FILM / Making a clean breast of the matter: Ripeness is all: Adam Mars-Jones on outrageous glamour and glorious tat in Pedro Almodovar's Kika

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The Independent Culture
Pedro Almodovar is the master confectioner of contemporary cinema, and his new film Kika (18) is a great sticky bull's eye. He surrounds his characters with tawdriness and tat, dresses his women in tangerine and sugar-pink and scatters colour over their apartments from a jumbo pack of hundreds and thousands, and still he manages not to patronise them.

He specialises in turning bad taste into good at the last possible moment, or even later. His comedy and tragedy are curiously similar, like milk and plain chocolate, even when he's not swirling them together, as he does in Kika. The simplest way of describing the film would be as a Fassbinder melodrama unaccountably remodelled as a vehicle for Barbara Windsor (actually Veronica Forque, an Almodovar regular who first appeared in What Have I Done to Deserve this?).

Kika (Forque) is a make-up artist, someone with a lot of experience when it comes to putting a good face on things. She is both intensely put upon and intensely resilient. She lives with Ramon (Alex Casanovas), a younger man whom she met in supremely romantic circumstances: she was summoned to make up his corpse, except that he turned out to be in a coma and came to life under the caress of her cosmetics.

Unfortunately, he's not very good in bed, since he's a fashion photographer who can only get turned on if he thinks he's on a shoot. His American stepfather, Nicholas, who lives upstairs, is a much better lover, and perhaps Kika should get round to putting Ramon in the picture about her little consolation sessions with him.

Nicholas, who is a writer, is played by Peter Coyote. European directors seem to take one glance at Coyote and decide he looks like an artist or intellectual. Diane Kurys cast him as an actor playing the writer Pavese in A Man in Love: Polanski cast him as a writer of sorts in Bitter Moon. In both cases the results were embarrassing, but in Kika Nicholas has some decent writing ascribed to him, even if he is also roundly criticised for his lack of insight into character ('Lesbians aren't lazy about personal grooming').

Kika, with her baby voice, her jangling earrings and her endless good-hearted chatter, should be an irritating presence, a sort of superannuated Essex Girl of Madrid, but Almodovar doesn't view her satirically. When Ramon proposes, she points out that she's older than him (to which he answers 'I like older women'), also that she's immature, but that doesn't put him off either: 'I like immature women.' The director seems to share these tastes in some paradoxical way, though he is also serving notice on his audience not to expect a deepening sense of responsibility from him as the years go by.

Three names come to mind of writer-directors whose reputation has been based on handling shocking or highly charged material but who, though gay themselves, have dramatised their preoccupations most successfully by displacing them on to other configurations of gender or desire: Fassbinder, John Waters, and Almodovar. Fassbinder was at his most doctrinaire in a film like Fox and his Friends, where the characters were mostly gay men. Even simply transposing similar concerns on to an all female cast, in Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, yielded much more power and poetry. (In other films, he used different figures of sexual outsiderhood: transsexuals, and those who love across barriers of age or race). In John Waters' films, there are few gay male characters, none of them sympathetic, and his routine stand- in is the deranged transgressive fat woman.

Almodovar, like Fassbinder, has tackled gay subject matter without apology, in Law of Desire, but the results were disappointingly lurid. It's when he tells stories from a female point of view that his sensibility really comes together, as it does in Kika, which combines the film noir plotting of Law of Desire with the breezy fast mechanics of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

It's a shame that the promised Hollywood remake of Women on the Verge, a proposed vehicle for Jane Fonda, hasn't shown up - it would be instructive to see if Almodovar's humour could survive translation into a world of narrower female possibility. Almodovar's camera really does seem to love and celebrate women. In Kika, there is an endless procession of eccentric, imperfect, gaudy and glorious female characters. An odd nose, a stringy neck, hearty clumps of armpit hair: none of these is a bar to glamour and desirability.

The only absolute qualification seems to be ripeness of breast: Planet Almodovar is no place for the flat- chested. Bibi Andersen in a small role as a blonde Mexican displays secondary sexual characteristics so luxuriant you can almost see the price tag. Victoria Abril, playing a hybrid avenging angel and vampire figure, a predatory journalist who presents a television show called Today's Worst (sponsored by Royal Milk - you think I make too much of this breast thing?) has her assets reinforced by a series of Gaultier costumes, one with fake breasts implanted in it, flaunted falsies, another with headlamps in the same place, which provides the lighting when she films with the help of a special camera-helmet.

Any PhD student attempting a thesis on Mammary Iconography in the Films of Pedro Almodovar would have to find a way of reconciling the director's warmth towards his female characters with his ostentatiously dodgy sexual politics.

Breasts being this culture's preferred markers of feminity but also body parts routinely cosmeticised or created, what do they mean to Almodovar? Blood-warm prosthesis, falsies that don't feel cold to the touch? Does his celebration of youthful breasts on ageing bodies perversely represent the priorities of a man for whom, as homophobic criticism would assume, his mother is in some way the only woman?

It's a mark of Kika's general success that Almodovar more or less gets away with that most dismal of cinematic ideas, a comedy rape scene. As the humour of the sequence gets broader, we can almost believe that what is happening to Kika is no worse than most sex. It's odd, though, when the director gets self- righteous about the media's treatment of the attack, as if this was a second and more damaging rape, particularly as the culprit in this case is

a woman.

One thing that is absolutely to Almodovar's credit is that women remain interesting to him when they have (to borrow Danny La Rue's phrase about one of his retirements) hung up their tits. In Women on the Verge, he cast his mother as a television news announcer, which after about 10 seconds seemed a great improvement on the norm. One of the funniest scenes in Kika is of a television books programme hosted by a grandmotherly figure in a red dress with polka dots, who offers her guests chorizo, and warns him she won't read his book because she is diabetic. The Late Show had better look to its laurels.

'Kika' opens tonight; see film list on page 27, for details

(Photograph omitted)