Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
The Spanish enjoyed a brief window of willful promiscuity during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the country plunged into a countercultural epoch known as La Movida Madrileña where the shackles of El Caudillo’s fascism fell away, the country’s economy flourished and the Spanish were faced with creating a brand new culture. Much like a teenager getting his driver’s license, the Spanish embraced this new freedom, dabbling in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, a decade later than most of their Western European cousins. Director Pedro Almodóvar emerged from this epoch, soon to be cut short with the emergence of AIDS. Of all his films, perhaps his sophomore effort Labyrinth of Passion (Laberinto de pasiones) (1982) best captures the frenetic mayhem of La Movida Madrileña.
Almodóvar, now a beloved fixture in international cinema, started his career filming what were essentially LGBT screwball comedies. In Labyrinth, Sexilia (Cecilia Roth) is a nymphomaniac pop star who falls for gay Riza (Imanol Arias), the son of the Emperor of Tiran, a fictitious Middle Eastern country. Throw in Sexi’s gynecologist father, a young Antonio Banderas as gay terrorist after Riza and a dry-cleaner who is bound and raped by her father and what you have a premise that sounds like a John Waters flick or a twisted suspense film.
But Almodóvar knows how to make the horrible hilarious and poignant. While his later works would take a more serious slant, Labyrinth is nothing more than a confection filled with orgies, poop jokes and even a synth-laden, straight from the ’80s musical number called “Suck It To Me” featuring Almodóvar himself in drag.
Although Labyrinth of Passion is a much more sophisticated and bigger budgeted film than his debut Pepi, Luci, Bom, it did not garner the same feverish following or critical raves as his debut. Critics cited uninteresting leads and the film’s loosely connected episodes as its weaknesses. Although, Labyrinth of Passion is definitely not up to the standard of his best films, you can see the germination of his ideas before they completely congealed.
Almodóvar often deals not only with duality but the significance of one event that affects multiple characters. In Labyrinth the same childhood incident sets not only Sexi on her path to become a nympho but pushes Riza towards his homosexual nature. This is something played out time and time again in Almodóvar’s work, whether it be a shooting accident in Live Flesh or a car crash in Broken Embraces. But this idea has not yet fully gestated in Labyrinth of Passion and merely plays as a fascinating coincidence.
Labyrinth of Passion, as is much of Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is the distillation of many years of film history. Combine the bright Douglas Sirk melodramas of the ’50s with some cross-dressing and you reach the giddy core of innocence inherent in so many of the director’s films.
The protagonist in Broken Embraces, Almodóvar’s latest, directs a silly film-within-the-film. It looks just like Almodóvar’s earliest works which still stand as important documents of a slice in Spain’s history when the grips of tyranny fell away and life became one big, belated party.
by David Harris
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