse relationship is a rare thing. It seems serendipitous, almost, that this is also the year of The Irishman, likely to be the last scion of Mean Streets (1973), the movie on which Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro first worked together. A filmmaker and his trusty muse weathering the storms together artistically is an indubitably powerful thing. Though in the end the dramatic results of that storm-weathering outweigh the anticipatory thrill of seeing another reunion all these years later. Pain and Glory, made in the subdued (for Almodóvar) style of Talk to Her (2002) and 2016’s Julieta, thankfully lives up to the big-deal magnitude evoked by its name and place in the history of Almodóvar and Banderas.
n a recent interview with Deadline, Almodóvar said that, had he met Banderas sooner, he would have given him the leading-man role in Labyrinth of Passion. I’d like to have seen what the actor could have done with the part.
But Banderas is great anyway in a minor turn as a dough-faced villain — specifically a budding terrorist who, after a while, realizes the person he’s targeting is the protagonist of the movie, with whom he’d recently had a sexual encounter.
Labyrinth of Passion stars Imanol Arias as Riza, the targeted hero in question. Characteristic for many of the lead characters in early Almodóvar features, he has a noisy persona: he’s the gay son of the Emperor of Tiran, a fake Middle European country, and is living in hiding in Madrid. He always has shades on and wears a poofy black wig as if he’d been born with it on. The movie is centrally about a romantic relationship Riza develops with Sexi (Cecilia Roth), a promiscuous pop star, and how he has to "overcome" his gayness to be with her. Almodóvar knows how ridiculous this is — like everything else in the movie.
Even then that description is underselling what goes on in this nutso farce a bit. Labyrinth of Passion has an octopus narrative. It's like a year’s worth of daytime-soap episodes crammed into a feature-length. In addition to the contrived romantic A narrative, there are side-plots involving Sexi’s dry cleaner (Marta Fernández Muro), whose dementia-addled father is sexually abusing her, thinking she’s her recently departed mother; a terrorist group (led by Banderas) chasing after Riza, with an intent to assassinate; Riza temporarily becoming a frontman of a rock group after the lead singer literally breaks a leg; and more. Sexi even has a twin sister who late in the movie participates in a Mary-Kate and Ashley-style swap-out.
The movie is busier than it needs to be. It’s something of a final college essay of a film that was only required to be five pages and double-spaced but instead is 10 and single, throwing in anecdotes and secondary research that never had to be there to get the job done. Yet the person doing the writing is so commanding and entrancing on the page that you don’t mind. Truly there didn’t have to be so many characters and pin-ballish obstacles in the film. The incest thing, played for dark laughs because Almodóvar, in the mood to offend, is the extra seasoning on an already way-too-peppered meat slab. But one of the things I like about Labyrinth of Passion in spite of it all is how well Almodóvar keeps the energy up. The film’s exhausting to watch — every character and plot device is attached to something else and more often in a labored rather than isn’t-it-cool-how-everyone-is-connected way. But Almodóvar doesn’t half-ass anything. The wilder the better here.
Labyrinth of Passion is ultimately a frivolous ensemble comedy where transgression and audacious plotting dominate. Almodóvar above all else seems like he wants us to gawk at how much he can throw at the camera in less than two hours. Is he going for record-breaking? This isn’t that good a movie, but to watch it years later, after Almodóvar has proven that his candy-colored and oft-gratingly silly early days were just the stepping stones necessary to arrive at his later, more sobered works, is akin to reading the early work of a renowned and consistently exciting author. The hunger and zeal are even more omnipresent, which sometimes are characteristics that can eclipse later-developed quality. This isn’t so much the case with Labyrinth of Passion. But in moments the sentiment can ring true.
lmodóvar and Banderas’ second collaboration, Matador, is miles-away better than Labyrinth of Passion. It’s just as superficial, but the feeling that Almodóvar is more than anything joking around with
his friends and seeing what they can get away with is gone. He directs here with the sex-and-death-are-synonymous swagger of Alfred Hitchcock and writes with the flamboyant-cum-serious strut of Douglas Sirk. Almodóvar considers Matador a lesser work — and it is if I’m being honest with myself — but it’s among my favorites in his oeuvre anyway. It’s conceptually throwaway, but its adrenalized and exceptionally stylized execution make it feel bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s as if Almodóvar challenged himself to write a so-so movie but make it as if it were a masterpiece.
Who is the matador the title of the film is referring to? It could be several people. Its two leads embody the occupation. One is a student getting familiar with the form named Ángel (Banderas); the other is a former champ turned teacher named Diego (Nacho Martínez). Another pivotal character is a matador in a most-dangerous-game way. They’re a serial killer who, after having passionate sex with a man, stabs the latter to death in bed with a serrated hairpin. They're a bullfighter, their partner the tricked animal.
These characters are typical Almodóvarian eccentrics. Diego, whose personality has been altered since a recent goring, now gets turned on by watching slasher movies. In Matador, violent clips from Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Bloody Moon (1981) are, to Diego’s eye, no different than the banalest pornography. Ángel, who’s been raised by a devoutly religious helicopter mother, has become so tormented by his cloyingly vanilla upbringing that he’s started to mix up his sexual passions and bullfighting instincts. He’s begun to think that flirting is no different than attacking. And in some cases he convinces himself that the romantic experiences of others are, in actuality, his own. The serial killer, we discover, not only moonlights in the daytime as a lawyer but has also constructed their modus operandi around the glory days of Diego, whom they were a big fan of during his apogee.
Matador sees much of its action pushed forward by a false confession. Early in the film, Ángel accosts a neighbor, Eva (Eva Cobo), who also happens to be Diego’s girlfriend, in an alley. He tries to rape her; she flees before the act can be seen through. Ridden with guilt, Ángel turns himself in to the police the next morning. But being unable to discern fantasy from reality very well, he thinks he's also responsible for the recent string of bullfighting-style murders. So he confesses to them. The police are certain he hasn’t committed them. But for some reason he knows all the particulars — even the burial spots. What’s going on?
Ángel is soon represented in court by María (Assumpta Serna), the best character in the movie. She's over-elaborately glamorous and equal parts calculating and mysterious in a way reminiscent of classic Hollywood femmes fatales. (Think of her as Ava Gardner in reptile mode.) We come to find out that María has ulterior motives underneath her defense of Ángel. The longer her wicked streak gets the more magnetic she becomes. This is the only movie Serna made with Almodóvar, and that’s a shame: she's very in line with the jet-setting actresses who flourished in the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s and ‘50s — an era Almodóvar so often apes in his movies.
Labyrinth of Passion’s complications, daring as they are, frequently come across as a director testing out different means of provocation and hoping that all the tests wind up working out. In Matador, by contrast, the provocations pay off.
The movie, though not technically a whodunit, reminds us of one anyway. Almodóvar starts with all the puzzle pieces. He tosses a few of them at us every few minutes to try to help us put something together. Then toward the end of this strange relationship, he reveals that it’s going to be him who sets down the last few fragments. Once we see the bigger picture, we're surprised by it. But we also wonder if we should have seen it coming. We think we have a sense of where this is all headed, but Almodóvar proves by act three that the hand-holding was simply a ploy to get us super invested, to think we knew what was unfolding, only to show, finally, that it’s him, the master, who’s really known what’s up all along. We’re just meant to enjoy the game-playing.
The storytelling has a pulpy tingle; this is also one of the first times Almodóvar evinced that even if a movie of his doesn’t holistically work, his visual sensibility is enough to at least keep our senses glued. Matador is shot beautifully: all coloring-book-hued and geometrically composed, with the faces and bodies of the actors becoming canvases onto which Almodóvar can further clarify his ideas and what excites him. The fashions are also a high point. María is always wrapped in broad-shouldered and bilious Joan Crawford-style clothing. Because the Eva character also works as a model, there are a couple of detours into the behind the scenes intricacies of runway shows, which seem like excuses for Almodóvar to show that his abilities to dress up a set and a shot don't end with the sartorial.
Matador is eternally in heat. And it’s one of the few moments in the earlier part of Almodóvar’s career where his provocations also seemed unmistakably controlled and pivotal to the overall effect. So often in his 1980s we couldn’t fully trust him. We went along for the ride; usually, we ended up having a decent time. Yet there’s a then-unfamiliar purposefulness here. You never suspect stuff is going to come flying off the rails.
here is a fictional movie often referenced in Pain and Glory. If it were to exist, it would probably resemble Labyrinth of Passion and/or Matador. It’s called “Sabor.” We don’t get to see any of it ourselves. But we
imagine that it’s defined by a similar style of brass. Its promotional poster, framed on a character’s wall, is blank, save for a strawberry tongue licking a pair of cherry-red lips. “Sabor” was directed 30 years ago by the main character of Pain and Glory, an aging film director named Salvador. Salvador is played by Banderas, and his mane is spiked into the trademark Almodóvar ‘do. He even wears the latter’s clothes.
Because the pearl anniversary of “Sabor" is coming up in Pain and Glory, something of public interest is whether Salvador will be open to doing press about it, discussing its making and the notorious falling out he had with his muse Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). The "Sabor" angle is a major part of Pain and Glory, and a large chunk of the plot is taken up by Salvador’s uneasy reunion with his old star, with whom he parted ways because of the latter's still-strong heroin addiction. But looking into the past and comparing it to the present is flagrant in basically every other place in Pain and Glory. "Sabor" gives Salvador an excuse to reminisce about almost everything. Much of the film is in part autobiographical for Almodóvar, who is definitely making Banderas the guy in the funhouse mirror. The film is a ripe occasion for contemplation.
Pain and Glory is pretty plotless, more so a slice of life that tastes like hard times. There are lots of flashback scenes, during which Salvador recalls his childhood and his relationship with his loving but constantly disapproving mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz, then Julieta Serrano as an old woman). Also included is a very-touching passage in which Salvador has a one-off reunion with his former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia).
Physical ailments are rife, too. Salvador is recovering from recent back surgery, and briefly becomes a heroin addict (courtesy of Alberto) because his medicine isn’t working well. He’s prone to random choking fits; he can’t so much as pour someone else a drink without it turning into a near-death experience. Pain and Glory is perpetually in crisis. Salvador’s better days seem to be behind him, and there doesn’t seem to be much waiting for him down the line. That he constantly feels like he’s dying doesn’t help.
Pain and Glory might have functioned well as a miniseries. Almodóvar’s life, however factually mucked up it is here, is undeniably a rich text, and based on what he’s done with this movie I’d invest in seeing how he’d dramatize other crucial parts. But the film works well in any case as a feature-length rumination session. It’s strange, especially after a back-to-back viewing of Labyrinth of Desire and Matador, to see Almodóvar in this mode. Here there is no real observable arc or narrative shape — a 180 from his plot-obsessed first decade of filmmaking. The movie is all about the worst but also most productive days of one’s existential crisis and all the forces prolonging them. Almodóvar isn't in a hurry. And unlike his earlier films he doesn’t seem to be cackling while causing commotions. This is a feature made by someone so tired of the commotion that if he were to try to revive it in any way it could kill him. We know as much from the opening shot of Pain and Glory: of Banderas, underwater, sitting with his legs crossed in his character’s pool, his scarred-from-recent-surgery back for the only time that day feeling properly soothed.
Pain and Glory drags a bit in places — a necessary evil of its wandering structure. But when the film is at its most immediate — like when Federico and Salvador reunite; when Salvador and Jacinta are speaking for the last time; when Salvador remembers the first time he was sexually attracted to someone — it blazes. Banderas also gives a career-best performance. Sometimes we can forget the depth he’s capable of given that the roles he took on in America after his early Almodóvar moment rendered him an indelible sex symbol. Pain and Glory makes the case not only for his underrated emotional and instinctual intellect as an actor but also for how well-matched he and Almodóvar still are.
Some 30-plus years ago a daring director could trust a good-looking 20-something-year-old actor to help make real his wildest filmmaking compulsions. Now the daring director can trust the good-looking actor to make tangible his midlife fears. It’s a rarified and expectedly stirring thing to see this progression. Where will Almodóvar go next, now that he’s laid things so bare for us? Wherever he goes, I hope he takes Banderas with him.
Labyrinth of Passion: C+
Pain and Glory: A-