The cinema in me

by Pedro Almodóvar


    When I talk about the cinema in me, I'm referring to the cinema present in my films, where my characters are watching a movie in a theater or on a television screen, where they mention other films to describe themselves, or where we can simply catch a glimpse of a movie poster hung on the wall.

    When I refer to someone else's films, it is not to pay tribute, but to claim ownership over the images, the dialog, and the emotions they arouse. It's outright theft! These references have a role to play; they are totally integrated into my screenplays. A tribute is something passive. But when they are specifically chosen to have an effect on the audience, the scenes produce a real additional dramatic impact. At a time when mainstream cinema seems determined to reflect or even imitate video games, I like the idea of ​​taking the cinema and showing it can be a reflection of itself. I would be incapable of talking about existence without mentioning the films that I see or films that my characters are watching. The cinema is inspired by itself as an integral part of life. Thus, the films that appear in mine play a variety of roles.

The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz  (Ensayo de un crimen, Luis Buñuel, 1955) and Live Flesh  (Carne trémula, 1997)

    Along with Hitchcock, Buñuel is one of those filmmakers who inadvertently slip into my movies without my noticing it. But in the case of Live Flesh, it was perfectly conscious and deliberate. I needed a gunshot from the show that Helena (Francesca Neri) is watching on TV to cover another shot that occurs in the reality of my story - an old trick, you know. A noise that masks another so as not attract attention. When I had to choose my sample, I was dizzy; there are thousands of movies with gunshots. Then, luckily I remembered that the beginning of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, one of my favorite films from Buñuel's Mexican era, contains a shot that happens to hit a window. Initially, I chose it for that reason alone. Fate would take care of the rest.

    The title is the first thing to appear on the television screen in the foreground. Literally translated from Spanish, Trial of a crime  would be a great title for the succession of scenes that follow and that determine the core and the raison d'être of Live Flesh.

   From the beginning, there is a parallel between the two films: Buñuel's themes of machismo, jealousy, death, fate - and legs, a well-known erotic motif of his (whereas in my film it's the extension of the genitals). That night in Live Flesh, three men find themselves in the apartment foyer of Helena (Francesca Neri); a struggle ensues and a bullet hits the character played by Javier Bardem, who will become a paraplegic. This scene will then determine the storyline of the four characters, becoming the "trial" for the final tragedy.

   In Buñuel's film, the governess of little Archibaldo is looking through a window when a stray bullet hits her and she collapses, dead. The child's eyes wander over her, not without desire, seeing her long legs and the top of her stockings that reveal her bare upper thighs. Later, the wax figure of the protagonist loses a leg and Archibaldo melts it in an oven… Eroticism thus resides in the legs - existing legs or missing legs – like the paraplegic wheelchair-bound police officer played by Javier Bardem. Fire, death, and feelings of guilt are prevalent in both films. Buñuel mocks them, whereas my own film focuses on an oppressive sense of fatality.

Imitation of Life  (Douglas Sirk, 1959) et High Heels  (Tacones lejanos, 1991).

    I sometimes use certain film references to allow the characters to talk about themselves. This is the concept I put forward in High Heels  in the courtroom scene between Victoria Abril and her mother, Marisa Paredes. Rebeca, Victoria's character, explains the mixture of love and hate she feels for her mother, and why it drove her to kill two men her mother loved. The latter listens, terrified, stunned. She claims not to understand her. Rebeca then asks her point blank: "Mom, have you ever seen the film Autumn Sonata by Bergman?" To characterize their relationship, Rebeca describes the scene where Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman perform the same Chopin piece. Ingrid Bergman plays a renowned pianist, a diva like Rebeca's mother, who humiliates her daughter, schooling her on how the piece should be played… The expression of talent in one and the mediocrity of the other. Rebeca uses the Bergman film to explain the ongoing conflict she has with her ​​mother, justifying the reasons that have led her to kill. I nearly chose to program the film with the two Bergmans, Ingmar and Ingrid, but in the end, I opted for a film that also deals with a painful mother-daughter relationship, Imitation of Life by Douglas Sirk. This is one of my favorite melodramas, and the real-life story of Lana Turner - particularly the Stompanato scandal - has also influenced a part of my story. I never make literal references; High Heels  has the appearance of a lush Douglas Sirk melodrama, but it is culturally closer to Latino-American melodramas, including Buñuel's Mexican films. Aside from the extravagant stories of Douglas Sirk, I am enthralled by the supremacy of artifice as a narrative element, where the decor and vivid colors are as important as the dialog, becoming the most effective way to convey emotions. The filmmaker in me thrives on paradoxes, bringing me to discuss influences of directors as diametrically opposed as Ingmar Bergman and Douglas Sirk. High Heels  is a perfect example.


The cinema, a subject of conversation and a cover

    In Talk to Her  (Hable con ella), the nurse Benigno tells Alicia, the girl in a coma he is attending to, about the films he has seen. In a chance encounter, Benigno learns that Alicia was an avid fan of silent films before her accident. So he goes to the cinema and watches silent movies to later tell her about them. The cinema as conversation.

    The narrative of The Shrinking Lover  is integrated into the story of Talk to Her  to cover what is really happening in the hospital room between Alicia's body and the nurse Benigno. I wanted the audience to have empathy for the nurse and had to remove the scenes of rape. I did not want to witness it either, so I didn't film it, yet it was necessary that the viewer understand. To "cover" it, not wanting to make it visible, I invented the silent film as entertainment, while still revealing what it was hiding. The viewer learns what is happening in the room without having actually seen it. The story of The Shrinking Lover  is a direct reference to The Incredible Shrinking Man  by Jack Arnold, based on the novel by Richard Matheson. I have always dreamt of making a movie with a small hero, where the feet of the furniture and the topography of the ground would become the main decor. I loved the idea of modifying the dimensions of the character and everything around him. This allowed me to have the tiny lover take a promenade on the naked body of his beloved as if it were a landscape and make him disappear inside her.

     I am a great admirer of American fantastic horror films of the Cold War era. Since I was given carte blanche, I decided on two films from this period, Invasion of the Body Snatchers  by Don Siegel and The Incredible Shrinking Man  by Jack Arnold. I definitely prefer these brilliant little B-movies to current blockbusters of the genre.

    Fear is a weapon of political propaganda, is extremely powerful, and naturally constitutes the ingredients of fantastic horror flicks. The American motion pictures of the Cold War unscrupulously reunited these elements. The films of the time were made to echo the collective psychosis of an impending nuclear attack, a psychosis promoted by the system itself. The danger typically originated in the Communist bloc in the form of giant ants, an alien invasion, nuclear fallout, berries taking possession of your soul, etc. The danger always came from the Other, the Neighbor, the Unknown.

    Although it was a part of the anti-communist campaign of Senator McCarthy, The Incredible Shrinking Man  and Invasion of the Body Snatchers  are two fine examples of the genre, and they have lost none of their value despite the exploitation purposes to which they were subject. On the contrary, over time, this fact has enriched the films and added extra insight to the cinematic analysis of the reality of the time. More than history books, fiction - films, novels, television series of today - is sometimes the best way to understand the history of a place. Don Siegel's film makes a cameo in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!  as the movie poster on the wall of the editing room of director Maximo Espejo (Francisco Rabal).


Women and guns: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, 1988) and Johnny Guitar  (Nicholas Ray, 1954).

   In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Pepa and Ivàn are voice actors and lovers. At the start of the film, Ivàn has just broken up with Pepa. Hoping to find him, she goes to the studio where they are dubbing the film Johnny Guitar with Ivàn dubbing Johnny Logan and Pepa dubbing Vienna. My intention was to show the loneliness of Pepa through the process. Ivàn is no longer in her life, and is not in the studio. It was a place where she could hear him speak words of love, even in the shoes of other characters. But Ivàn, preferring to avoid it, records his lines on a separate tape. So Pepa records alone, hearing Ivàn's voice through her headphones, in one of the best dialogs ever written about the pain of longtime lovers. I chose the scene when Johnny tells Vienna, "Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited." She responds, "All these years I've waited." The agony of Pepa, as the abandoned lover, and the projection of the scene with Johnny and Vienna is so overwhelming, that she collapses and faints.

   I don't like dubbing but I love to include it in my films. In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it was as if I was filming Carmen Maura and Joan Crawford together, each as an echo and a mirror of the other. It's a sort of duel of actresses who play the same scene in opposite ways. Maura becomes weak in the absence of her lover, but Crawford is as hard as nails in the same circumstance.

    Johnny Guitar  and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown  are two women's films. Even if Nicholas Ray gives the title character to the man in Johnny Guitar, the women Vienna and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) are the drivers of the story, tough ladies in a showdown. Contrary to all other westerns, the women in this film represent strong, interesting characters; they decide the fate of the men. Johnny Guitar  is a strange film. The script and the staging are deliberately theatrical, but in the hands of Nicholas Ray, the result is magical and fascinating, precisely because of them.

Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954) and Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos, 2009).

    For a long time, I wanted to include the excavation scene from Journey to Italy by Roberto Rossellini in one of my films. I cannot help from crying every time I see it. Cinema draws on our own desires while at the same time maintaining a face to face with us. This sometimes leads to a confession in front of the screen. Refuged in Lanzarote, a volcanic island, the protagonists of Broken Embraces watch Journey to Italy on a small television set. In Journey to Italy, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, whose marriage is falling apart, visit a site in Pompeii. Right before their eyes, excavation workers gently brush away the earth, uncovering the bodies of a man and a woman immortalized by the lava as they slept. "Perhaps a man and his wife," says the man accompanying them. The image is suddenly a shock to Ingrid Bergman, who immediately isolates herself, struck with grief. The eternal love and perfect happiness of a couple underline the deterioration and petty nature of her own marriage. She cannot hold back her tears. This is a simple scene, without rhetoric, direct, and yet charged with emotion. When Lena (Penélope Cruz) watches the film on TV, she buries her face in her lover's chest, experiencing the same intensity of emotion that Ingrid Bergman felt. However, unlike her, Lena is holding the person she loves tightly in her arms, hoping that one day death may surprise them in the same manner, with herself and Mateo in a loving embrace.

The cinema as a premonition and a reflection: Duel in the Sun  (King Vidor, 1946) and Matador  (1986). The Adultress  (Thérèse Raquin, Marcel Carné, 1953) and Bad Education (La mala educación, 2004).

    As soon as they are released, films immediately belong to the past, but I recognize their prophetic qualities. This is the theory that I adhere to in Matador. Cinema can foreshadow both the future of the characters and reflect the darkest secrets of the audience. In Bad Education, Mr. Berenguer (Lluís Homar) and the wicked Angel (Gael García Bernal) go to a Barcelona theater to create an alibi and kill time while Angel's brother is in agony after overdosing on heroin of a rare purity, given to him by Mr. Berenguer. The theater is holding a Film Noir Week. The characters have just seen a double feature of films noirs with parallel storylines, which appear on the posters on the theater wall: Thérèse Raquin   (The Adultress) by Marcel Carné and Double Indemnity  by Billy Wilder. The former is based on the novel by Émile Zola and the latter on the book by James M. Cain, who was apparently inspired by the unflinching hardness of Zola. Mr. Berenguer leaves the cinema very upset. "It's as if all those films were talking about us," he says to his young lover. Like the character of Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity  and Raf Vallone in The Adultress, Mr. Berenguer is so blindly, passionately in love, he will use him to kill. In both films, the victims are the protagonist's husbands; in Bad Education, the victim is his brother.

    By programming The Adultress, I invoke the spirit of Zola in Lyon, as well as other masterpieces of film noir such as Human Desire by Fritz Lang, La Bête humaine (The Human Beast) by Renoir, and Billy Wilder himself.

    Let's talk about Duel in the Sun  by King Vidor. In Matador, lawyer Maria Cardinal escapes from bullfighter Diego Montes, who pursues her. She walks past the front of a movie theater and takes refuge inside. Cinema as a shelter for criminals is another great theory. On the screen, the final minutes of Duel in the Sun are being shown, an excessive and captivating western with explosive colors. The unspoken slogan of the brazen pair, Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck, could be, "Kill me and tell me that you love me." I wanted this imaginary dialog to be more explicit in Matador. Maria Cardinal looks at the screen as if hypnotized, forgetting that the bullfighter is on her heels. Shortly thereafter, he enters the theater and, like Maria, becomes captivated by the images of Duel in the Sun. Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck engage in a mountain shootout showdown in the gut-wrenching finale. Pearl (Jones) is a good shot, but has also been wounded by Luke (Peck). She struggles to crawl towards him in order to join their lives in a last eternal kiss… In Matador, unknowingly, the lawyer and the bullfighter are witnessing the anticipation of their own demise on the screen. The cinema as a premonition.


Voyeurs: Peeping Tom  (Michael Powell, 1960) and Kika  (1993).

    Peeping Tom  by Michael Powell opens with an extreme close up of an eye. It is the voyeur movie par excellence. In some sense, it is the very essence of a film, to be seen in the dark. The cinema makes us voyeurs. In Kika, Powell's masterpiece appears on one of the apartment walls of the character played by Peter Coyote. It echoes many of the films I have discussed: Rapture  (Arrebato) by Ivan Zulueta, or even Thesis  (Tesis) by Alejandro Amenabar, where the camera sucks the lifeblood out of what it sees.

    In Kika, there are two voyeurs: Ramon, Kika's husband, and an unscrupulous television journalist named Andrea Caracortada, played by Victoria Abril. Mark, the protagonist of Peeping Tom, wants to film women expressing a sense of fear and death, a precursor to snuff movies. Ramon, a fashion photographer, seeks to capture the pleasure in models' faces at the moment of sexual ecstasy. He photographs Kika when they make love, as if his memory were not enough to remember. Mark and Ramon, two men suffering from twisted professions, are both immature and are burdened by heavy family scars.

    Andrea Caracortada, the second voyeur of Kika, is much more dangerous than Ramon. Andrea is capable of killing or being killed to obtain the most atrocious shots for her morbidly trashy "Worst of the day" television show. In the film by Powell, Mark is his own cameraman; in Kika, Andrea hosts, directs and provides content for her television program. She is a full-time woman-camera, a soldier of information, who always wears a camera fixed to a high helmet. I have a weakness for movies that take place in film studios, in the post-synchronization room, editing tables, and places where the characters attend a screening, or project their own movies on a white rectangle mounted on a wall. The screen is the only fetish I confess to, the white screen. In Peeping Tom, there is all this and more. Half a century after its release, it has retained not only its power, but the proliferation of eye-cameras everywhere has made the Powell film a completely current artifact. We have never looked through the lenses of cameras as much as today, and we have never been more spied upon than now.


The cinema of actresses, the cinema about actresses: Opening Night  (John Cassavetes, 1977) and All About My Mother  (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999).

    The presence of Opening Night  in All About My Mother  is absolutely non-subliminal: I practically outright steal a film sequence from John Cassavetes. The first time I saw Opening Night, I was so impressed that the screenplay of All About My Mother  carries traces of it, a fact I've never hidden. The stolen scene is where the son of Cecilia Roth asks diva Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) for an autograph, and then is fatally run over in the street. From that point on, my film takes a very different direction, but I admit that initially, it was Cassavetes who inspired me.

    Both films are about actresses, like All About Eve  by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, cited in the credits. In All About My Mother, there are actresses who appear on stage and women who perform; even if they are not actresses, they can achieve this without looking ridiculous. Women have a special ability to produce illusions, at least in the area where I grew up. But it's by hiding things that women of my hometown- a village of La Mancha - have avoided many tragedies.

    Opening Night  is set far from the Mancha and talks about theater life, about an alcoholic actress in New York, on the edge of insanity on the premiere of her play. I have already discussed my fascination with everything having to do with filming and everything related to the different ways of watching films, of cinemas and television screens. This fascination can also be applied to the world of theater. The screenplay for me is like a screen or a blank page. And the actors, always the actors, are the main vehicles of the story. Cassavetes constructed a story about the vicissitudes of theater people without compromise, far from convention. He knew the world of the theater from the inside and ruthlessly describes its environment. Like Bergman, he submits his own personal memory to an incessant examination. This refusal of complacency combined with a great stylistic rigor gives his film impressive power. The diva is not beautiful; she is a woman shattered into a thousand pieces. The author of the play is mean and petty. The director himself has limited patience and abandons Myrtle- the greatest character ever played by Gena Rowlands, alone with her own demons.


Eyes Without a Face  (Les Yeux sans visage, Georges Franju, 1960) and The Skin I Live In  (La piel que habito, 2011)

    Although the masterpiece by Georges Franju and my modest movie contain common elements - a mad doctor, masks, a faithful accomplice and multiple skin grafts - I didn't have Franju's film in mind when I wrote the screenplay. The Skin I Live  is a free adaptation of Mygale, the novel by Thierry Jonquet. What interested me most in the book, and what I kept - I'm not a very faithful adapter - is the vengeance of the doctor and his original and terrifying plot of revenge: to change the sex of the man he thinks raped his daughter.

    When I was writing the film, the human genome, cell therapy, genetic modification, etc. were being discovered. These scientific advances transported a story that began in science fiction into the field of reality, or at least into a world that was possible. Since writing the script was long, it allowed time for face transplant medicine to advance - Spain is a pioneer in this domain - and in a Spanish laboratory, a culture of synthetic skin became a reality. The practice of genetic modification on human beings is prohibited, but it is scientifically possible. All these discoveries on the brink of a new humanity represent the very essence of The Skin I Live In, and none of them are found in Mygale or Eyes Without a Face. But it is clear that my film evokes Franju's and I recommend you see it. After fifty-five years, Eyes Without a Face  is still a masterpiece, simple in its complexity and narrated with an amazing capacity for synthesis. It starts with a perfect scenario – written by Boileau-Narcejac, the duo who also wrote, between 1955 and 1960, Clouzot's Diabolique  and Hitchcock's Vertigo, based on the novel - highlighted by impressive black and white photography, devoid of sensationalism. The final scene where Doctor Génnesier's daughter (turned into a sort of ghost from the start) is finally free like the doves she has liberated and retreats peacefully into the forest - carries a lyrical and poignant illusory strength. The viewer deserves to experience this scene, after a story that combines suspense and horror with a touch of melodrama. Ultimately, it is simply the story of a father capable of destroying himself so that his daughter may recover her lost face.

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