Just like the protagonist of his latest film, Pedro Almodovar admits that the weight of years gone by have had an effect on him, writes Helen Barlow
IT’S hard to imagine Pedro Almodovar growing old, yet it’s something the flamboyant 66- year-old Spaniard is grappling with. Looking back at one of my many old articles about the director when 20 years ago he was in Cannes for All About My Mother, he was talking about going off to a party with his fellow king of kitch (or rather queen of kitsch) Elton John.
Of course when Almodovar made his early films, Labyrinth of Passion and Dark Habits, he was in a post-Franco delirium, living a wild life not unlike some of his characters.
In Cannes this year with his 20th film Julieta, he says he has been forced to slow down and now lives a reclusive life — reportedly with photographer Fernando Iglesias, his partner of more than a decade — as he suffers from migraines and is deaf in one ear.
“It’s not that I feel like an old man, but I’m getting there,” Almodovar admits. “I agree with what Phil Roth said, that ‘Old age isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre’.
“I’m not a nostalgic person but, I very much miss my youth and I miss the ’80s. There was a point at which I had to make a choice for my health, which is boring but necessary. I think that change can be felt in the works that I’m creating in this decade of my life.”
Not surprisingly his new film is a serious drama where, via the character of Julieta, he examines the difference between life today and life in the 1980s.
The story follows a middle-aged woman who has long been estranged from her daughter and is yearning to reconnect with her, especially when she learns she has three kids and lives in Switzerland.
“I’ve made lots of movies about mothers but I believe Julieta is the most vulnerable and weakest mother with the least capacity to fight,” says Almodovar. “All the other mothers from my films have been powerful women with an ability to struggle and go above human strength, but I turned Julieta into the victim of personal losses that sapped her power as a person.”
Basing the film on three short stories from the Canadian writer Alice Munro’s 2004 collection, Runaway, Almodovar at first considered filming in English, something he has long wanted to do. He even had Meryl Streep interested in playing the dual characters.
“I didn’t feel sure of myself once I started looking at material in English,” he concedes. “Family situations are different in Spain and it’s what I know about.”
Ultimately he decided that not only should the film be shot in his hometown of Madrid but that the younger and older versions of Julieta should be played by age-appropriate actresses, Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez as the older woman. “There is something in Emma’s gaze that you can never change with makeup,” he says.
While adapting the stories to suit Spanish culture and geography, he was keen to retain the scenes that had been his initial inspiration.
“I’m a whimsical child and I’d always wanted to shoot a movie on a train and Alice Munro gave me a series of scenes on a train that were some of the most marvellous things I’d ever read. You can compare it to the two main characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train. In the end it was really difficult to shoot in such a tiny space.”
Almodovar admits to personally identifying with Munro, a short story specialist and 2013 Nobel Prize winner, who had three daughters as well as a fourth daughter who died shortly after birth. (This influences the Julieta story.)
“Alice Munro is a woman I admire greatly. She was a housewife and that’s basically what I am as well, a housewife who writes all day long!” declares Almodovar. “Alice was thinking of the story she wanted to write but she didn’t have time to do it because she was taking care of her kids. So during nap time or at night she was trying to write about these things that happened within the family.”
While Julieta is worlds away from Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, the film is typically colourful. “I’m the son of Technicolor,” explains Almodovar.
“The first movies I remember as a child were with bright contrasting colours. So when I began making films I was trying to look for the same colours you see in Technicolor. Of course I’m a child of the ’60s so my training in pop art also led to my exaggerated use of colour.”
It was also a revolt against his childhood in rural, dusty, and dry La Mancha. His mother, as in everything he has done, was a major influence. (She performed cameos in his films until her death.)
“When making Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown I realised my mother had dressed in black because she was in mourning, which of course was according to tradition. She was doing so since she was three years old until she turned 30. Even when she conceived me she was wearing black! You can understand why I had some sort of rage against black.”
Among other things in his youth Almodovar sang in a Madrid punk band, which he had to abandon after his voice went from smoking too many cigarettes. While apparently he was really never that good, his life experiences would all make a great movie or book. Yet he is dead against it.
“I’ve identified with all the characters in my films and for better or worst they all represent me in one way or another. So Julieta is very different from The Skin I Live In, which is different from Broken Embraces. The films are like 20 different steps that all represent me. I’ve never written any sort of autobiography and I’ve never let any of the publishing houses publish a book about me and that will be in my will as well: No one is going to be allowed to write any biographies and I don’t want there to be a biopic about me either.
“My heart and even something more than just my heart is in the more mature version of Julieta. I identify more with her right now.”
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