The Almodóvar Project: Pepi, Luci, Bom
Released in 1980
A young Pedro Almodóvar makes a cameo alongside his muse, Carmen Maura. Screenshot from Pepi, Luci, Bom.
The first time I'd heard of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar was during the furor over his 1990 movie, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, when the sexual undercurrents of the film — okay, and a bathtub scene involving a naked woman and a wind-up toy — led the Motion Picture Association of America to give the film an X rating. This, along with a similar ratings controversy over Peter Greenaway's brutally absorbing The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, led a number of movie fans and critics (most notably including Chicago critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) to campaign for an adult rating that could be used to distinguish such films from mere pornography.
The logic behind the campaign was simple: Most newspapers refused to allow advertisements for X-rated films to run in their movie sections, as the X rating inevitably meant hardcore sexual depictions. While the X was once accessible to Hollywood — the early-70s film Midnight Cowboy saw both wide theatrical release and no advertising difficulties despite bearing the dreaded letter — the subsequent proliferation of pornography, combined with the MPAA's neglect in registering the rating for trademark (unlike all the other ratings) had resulted in the X rating being abandoned to the mountain of sleaze with which it had become synonymous. A new rating, this time trademarked like all the others and restricted to films with legitimate adult content, would allow breathing room for movies with legitimate storytelling value that nonetheless were presumably too strong for teenagers... or so the argument went.
The MPAA eventually relented, and the NC-17 rating was born. Unfortunately, the few films released under this new rating, most notably Philip Kaufman's entrancing, Vaseline-lensed Henry and June, found their distributors no more able to advertise in most newspapers than could the makers of Debbie Does Dallas. Bluenose puritanism won the day, as it seemingly always did in those days.
In the Phoenix area of my youth, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was thus restricted to a brief run at the local arthouse cinema, the Valley Art Theater in the college town of Tempe, Arizona. I went to see it along with my friends and, while the sexual subtext of the film was wrapped in a heterosexual anxiety consistent with the sensibilities of the main character, there was still enough of an oddball sensibility to the film to leave me curious about Almodóvar's other work. I managed to get my hands on a videotape copy of the director's artistic breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and later saw such films as High Heels and What Have I Done to Deserve This? after moving to Tucson, but I wouldn't get the chance to really explore Almodóvar's back catalog until moving to Seattle in 2000, where I discovered the amazing Scarecrow Video and its ocean of good, hard-to-find-anywhere-else DVDs.
Where I'd previously been just a fan, Scarecrow's collection made me a Pedro obsessive. In the following years, I went out of my way to acquire copies of, well, virtually all of Almodóvar's films. (I'm still missing his second film, Labyrinth of Passion, as well as the aforementioned High Heels, and the director allegedly has a new film out this year, Julieta, which I've yet to see.) So after a six-year break from producing criticism of any kind, what else could I write about? Hence The Almodóvar Project, in which I intend to review every Pedro Almodóvar film in my possession, in order, once per week. If I somehow manage to get my hands on region-one copies of the two films currently missing from my collection, they'll go in the mix as well, but with seventeen movies already on the list, I'm not exactly worried that there isn't already enough on my plate.
Fair warning: Each of these reviews will contain spoilers for the film under consideration. This review will be no exception.
The titular Pepi, Bom and Luci. From left to right: Carmen Maura, Olvido Gara and Eva Siva.
Before beginning with Pedro Almodóvar's cinematic debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom, I should probably offer a few words about our director. Born in a rural Spanish town in 1949, Pedro was sent off to a religious boarding school in Western Spain at the age of eight. He found himself more interested in the town's local cinema than in being a priest, and in 1967 he left for Madrid to learn how to make films. Alas, this was during the era of fascism, and after Francisco Franco closed the National School of Cinema, Almodóvar worked for the Spanish phone company Telefónica and pursued his artistic activities after hours. He acted in local theater and sang in a glam-rock parody duo, and wrote under a pseudonym for a number of publications.
You can get a longer version of all of this from Almodóvar's Wikipedia page, of course. It's where I've cribbed the above, which is the minimum information necessary to explain the origins of his first movie, Pepi, Luci, Bom. The film grew out of a short comic-book story called "General Erections," a sociopolitical satire that Pedro wrote for the semi-underground magazine El Víbora in 1978. Almodóvar was persuaded to try adapting the story for film by two of his theatrical cohorts, Carmen Maura and Félix Rotaeta, both of whom would go on to raise money for the film and thus become executive producers for the low-budget film as well as taking major roles as actors.
While Pepi, Luci, Bom was the director's first widely-distributed theatrical release, it wasn't quite his first film — Almodóvar had experimented with eight-millimeter film for years, making a number of shorts and even a full-length film (Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Tim, 1978), followed by the ten-minute short Salomé before attempting to turn "General Erections" into a proper, 16-mm movie. I happened to have seen Salomé, so I can sort of describe to you the level of craftsmanship that Almodóvar had attained at the time: Salomé was fucking awful.
The opening shots in Pepi, Luci, Bom, it must be said, give no indication that it's likely to be any better than Salomé, but if you stick with it, you begin to learn why its director was still able to make films after its release. Pepi, Luci, Bom contains all the ingredients of Pedro Almodóvar's directorial style, his storytelling tropes and filmmaking philosophy, and by the time it reaches its conclusion, you can even see the director find his footing after a shaky start in the first reel or two. It's a better film than the last two paragraphs I've just written might lead you to believe.
Introducing Pepi, dressed in girl-next-door drag as the film opens.
The film opens with a hand-drawn credits sequences, set to the music of Little Nell's one-hit-wonder hit "Do the Swim": You may recall Little Nell from her turn as Frank N. Furter's sidekick, Columbia, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's the first of what will become a long line of well-designed opening sequences for Pedro Almodóvar's films, albeit on a micro-budget this time out. The credit sequence fades to an apartment building, then a slow pan across a series of planters with tiny marijuana plants peeking over the tops, before we pull back to reveal Pepi on the floor of her small apartment's living room, pasting photos into her Superman scrapbook as a man knocks angrily on her front door. She gets up and opens the door to reveal the Policeman — we never learn his name, so he's just the Policeman — who follows Pepi into the apartment and begins threatening her over the pot plants on the balcony. She tries to deny what they are, to no avail.
"It's drugs," he sneers. "You must think I'm soft in the head."
"Speaking of head," she smiles, lifting up her skirt, "how do you like my little pussy?"
The Policeman adjusts his collar nervously. "From here it looks... scrumptious."
Having attracted the Policeman's attention, Pepi tries to bargain her way out of being arrested, hopefully while giving away as little as possible. She's a virgin, after all, and has no intention of giving it up to this obvious sleazeball. Her offer to let him take her from behind, however, is crudely rebuffed by the Policeman, who promptly proceeds to rape her.
Cue title card:
You can't really discuss Pepi, Luci, Bom outside of the context in which it takes place, two years after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, and Spain's subsequent transition from a literal fascist-police state to the uneasy and long-overdue beginnings of democracy. Understand: Franco seized power before Adolf Hitler seized Poland, and one of his early acts as Generalissimo was to invite the Nazis to bomb the holy hell out of the small, defenseless village of Guernica, turning it into a town-sized firestorm and murdering most of its inhabitants in the process. Franco survived World War II because when compared to Hitler and Mussolini, he just didn't look like as much of a threat. He wasn't invading anyone, after all... just terrorizing his own people. Spain lived like this for nearly forty years.
When this film was made, Pedro Almodóvar was one of the leading lights of La Movida Madrileña, the countercultural movement growing from the ashes of Franco's Spain. I don't know enough about the times and circumstances to tell you much about it, and don't trust the Wikipedia entry enough to do more than give it a quick link, but the divisions between a dark past and an uncertain future on display in Pepi, Luci, Bom are deep enough that you don't really need to know much more than that. The Policeman may occasionally be played for laughs in this film, but it's the sort of gallows humor that can only come from people who've genuinely spent much of their lives having to watch the shadows for monsters who happily sided with Nazis, once upon a not-to-distant time. Monsters like the Policeman.
The other side of the title card finds Pepi in a completely different persona, both in terms of her look and her attitude: sophisticated haircut, low-cut sequined top, rubber pants, a grim look on her sharply made-up face. In Pepi, Luci, Bom, one of the biggest differences between the people of the past and the people of the future lies in their awareness of the personae that they project. For the former, for people like the Policeman and (as we'll see) his wife Luci, the clothes that they wear are literal extensions of the people that they've become, but the fact that this might have been a choice on their part has completely escaped them. By contrast, the latter have learned to use their personae like armor, as a form of social defense, a means to communicate not just who they are but who they'd like you to think they are at a given moment.
For decades, the people of Spain, and especially the women of Spain, had been policed for signs of abnormality to a degree that would have shocked even the most conformist of 1950s Elks Lodge members here in the States, and images they presented of themselves were no more than the products of culture and circumstance. The ability to step outside these lines and recreate oneself as one sees fit, regardless of how alien the choices compared to what had come before, was new to post-Franco Spain — new to the greater culture, to those beyond the marginalized sphere of queers, whores and perverts, anyway — and it runs like a dividing line through Pepi, Luci, Bom.
Of course, one shouldn't discount the power of simple continuity errors from a first-time director. When we next see Pepi, immediately following the previous shot, she's spying on the Policeman and his wife, Luci, on the street between their two apartment buildings. This time, Pepi's in street clothes: jacket, more sensible top and sunglasses. Oh, and her hair has changed again. Luci and her nameless husband are dressed as their respective social roles: Luci's outfit is particularly housewife-sexless.
Now cut to: Pepi walking down a sidewalk, then up a set of stairs and into a building. Once again, Pepi's jacket has changed into something more colorful, the cut of her top has lowered a bit, and we can now see that she's in jeans and thigh-high, high-heel boots. As Pepi enters the building, we cut to a hallway. She enters opposite us and in silhouette, walking down a corridor lit only by open doors along the way. As she passes us, the screen goes completely black. When we can once again see clearly, it's because Pepi has opened a door on a rock-and-roll band in rehearsal and stepped into the room. Pepi sits down to watch the band play, one leg confidently propped up on a chair armrest as she opens a fan and waves it into her face.
Not even five minutes have passed, and we've seen her transform from pigtails to low-cut sequins to streetclothes and on to rocker chick. Pepi is in flux, and her persona changes every time you look at her. Given Almodóvar's later films, I have to assume that this is at least mostly intentional.
The band practices for an upcoming gig, with rhythm guitarist Bom on the left.
The band practices — they could be any generic new-wave band of the period, but let's not forget that what merely serves as one generation's adoption of a new and contrary identity to what came before in the United States serves as something radically different in the New Spain. Hell, both the singer and lead guitarist could've stepped out of a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video. For the purposes of this film, we are officially among freaks.
We also get our first look at teenage punk rocker Bom, the band's rhythm guitarist, Pepi's pal and the third in our triumvirate of main characters. Man, Bom looks bored. As for the band: whatever. The lead singer's dance moves are awkward and posed, like he was trying to be Mick Jagger for the first time, having only seen Jagger once on video. You must be this white to dance like our lead singer! The music is competent but generic. Every band you no longer remember appearing in Urgh! A Music War sounded like this band.
At the end of the song, everyone takes a break, and Pepi uses her plants to bribe the band into kicking the cop's ass, despite the fact that they don't look capable of kicking anyone's ass. Seriously, Callista Flockhart has thicker arms than these guys. Nonetheless, we cut to a nighttime shot, with our heroes in an alleyway forty or fifty feet from the Policeman, who drunkenly stumbles down the street. What follows is the first genuinely well-shot sequence of the film, as the band, now dolled up in full New Romantic garb, gaily sing their way down the street toward the Policeman, surround him, and proceed to beat the shit out of him. Later, we return to Pepi's apartment, and the band gets their plants.
Done and done... save that this is an Almodóvar film, which means that its time for the first take on what will come to be one of Pedro's favorite moves: the utterly absurd plot complication that dares you to take it seriously, for no other reason than that it's fun to inflict things like this on both story and audience. To wit...
Hahaha, it's twins, suckers! And they beat the wrong one up!
The next day, Pepi sees the Policeman and Luci in the street, and realizes that the wrong guy got his ass kicked, which begs the whole "revenge" question yet again. This time, she decides to take a crack at Luci, and hatches the beginnings of a scheme that at first glance seems to make no sense, mainly because it doesn't make any sense.
Luci runs into a friend on the street and describes what just happened to her brother-in-law. Looking on, Pepi wonders aloud how to worm her way into Luci's confidence, before settling on the sweater Luci wears like it's the most obvious thing in the world. Luci and her friend, meanwhile, spend enough time establishing that said friend is hot on the brother-in-law to set up a rape scene later in the film. Spoilers! Pepi then "accidentally" runs into Luci, compliments her on the very bland and seemingly store-bought sweater, leading Luci to note that she made it herself, whereupon Pepi convinces Luci to give her knitting lessons.
Almodóvar will eventually become a much better screenplay writer, but for the purposes of the first half of this film, I'm afraid you'll just have to take my word for it.
Title card, next day, knitting lessons and more generic dialogue, as Luci tries to teach Pepi how to knit. As with much of the first half of Pepi, Luci Bom, the clothing and cosmetic choices work better than plot and dialogue: Pepi's hair is in a bun and her clothes work very hard to convince us that she'd never be caught dead in a slutty, low-cut top covered in sequins, while Luci is still in full-on Mrs.-Cleaver-on-Valium mode.
It's here, however, that actress Eva Siva begins to deploy her strategy in portraying Luci: When Pepi gets exasperated and slaps her, Luci quietly displays a subtle spark of personality in her eyes. It's at this point that Pepi realizes that Luci is a closeted sexual masochist. By all rights, the script itself hasn't offered remotely enough in the way of clues for such a realization, but Siva somehow manages to telegraph enough physical code for Pepi's leap of imagination to seem less ridiculous. It's no fluke. Throughout the film, Siva gives an understated yet flawless performance, portraying Luci as a shy sexual fetishist who slowly gains confidence in herself even as her personality represses outward displays of exactly such confidence, forcing the viewer to read very carefully into her mannerisms to pick it up. The subtlety of Eva Siva's acting chops crept up on me in Pepi, Luci, Bom. it's an impressive piece of work.
Enter Bom, and the beginning of Pepi, Luci, Bom as a coherent and engaging work.
Indeed, it's probably no accident that once our three female leads finally start sharing screen time with one another, Pepi, Luci, Bom not only starts becoming a better film, it starts recognizably becoming a Pedro Almodóvar film. Before we get to the golden shower scene, therefore — yes, there's a golden shower scene coming up, and relax, I'm not going to give you a screenshot of it — but before all that, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room and talk about John Waters.
The surface-level comparisons are inescapable, especially when discussing early works. We're talking about (A) openly gay directors who (B) deal with outrageous people doing outrageous things on (C) the tiniest budgets imaginable. Yes, there are similarities. Both directors made better movies after discovering that shock value alone wasn't enough to carry a picture. Indeed, because he came later and had the luxury of Waters as an influence, fledgling director Pedro Almodóvar in many ways did low-budget John Waters better than John Waters did when he didn't have a budget. He was certainly better at framing a shot. But once you get below the surface, the worldviews of the two directors differ in fundamental fashion, particularly over that most homosexual of subjects, the diva.
Unlike Waters, Almodóvar isn't trying to parody divadom — he worships his heroines too much to allow for ironic detachment. Waters' heroines, particularly Divine, Mink Stole and their various stand-ins, are too broadly comic to serve as actual people, whereas the comedy in Pedro's film comes from the fact that his heroines, for all their adaptability in the face of weirdness, are still ordinary human beings faced with extraordinary circumstances.
Furthermore, Almodóvar's grasp of the logic and mechanics of soap opera gives his women more room to play with the archtypes they inhabit. His sense of storytelling, while not limited to the language of telenovelas, is unabashedly informed enough by them to be able to lift their better emotional beats and storytelling shortcuts without being comsumed by the tics and clichés that come with them. Melodrama, the emotional pornography so essential to working-class women's storytelling, is completely absent in Waters' work. Consequently, Almodóvar's dramatic, passionate women have a depth and grounding that Waters has never really figured out how to grasp, even with the aid of such superb actresses as Kathleen Turner and Tracy Ullman.
Since I'm skipping lightly over the whole "golden showers" thing, instead here's Bom as she feeds Luci a booger.
Mind you, none of this is to say that Almodóvar doesn't spend the first half of Pepi, Luci, Bom trying fruitlessly to match John Waters in shock value, and so we come to the golden showers scene. Briefly: Bom shows up at Pepi's place to have a quick pee, and Pepi introduces her to Luci. Bom is intrigued, but still needs to pee — at which point, Pepi suggests that she pee on Luci. She does and Luci enjoys it, finding herself thoroughly smitten with the punk-rock teenager. (Bom, meanwhile, manages to affect an air of nonchalance throughout the scene, and only starts to show mild interest in the older housewife after the fact.)
Remember what I said a while back about Pepi's plan for revenge not making any sense? It's basically this: Pepi introduces Luci to her friend Bom, a teenage lesbian with something of a fetish for fortysomething women like Luci, at which point Bom sweeps Luci off her feet and steals her from the Policeman. Now, Pepi knows nothing about Luci, had in fact not even met Luci when she hatched her little plan, but thanks to the again-not-really-supported-by-the-script revelation that Luci's a closet masochist, the plan works. This isn't a Pedro Almodóvar move, it's a John Waters move, and it just doesn't feel right.
Anyway: As the scene closes, Bom invites both Pepi and Luci to a party being thrown by her bandmates at the home of an old, rich queer. Luci is reluctant at first, but eventually agrees to go. (Pepi, of course, agrees readily.) Luci returns home and is confronted by her husband over her deviation from everyday routine, prompting Luci to... well, not so much lie as play artfully loose with the truth, and while it's something of a novelty for her, she discovers that lying to her husband comes easier than she might have expected. Again, Eva Siva conveys this through inflection and body language, giving a fairly stock scene surprising dramatic heft.
Bom helps her bandmates prepare for the party, but Almodóvar quickly shifts to what surprisingly becomes the weirdest thing about this film: a running monologue from a bearded woman who lives across the street, which will be intercut with the party scenes. I don't want to spend too much time discussing it, but I want to point it out for no other reason that the bearded woman is portrayed by future Almodóvar collaborator Cristina Sánchez Pascual, who's fun to watch as she chews up the scenery in the course of her work. There's no reason whatsoever for her character to be in this film, mind you, but still: fun to watch.
Director Almodóvar (left) cameos as the MC of a penis-measuring contest, with Pepi (right) as judge.
And so to the party. As we'll see, we're still in John Waters' shadow, and will be for a while yet, but with the plot largely dispensed with for a while, it's here that Almodóvar allows himself to stretch out and deal with the characters for a while, and in the process spend the next hour discovering his voice, his artistic sensibility and how to translate both to the big screen.
First, however, there's the second of Pepi, Luci, Bom's big Waters-esque bursts of strained weirdness, as the party's entertainment turns out to be a dick-measuring contest. Taking a cameo role as the MC and looking disturbingly like a John Oates impersonator, Pedro himself takes to the stage to announce the "General Erections" contest, in which "the guy with the biggest cock, the most slender, enormous, perfect cock, will be named King for the night, and can do whatever he wants, however he wants, and with whoever he wants. Does everyone agree?" The crowd cheers its assent, and the contest is underway.
Here we get to another significant difference between early Pedro Almodóvar and early John Waters: Waters would've shown us the cocks. Hell, Waters would've actually shown Bom's genitals as she pissed on Luci in the previous scene, and not left enough leeway that it was obviously a crude special effect. But that's just John Waters. As it is, we see Pedro from behind the row of male contestants as he performs his measurements and calls them out, the offending members hidden behind buttcheeks poking out over the tops of slightly lowered pants.
The winner declares that he'd like a blowjob from Luci, who's sitting in the back of the crowd cuddling with Bom. "Go on. Eat before it gets cold," says Bom, nudging a surprised (and somewhat pleased-looking) Luci. Waters would've had Luci bounce up in an orgy of overacting, but director Almodóvar plays the scene for gentler if equally bawdy humor. End party sequence.
Scene from one of Pepi's panty commercials.
From here, the focus of the film begins to move away from stock outrageousness in favor of character interplay leavened with a sly sense of cultural parody. Luci's rich parents decide to cut her off, leading her to apply for a job in an advertising agency. Soon she's writing commercials for a line of panties that promise to absorb bodily emissions and double as sex toys. Luci and Bom move in together and settle down to a stable dominant/submissive relationship. Bom's band performs onstage. For a long stretch of the film, the only truly shocking thing occurs when the Policemen, now sans wife, takes the opportunity to impersonate his twin brother and rape that friend of Luci's with a thing for said brother, a truly discomforting scene that firmly establishes him as the film's villain — which turns out to be necessary to give Pepi and Bom's final confrontation with the Policeman a genuinely emotional punch to the gut.
(I'd love to be able to offer some sort of kind words for Félix Rotaeta's twin roles as the Policeman and his brother, but I really can't. It's not that he doesn't do everything asked of him by the story, so much as that the story never asks him to do all that much. His Policeman is a one-dimensional villain, evil enough to represent decades of cultural repression but never depicted as being himself insurmountable in any way. Rotaeta does what he's asked to do and does it well, but it never amounts to anything.)
Mostly, though, principal actressses Carmen Maura, Olvido Gara and Eva Siva are given the opportunity to stretch their wings a bit and inhabit their characters more fully. I suppose it's inevitable that Maura takes the most advantage of this. It's in this film that she establishes herself as Almodóvar's principal lead actress, a role that will culminate in her star turn in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In Pepi, Luci, Bom, Maura is the plucky heroine amused by the perversion around her, a woman buffeted by life but never thwarted by it, essentially creating the Almodóvar leading lady that we'll be watching for the next thirty-five years.
Olvido Gara's Bom is a more difficult character to crack. All though this review, I've found myself willfully attempting to avoid comparing her to Hopey Glass, the diffident, enigmatic punk-rock chick from Jaime Hernandez' seminal "Locas" series of stories for the groundbreaking comic-book anthology Love & Rockets. In Gara's case, it doesn't entirely seem an act: Better known under the stage name Alaska, she was a genuine punk rocker in the vein of Siouxsie Sioux, and went on to a long and fruitful career. She was fifteen years old and already a working musician when she began filming Pepi, Luci, Bom, and her performance is by turns laconic, sardonic and occasionally even soulful. Had she been given the opportunity in 1980 when the filming of this movie was concluded, she would've made a perfect Hopey.
And with these words, Carmen Maura articulates Pedro Almodóvar's artistic philosophy on film for the first time.
Again, though, the real star turn of Pepi, Luci, Bom belongs to Eva Siva, whose character undergoes the most drastic arc of the three, from mousy housewive to willing submissive to a quietly confident, modern woman who knows what she wants despite the extremity of her desires. She's the active agent in triggering the film's climactic scene — I know I said there would be spoilers in these reviews, but I've decided to avoid giving away the conclusion here. It's a genuinely wrenching scene, from out of left field yet surprisingly consistent with the events leading up to it, and it leaves each of the three principal female leads transformed.
That the ending does indeed pack such a punch is perhaps the most surprising thing of all about Pepi, Luci, Bom. There's really nothing in the first third or so of the film that might lead one to expect that it would manage to stumble its way toward any kind of satisfying conclusion. Almodóvar's first movie starts out as a shallow retread of various John Waters tropes, but then finds its heart halfway through the story and ends with a scene of friendship transformed by circumstances that stay true to the exagerrated outrageousness forged early on, an ending that becomes up genuinely gripping because the characters involved have developed with the film — as has Almodóvar himself.
Pepi, Luci, Bom is a deeply flawed film made on a shoestring budget in trying circumstances, and yet enough of its participants' hearts and souls wind up on the screen to pull the film above its limitations. It's a neat trick, and it made the rest of Pedro Almodóvar's career possible.
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