The filmography of Pedro Almodóvar is full of performances. Granted, the filmography of any director is full of performances. Fiction films have actors. That’s how it works. But Almodóvar’s films are about performance. From the very beginning of his career, the Spanish auteur has been obsessed with how we perform our own identities. “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” is about a voice actress. “Broken Embraces” is about a director and his leading lady. “All About My Mother” revolves around the theater, and is a tribute to Old Hollywood divas. Even his newest film, “I’m So Excited!,” focuses in part on the performative aspects of being an airline steward.
What’s he on about? Well, one primary concern is gender. Masculinity and femininity are performed, and in Almodóvar films they are performed with great gusto and variety. He has devoted much of his career to writing characters that blur our preconceived notions of how men and women behave, and who should count as which. This means more than simply casting Carmen Maura as a transgender woman in “Law of Desire,” but becomes a lens through which his films should be viewed.
Here’s a look back at the 10 most memorable and effective moments of performance across a 23-year career. Some are more outrageous than others, but each and every one is a creative way of framing how we perceive ourselves and project that onto those around us.
The Stewards Lip-Sync to The Pointer Sisters in “I’m So Excited!”
Admittedly, “I’m So Excited!” is nowhere near Almodóvar’s best work. It might be his worst, frankly. Yet this central scene is its high point, a shot to the arm of a film that has trouble finding its sense of humor. Javier Cámara, Raúl Arévalo and Carlos Areces almost go over the top selling it, not that such a thing is even possible in an Almodóvar film. Here’s the whole clip with some odd Italian dubbing towards the end:
Caetano Veloso Warbles in “Talk to Her”
“Talk to Her” is a film about watching, and so it’s inevitably all about performances. From the faux-silent surrealist film-within-a-film “The Shrinking Lover” to the stage ballets inserted into the narrative, Almodóvar’s twinned protagonists observe in silence and tears. It’s therefore pretty much impossible to pick a single moment, especially given that “Talk to Her” opens with a performance of Café Müller by the legendary Pina Bausch herself. However, the one that rises to the top is a central moment in both the film and Almodóvar’s filmography as a whole: Caetano Veloso beautifully singing the serene and stunning “Cucurrucucú Paloma” to an audience of familiar faces.
The following clip has been re-edited by a YouTube user – the original is unavailable to watch online.
An Innocent Rendition of “Jardinero” from “Bad Education”
This quietly troubling moment is undoubtedly one of Almodóvar’s darkest uses of music. At the core of the director’s angriest, saddest film is a schoolboy under the thumb of a sinister, lost priest. The young Ignacio, trembling and angelic, sings this short melody all alone for a table of lunching clergymen. When the camera closes in on the man in question we shudder, both in spite and because of the naïve and beautiful music.
Carmen Maura Gets Wet in “Law of Desire”
Music, by the way, is hardly necessary. This moment comes by surprise as Tina (Carmen Maura) walks the streets of Madrid. This brief respite from the dramatic heat of the film is quite literally a cool down. In this film about violence and sexual desire, Tina’s thorough hosing down serves the double purpose of presenting her sensuality to the audience and explicitly performing Almodóvar’s thematic ideas.
Nuns Have Fun in “Dark Habits”
Officially, 1992’s “Sister Act” is not a remake of 1983’s “Dark Habits.” They just happen to both be about nightclub singers on the run who hide in a convent and teach people how to perform. That being said, Almodóvar’s version is much more rough and bawdy. The nuns do drugs, train tigers, and plenty of other fun things I won’t spoil for you here. What I will show you is the triumphant musical finale, a very clearly lipsynched example of glitzy, fabulous kitsch.
Penelope Cruz Sings (sort of) in "Volver"
Equally obvious as a fake is Penelope Cruz mouthing the words to “Volver (Return)” sung by Estrella Morente. One might assume that we’re supposed to just buy into it and pretend the actress is the one with such great pipes, but Almodóvar is often trickier than that. Regardless of whether you can suspend your disbelief, however, Cruz’s performance is at least emotionally convincing in a film that so revolves around its title concept.
A Screaming Contest in “The Flower of My Secret”
There isn’t much to this one, but it’s a personal favorite. The protagonist of “The Flower of My Secret” is Leo, a very successful romance novelist who is desperately sick of writing about romance. Her frustration manifests in a number of ways, but the way that Marisa Paredes sits with a splitting headache while watching a televised shrieking contest is among Almodóvar’s cleverest and brashest juxtapositions.
Agrado Tells It Like It Is in “All About My Mother”
“It costs a lot to authentic, ma’am, and one can’t be stingy with these things. Because you are more authentic when you more resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” Agrado steals the show, Agrado steals the movie, and Agrado is perhaps the single best example of Almodóvar’s open, witty and expansive take on performance.
Prison Choreography in “High Heels”
This is charming, catchy, and fabulous. It’s dancing in prison, and Bibi Andersen is the living end. That’s all I’ve got.
Pedro Does Drag in “Labyrinth of Passion”
And, finally, the ultimate in YouTube discoveries. “Labyrinth of Passion,” Almodóvar’s sophomore feature, is still near-impossible to find in the United States. Its most ridiculous moment, however, is right online in HD. Here’s Pedro himself, in drag, ostensibly improvising a song on the spot over a funky beat from the DJ. It’s magnificent.