Cannes 2019: Almodóvar’s Exquisite ‘Pain And Glory’, Plus ‘Little Joe’
An early scene in Pedro Almodóvar's exquisite Pain and Glory shows a gay filmmaker named Salvador (Antonio Banderas) reminiscing about his childhood. His mother (Penélope Cruz) and her friends are washing clothes and sheets by a river. One of them wishes for a naked man to swim by. The women laugh. Another one cracks a "cooch" joke. And then, as they hang out the sheets to dry, they begin to sing. Beautifully. The earthy humour from earlier gives way to sounds from the heaven. It's classic Almodóvar. It reminded me of the scene by the river in Bad Education, where, similarly, earthiness (the rape of a young boy) was contrasted with ethereal music (Moon River). Pain and Glory is the Spanish master looking back at his life, his career. It's part Amarcord, part 8½, all Almodóvar.
In the present day, Salvador hasn't made a movie in a while. It's a bit of a block, and he appears resigned to it. When a friend asks, "If you don't write or film, what will you do?", he replies, "Live, I guess." But fate or destiny or whatever you call it has other plans. (The evidence of fate playing a part comes towards the end, when a precious painting reaches Salvador almost miraculously, like a message in a bottle.) The Spanish Cinematheque has restored one of Salvador's films, a late 1980s feature called Sabor, which translates to "taste" — this may be an in-joke, for Almodóvar's own films from that period (say, Law of Desire, also featuring a gay filmmaker) were celebrated for their lack of conventional "good taste". Want another throwback? With its mix of childhood flashbacks, death and ghosts from the past, this film could just as easily have been titled Volver ("to go back"), the Almodóvar film from 2006.
Pain and Glory's screenplay unfolds with the warp and weft across time you expect from Almodóvar, and it has a tiny (or big, depending on how you view it) twist at the end
For the big Sabor event, Salvador contacts the star of that film, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). They haven't spoken since the release of Sabor — Salvador was unhappy about Alberto's perpetually drug-fuelled state on the sets and the resulting off-key performance. Now, when the reunion occurs, Alberto is still on drugs. When he unwinds with some heroin, Salvador is tempted to try it, and the hit makes him relax in a way he hasn't in ages. He's old. He suffers from aches and pains (like Almodóvar, I suspect). Almodóvar loves his inserts, and we get an absolute beauty in this movie: a long stretch where Salvador describes his medical conditions, and how he learnt Anatomy and Geography only after becoming a filmmaker (the latter because the job took him around the world and the former because it resulted in ailments in every part of the body). It fits. Anatomy and Geography, Pain and Glory.
Pain and Glory's screenplay unfolds with the warp and weft across time you expect from Almodóvar, and it has a tiny (or big, depending on how you view it) twist at the end. The first half plants the seeds that bloom beautifully in the second, which contains one astonishing scene after another. See how Salvador reunites with his former lover, Federico. See how his reading-writing lessons to a painter pay off. See how he reconciles with his mother, admitting that he's been a disappointing son. Banderas is marvellous in the movie, but this scene in particular made me choke up when his voice breaks just a little, like a dry twig. Even something this autobiographical can become universal. Haven't we all, in some ways, disappointed our parents?
Pain and Glory proves that Almodóvar's talents are intact. They don't scald us like they used to, but instead, envelop us with a gentle warmth
These bursts of emotion don't carry the fervid, freakish energy of Almodóvar's past work — they are gentle, muted. (Most of the "drama" comes from Alberto Iglesias's brilliant score.) With the underrated Julieta, I think we can begin to mark this director's "mature" period. Death is all over Pain and Glory: the death of a professional relationship, the death of a personal one, the death of a mother, the death of innocence when a little boy takes an unwitting step into the world of sex. In the midst of all this, what's alive is cinema, the film that has been restored, "resuscitated" so to speak. There's the tendency to see Almodóvar as past his prime, but only the bewildering I'm So Excited supports this theory, and that's just one film. Pain and Glory proves that Almodóvar's talents are intact. They don't scald us like they used to, but instead, envelop us with a gentle warmth. I walked out deeply moved.
Jessica Hausner's underwhelming Little Joe has a sci-fi premise which sounds like a botanical variation on Jurassic Park. Alice (Emily Beecham) is a workaholic genetics scientist, and she's part of a team developing a plant whose scent will make people happy. (Imagine the uses. I walk out of a movie like this one, sniff the plant, and voila, mood restored.) The scientists render the plant sterile, but then, as Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm told us: Life, uh, finds a way. Soon, everyone is infected by the plant's pollen, leading us to expect a series of suspenseful set pieces — but there's none. Perhaps this is Hausner telling us that she is subverting (or above) the Hollywood model of "Nature strikes back" thriller, but what does she offer in compensation? The film is elegantly directed, no doubt, but cool images aren't enough in a Competition entry.