REVIEW – Law of Desire (1987)

Day three of my odyssey through the recently-released Almodovar Collection. Today we look at Pedro Almodovar’s fifth film Law of Desire, my review of which can be found over here at FilmJuice.

It is easy to see why Law of Desire would have been considered a breakthrough upon its initial release. Aside from being celebrated by the Spanish film establishment and being far more technically proficient than Almodovar’s earlier works, Law of Desire is one of the first Almodovar films to draw on autobiographical detail and break with the Sirkian tradition of using straight women as proxies for gay men.

The academic Jose Arroyo’s introduction implies that because the personal is braver than the fictitious and making films about gay men is braver than making films about women, Law of Desire must — by definition — be a braver and more substantial film than any that Almodovar had previously attempted. While I lack the theoretical tools to delve too far into this issue, it does strike me as quite interesting that film about the life of a wealthy, successful gay man like Law of Desire might be considered inherently braver than a film about a working class woman like What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Privilege theory argues that all individuals are embedded in matrices of oppression made of the different elements of their socially-constructed identities. The matrices range from those applied to wealthy, straight, white men (who are least oppressed/most privileged) all the way down to disabled, queer, mentally ill Black and Minority Ethnic people (who are oppressed and disadvantaged by almost every aspect of their identities). One unfortunate thing about the structure of Privilege theory is that it is very difficult to avoid falling into the trap of playing oppression Top Trumps and placing people in hierarchies according to how oppressed/privileged they happen to be. Once you fall into this trap, you’re effectively indulging in the liberal equivalent of ranking people according to their cranial capacity as you’re assuming that it is possible to make meaningful and objective generalisations about whose words should carry the most weight and thereby wind up reifying and reinforcing a set of arbitrary social hierarchies. For the record, I don’t think Arroyo does fall into this trap but I think viewing Law of Desire as a more important film than What Have I Done This? based on its subject matter does shine an interesting light on how the cinephile community construct ‘quality’.

I think this issue is particularly relevant to Law of Desire as while the subject matter may be more directly personal than in Almodovar’s earlier work, the film itself winds up being one of his more generic offerings to date:

“Another thing that distinguishes Law of Desire from some of Almodóvar’s earlier films is that while his fifth film does include a strong female character, that character is forced into the background by a gay man. This turns out to be rather unfortunate as while Carmen Maura is superb as the passionate and conflicted Tina, Poncela’s Pablo comes across as little more than a generic creep whose refusal to take responsibility for his own sexual desire results in the death and suffering of those around him. Part of the problem is that while Pablo is said to have been modelled on Almodóvar himself, Almodóvar struggles to imbue him with much substance beyond the kind of helpless passivity required to oil the narrative mechanism of a Hitchcockian thriller”


REVIEW – Dark Habits (1983)

A few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to take a look at a newly-released box set of remastered films by Pedro Almodovar and despite having nothing much else to write about at the moment, I hesitated.

I think that my hesitation was born of a historic inability to parse Almodovar’s sense of humour. Indeed, despite enjoying many films whose themes and images are reminiscent of Almodovar’s work, I have always struggled with his tendency to make light of his own subject matter. In hindsight, I wonder whether this blockage might not have been due to the fact that when straight guys make light of melodramatic women and camp gay men, the mockery comes from a very different place to when the laughs are created by members of those groups. As a result, I would see the transgressive jokes about sex and death, be reminded of the 1990s and feel that the entire scene was rather tired and unpleasant. The thrills of transgressive imagery can only last so long. For an example of this jaded world-weariness that is actually a form of emotional constriction, look no further than this review I wrote all the way back in 2007. I’d like to say that I outgrew this lack of sensitivity but this review from 2013 suggests a similar (albeit less blinkered) frustration with Almodovar’s sense of humour.

Despite my hesitation, I agreed to review The Almodovar Collection and I am so glad I did as I now realise that Almodovar is so much more than transgressive images and a succession of dick jokes. My Road to Damascus moment came about half-way through watching Almodovar’s third film Dark Habits. I reviewed it for FilmJuice over here.


One of interesting things about Almodóvar’s career is that while most of his films deal with sexuality in quite a comic fashion, his work rarely comes across as either exploitative or patronising. This not only makes him singularly brilliant at handling female characters, it also allows him to steer his films in some quite unexpected directions. For example, despite revolving around a group of nuns who struggle with unusual desires and unfortunate histories, Dark Habits systematically locates the characters’ humanity and treats them all with the utmost respect. This desire to handle matters of the flesh with the same kind of high-minded seriousness that is usually afforded ‘respectable’ spiritual crises serves to both date and electrify the film as Dark Habits now feels a lot like an attempt to understand the kind of abuses and moral compromises that led to the clerical abuse scandal. How else are we to view a film in which religious figures use their positions to seduce and silence the vulnerable? How else are we to view a film that presents giving in to your hidden desires as a moment of spiritual triumph? Never anything less that morally and spiritually serious, Almodóvar extends understanding but not forgiveness.


I reviewed all six films included in the superb Almodovar Collection box set and I’ll link to a different review every day this week.

REVIEW – Blancanieves (2012)

BlancanievesVideoVista has my review of Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, a silent black and white re-invention of Snow White.

Set in 1920s Spain, the film opens on a young couple who are about to have their first child. He is a successful bullfighter, She is a famed flamenco dancer. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when He is injured in the ring and She goes into premature labour and dies in the process of giving birth to her daughter. For reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter’s daughter grows up in the care of her grandmother and is never allowed to meet her father who immediately marries his demonic and controlling nurse. When the young girl’s grandmother dies, for reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter agrees to assume his responsibilities as a father but he refuses to meet with his daughter and so the young girl is forced to work as a scullery maid. Eventually the father and daughter meet and so the evil step-mother throws the young woman out onto the street forcing her to befriend a band of dwarven bullfighters who help her achieve fame as a successful bullfighter in her own right.

The fascinating thing about this film is that while Berger sets out to make a proper silent film, it is clear that Berger struggles to tell a story using only images and musical cues. Thus, rather than images that tell a story and musical cues that provide an emotional context for these images, Berger presents us with a series of incredibly well-composed but dramatically empty images backed up with an entirely inappropriate musical score. Indeed, Blancanieves is less a work of cinematic art than it is a fashion shoot inspired by a combination of 1920s Spain and film noir. As I say in the review:

Having failed to marshal both his visual and his musical resources in an effective manner, Berger is forced onto the decidedly contemporary footing of relying upon scripting and actors to tell the story, and this is where silent film’s lack of bandwidth really bites as the actors seem to take their cues from the inter-titles and the inter-titles are all featureless snippets of dialogue meaning that none of the actors ever transcends the childish and stereotypical origins of their characters: evil stepmother is evil, warm-hearted child is warm-hearted, broken patriarch is broken, and dwarves provide a deeply questionable combination of comedy and pathos.

Ideally, the history of film should tell a story of growing complexity and accomplishment; Each new technical innovation unlocking entire arenas of artistic potential that is broken, harnessed and added to the ever-growing toolbox of a mature art form. However, as Berger’s failure to tell a convincing story suggests, many of the techniques pioneered by silent filmmakers have dropped out of mainstream use meaning that many contemporary directors trained to make ‘talkies’ are effectively incapable of making a silent film as they lack the technical skills required to convey narrative without the use of expositionary dialogue. However, as I explain in my review, many of the skills pioneered by silent filmmakers live on in the work of art house directors:

In 1963, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman produced a film with no dialogue at all. The Silence is a genuinely extraordinary exercise in technical self-control as while Bergman does make use of sound effects and incomprehensible mumbling, he effectively manages to tell a complex psychological story without a single line of dialogue or even an inter-title. This desire to demand more from your audience and keep them making imaginative leaps is now firmly embedded in the DNA of the art house tradition but it is particularly noticeable in such recent dialogue-free triumphs as Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City Of Sylvia, Mao Mao’s Here, Then, and Amer by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Watching these films reminds us of how crude, lazy and wasteful Hollywood filmmaking has become. It also shows us quite how much the likes of Pablo Berger need to learn before they can tell a compelling story without the use of dialogue.

For those interested, I include links to reviews of the films I mention:

Re-reading my review of Bergman’s The Silence, I am struck by how little I actually engaged with the film as a piece of silent cinema: I talk about character, I talk about mythology and I talk about the purpose of criticism precisely because at the time of writing that review (2008) I lacked the critical tools required to make sense of what it was that I was seeing on screen. In order for audiences to be able to make sense of a work of art, they must first possess the tools that will allow them to decode them. Much of what we mean when we talk about ‘education’, ‘learning’ and ‘being cultured’ is acquiring skills that allow us to make sense of particular works of art and it is in this process of acquisition that we see the true biases of our own society: Because I grew up in an era when films had dialogue, I never needed to acquire the skills required to make sense of a dialogue-free film. Because I am a straight, white man and I grew up in a culture that uses that perspective as a universal cultural default, I find films that embody different perspectives to be both a challenge and a release but I think many people view films made from non-white, non-straight and non-male perspectives in a manner comparable to the way I used to see silent film: Sure… a lot of effort went into this, but I can’t make any fucking sense of it!