Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
Approaching a well known director’s first films isn’t always enviable. For every debut like Citizen Kane, Breathless or Bad Boys, there are about a dozen mediocre, forgettable ones. More often than not, these first films are interesting for hints of where the director would go in his greater work. Almodóvar’s 1980 debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom is not unjustly neglected. It is crude, amateurish and scattered, but it also contains virtually all of the trademarks for which he would come to be known. He is nothing if not consistent in his characters, situations and themes.
Born in the provincial Spanish town of Calzada de Calatrava in 1949, Almodóvar was educated (and molested) by priests, a subject he revisits in Bad Education, was inspired by cinema and eventually found his way to Madrid, where he worked for a telephone company and fell in with other eccentrics and free spirits. Following the death of the long ruling dictator Franco in 1975, there was a burst of freedom and creativity, of which Almodóvar was a part. As Gwynne Edwards writes in her book about his films, Almodóvar: Labyrinths of Passion, “The inspiration for Pepi, Luci. Bom was, to a large extent the world in which Almodóvar moved in the late 1970s-the world of the movida with its pop singers and rock groups, its painters and its drag queens.”
He had no formal training as a filmmaker, but acquired a Super 8 camera and began making shorts, which included two stories from the Bible and a film bluntly called Fuck…Fuck…Fuck Me…Tim. About this early foray into filmmaking he said, “Everyone joined in, because the most important thing about the Super-8 films was that people should have fun.” ‘
Without knowing much about Almodóvar, you’d think he was merely a provocateur whose tales of sex and violence are meant to shock a prudish, bourgeoisie audience. His 1990 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was famously slapped with an NC-17 rating in lieu of an X. And while there is that shocking side to him, he also has a generosity of spirit and a true affection for his characters that underlies even the most outrageous situations.
Pepi is certainly his worst looking film, something not helped by watching it on an old VHS copy (it’s unavailable on DVD). It opens with bold, comic book colors and, for anyone who has seen a few of his films, it’s almost instantly familiar. Compared with his more nuanced, mature films, like Volver, it’s also shamelessly, gleefully bawdy. There’s sex, of course, a penis size contest (presided over by Almodóvar himself), rape, public fellatio, bad language, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and urinating. Yet it’s not presented as titillating so much as celebratory.
Pepi is an attractive, free spirited woman, played by Carmen Maura, who would be in many of his ’80s films. She lives in a tiny apartment decorated with superhero pictures and in the opening scene, a policeman, who looks like a cross between Christopher Lee and Philip Roth, comes over to her house because he spied marijuana plants on her balcony. She tries to flirt her way out of it, but he ends up raping her, which Almodóvar presents in an almost light way, as he would in Kika. The intertitles inform us “Pepi was thirsting for revenge.” She befriends Luci, a mousy, long-suffering wife to the brutish, boorish policeman, who is macho and obnoxious, much like the husband in his later What Have I Done to Deserve This?. The third woman of the title, Bom, sings in a glammy punk rock band. Pepi introduces Luci to Bom and tells Bom, “Piss on her.” And Luci likes it! They soon commence an unlikely sadomasochistic relationship.
There’s not much else to what is a loosely structured film more concerned with character and outrageous moments than narrative and depth. The policeman has a twin brother who is mistakenly beaten up while the assailants sing, and the policeman later poses as his twin to seduce a woman who has a crush on him. Pepi starts to work in advertising at one point and there are some very funny faux-ads about women’s products, including a product that turns farts into perfume. There are some musical numbers from Bom’s band and Luci, now “liberated,” is assaulted by her husband, but because she has a taste for such things, she goes back to him. He never really gets his comeuppance, which is a mild let down. The film ends with Pepi and Bom, a little disappointed, but essentially undefeated and optimistic, talking about “a new life.”
If it feels like the kind of movie a bunch of friends decide to make together, that’s because it mostly was. Almodóvar began filming in 1979, but struggled for financing and it wasn’t released until September of 1980 to mixed reviewed. Gwynne Edwards rather generously calls is “one of the classics of art-house cinema.” It announced a new talent, but it’s hardly the most auspicious debut, often feeling like John Waters with a Latin sensibility and eye for fashion. For fans of Almodóvar, it’s interesting for its relationship to his later films and for the embryonic elements of his style and content. There’s the camaraderie of women, sympathy for outsiders and oddballs, an exuberant, campy tone and a satiric take on mainstream society. Both Luci and her husband seem like parodies of stereotypical Spanish husband and wife; she dutiful, diligent and uncomplaining, he masculine, arrogant and prone to complaining about “too much democracy.” Although ultimately Pepi is not very good or very entertaining, it does contain the seeds of Almodóvar’s style- it’s a signpost on the way to much better things.