BOOK REVIEW / Depths to Almodovar's cinema of surface: Desire Unlimited - Paul Julian Smith: Verso, pounds 11.95

Nick Caistor
Tuesday 12 July 1994 23:02
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DESIRE is definitely a squirm word for us Brits. We can just about manage love, if domesticated, and sex if protected. But desire, with its unpredictability, its instinctive force threatening to bring all order crashing down, is too much to take. And it is at the centre of the 10 films made by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, whose latest offering, Kika, has just opened here.

Almodovar's production company is in fact called Deseo SA, or 'Desire Limited', , and this drive for gratification is what most disturbs the critics of films such as The Law of Desire or Tie me Up] Tie Me Down]. Almodovar repeatedly portrays the overwhelming urge for sexual fulfilment as escaping our control, with violence and death the almost inevitable consequences.

At the same time, as Paul Julian Smith notes, Almodovar uses juxtaposition of plot and situation to both comic and disorientating effect. Although the tendency outside Spain has been to try to tame Almodovar's message by dismissing him as 'zany' or 'outrageous' - to reduce his work to the level of the saucy postcard - the absurdity which is one of the most engaging aspects of Almodovar's comedies can be seen as also having a profoundly serious intent.

This, Paul Smith argues, has been more recognised in Spain, where Almodovar's work is seen to be an exploration both of the new capabilities of women - released from the role of compliant mothers and wives, as recommended in works of the Franco era such as the Women's Encyclopedia - and of the challenge to men of these women, as well as that presented by other men.

Paul Smith argues that to identify Almodovar with an exclusively gay perspective is too simplistic. What is most important for Almodovar, he says, is an assertion of freedom that rejects all easy identification with any one cause.

The term used in the book for the state of grace when world and desire fuse together is jouissance. Paul Smith, Professor of Spanish at Cambridge University, is not only an attentive spectator of Almodovar's films, but an avid intepreter of the latest schools of criticism influencing academic discourse in Europe and America.

Discourse is another of those words almost guaranteed to bring pragmatic Brits out in a rash, but in this work the combination of ideas from post-modernist theory, gender studies and 'queer aesthetics' is illuminating. Whereas in an earlier book by Paul Smith, The Body Hispanic, the application chapter by chapter of a different recent thinker to the work of a number of Latin-American authors seemed artificial, here the author uses his erudition brilliantly to probe at the depths hidden behind Almodovar's cinema of surface.

In keeping with this approach, the author also examines original scripts, publicity material, and reponses by critics in Spain and elsewhere. These extra insights lead the author to suggest that Almodovar is attempting to reassure a larger heterosexual audience that they are in no danger from rampant homosexual desire.

What is lacking from this resolute post-modern analysis is any sense of the past. Almodovar's cinema of desire is surely part of a tradition in Spanish film that began with Luis Bunuel and L'Age d'Or more than 60 years ago. But apart from this missing dimension, Desire Unlimited is a thoroughly stimulating approach to an inventive, sophisticated film-maker, whose 'own passion without limits', is 'the love of cinema'.

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