Film: What did I do to deserve this?

Critics said Pedro Almodovar was past it. And sexist. Now they adore him again. So why isn't he jumping for joy?

Pedro Almodovar is looking for an alternative to drugs and alcohol. Buddhism? "I'm too rational." A salon? "No. I'm not welcoming enough." Gardening? "I have a country house, but plants bore me completely." Travel? "There's no situation where I feel more lonely than taking a plane and arriving in a hotel."

We're talking in his production office, El Deseo, Madrid's summer heat almost unbearable. And we're running out of ideas. So what does he turn to in times of stress? "My fingernails," he laughs. "I work. There is that monologue I have with a computer. When I'm very bad, that is my way of... praying, crying to the universe."

Right now, the universe is very keen on that cry. After 13 films in 18 years, the Spanish director's latest film, All About My Mother, has struck gold. He received the Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year to a standing ovation (many critics believed it should have been awarded Best Film). Selected to open the New York Film Festival, audiences and critics worldwide are taking this film to their hearts.

Of course, such universal praise has been hard won. Bursting onto the scene in the late Seventies, Almodovar's early films offered a vision of Spain that fascinated the rest of the world - a mighty kick in the teeth to all the repressive years suffered under the Franco regime. Almodovar's films were bathed in lurid colours and awash with exhibitions of extravagant passions. Anarchic and shameless, his storytelling resonated with a hedonistic poetry all of its own.

His nuns took drugs and had unholy relations with priests. Sex drenched everything, whether it was homosexuality, trans-sexuality or just plain perverse indulgence. He seduced a willing audience with his stories of the bizarre: a woman in a leopard-skin coat urinating on the head of a police sergeant's wife during a knitting class (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on The Heap, 1980), or a man in a feather boa and gold lame stockings suffering the unorthodox use of a Black and Decker (Labyrinth of Passion, 1982).

It was the fuel-injected, high-octane comedy, Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), that brought an entirely new audience to Almodovar's work, as it became the highest-grossing film of 1989, collecting 50 awards as well as an Oscar nomination.

Adulation was reaching fever pitch; girls were rumoured to faint in his presence, even the adjective "almodovariano" entered the vernacular to describe the quirky and the surreal, and Hollywood bought the rights to Women.... Almodovar must have chuckled when he read of Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Whoopi Goldberg scrabbling for the lead role, so astoundingly played by his long-time muse, Carmen Maura.

So far, so fantastic. But the backlash, when it came, was vicious. Almodovar was taken aback by the furious battles with American censors, the critical sneerings and feminist outrage that accompanied the release of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), High Heels (1991) and Kika (1993).

Images of a woman bound and gagged, but eventually falling in love with her captor, or of a woman having sex with a drag-queen impersonating her mother, or of an uncomfortably-long 12-minute rape scene dressed up as comedy, caused offence in these circles. It looked as if the very Madrid he had so lovingly created and found fame through, was threatening to cause his demise. The turn-around began with Flower of My Secret (1995), a gentle love story that critics delightedly hailed as a radical departure in his film-making. They viewed it as a sign of maturity - long overdue. This was followed by the assured thriller Live Flesh. Almodovar fans began returning in droves. And now here is All About My Mother, a beautiful, moving, meditation on the nature of love, loss, grief and motherhood (natural and adopted). All his creations are there, like old friends, a pregnant nun with HIV, a transvestite hooker, and a transvestite father and so too in Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse whose 17- year-old son dies in an accident. Her grief and determination leads her to track down the father he had never known. "For some reason that is impossible to explain, a sort of miracle," says Almodovar happily. It's still a film dominated by women who suffer (as Almodovar once said, "I like women who suffer as a subject"). But, as in his two last films, (Flower of My Secret and Live Flesh) these women have a dignity previously missing from his female roles.

Perhaps this reflects Almodovar's changing relationship with the woman in his life - his mother. In his early years, her presence sounds almost oppressive: "My mother is a very strong character," he says cautiously. "I had to run away if I wanted to be myself." (At 17, he left the constraints of rural La Mancha to escape to Madrid). But his mother has also been an inspiration. "She's very, very funny. She fits perfectly in my stories."

Seeing him today, Almodovar looks a lot younger than his nearly 50 years, and it's hard to equate the muted clothes and slightly chubby features, with his wild drag acts of the Seventies resplendent in fishnets, quilted dressing-gown and slippers. I guess that's what escape from a strong- willed mother brings out in you. All these years later, he's got less to prove.

But not everything has improved with (middle) age. Madrid, for example, appears to have let him down. "I feel it's my home," he says, "but I don't like Madrid. It's like when you've decided to end a relationship and you don't know where to go, so you end up staying with that person, but you really want out." He complains of a dull nightlife, a lack of cultural stimulation. "It's a big problem," he twinkles. "I think the city's changed, but yeah, I've matured and drugs and alcohol don't suit me as well as before. I couldn't work in an altered state. I can't write a line. I'm trying to find another alternative...."

Which is where we came in. Almodovar, it turns out, is dissatisfied with much in his life. "At 50 you have to quit many things," he complains. "But I feel the same as I did 30 years ago. It's frustrating, because I would like to have and to take everything. And now I've got the money for it.... It's like being an orphan," he says quietly, "not having any kind of faith."

Suddenly he demands: "Do I seem sad? I'm not sad. If people read these things it would seem like I should be very sad, and I'm not."

And the conversation returns to work, and his plans for his first English- speaking movie, an adaptation of Pete Dexter's novel, The Paperboy. "It has similarities to Silence of the Lambs and Fargo." And then comes the best plan of all.

"One of the projects I'm working on is writing a very wild comedy which I could sign with another name. Speaking in fashion terms I would like to create a diffusion line like.... Versace, then Versus. I'd be very open about it. But when I use this synonym, it means that I don't want to be treated like Pedro Almodovar. And in that second line I can be a lot cheaper."

He thinks for a moment, then smiles happily. "Perhaps this is the key for me to feel more free."

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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