How Pedro Almodóvar Turns Self-Plagiarism Into an Art Form
"Pain and Glory" rehashes the same themes and scenes he's been returning to for years—and that's part of its genius
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Writing about oneself is a process of rewriting one’s life. You filter your raw experience to make it funnier, or raunchier, or more melancholy—or, if you’re Pedro Almodóvar, all of the above. The Spanish director has long pilfered his own life for his films, and in his latest one, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), he’s crafted an autobiographical portrait that’s particularly entrancing because of its familiarity. Indeed, Pain and Glory easily caps off a trilogy that began with 1987’s Law of Desire (La ley del deseo) and continued with 2004’s Bad Education (La mala educación). All three films center on openly gay filmmakers struggling with creative impasses who find in their male muses new ways of thinking about their past and present desires.
But these films, unusual in Almodóvar’s woman-fronted oeuvre because they focus on male characters, don’t just cannibalize the director’s life. They also lift shamelessly from each other. With each successive attempt at telling (a version of) his life story, Almodóvar has found himself revisiting scenes and moments anew. Over three decades he hasn’t just told the same story over and over again. He’s refined and refracted it, making each iteration a self-plagiarism so flagrant that one cannot help but notice just how much he relishes quoting his own work. Here’s a case of a writer looking back at his early career and taking on the challenge of reworking its themes, characters, and storylines. And rather than eliding the way he’s aping himself, he’s made such self-looting all too evident, making those kinds of quotations central to how these recent narratives exist.
Growing up in rural Spain, Almodóvar has said that he always felt wary of the Catholic education imparted on him by the priests at his school. Instead, he found the nourishing lessons he needed in Hollywood. And if his films are any indication, all he’s ever wanted is to give his memories the sheen of the silver screen. In the early ‘80s he began that project with an obvious (despite Almodóvar’s claims to the contrary) alter ego called Patty Diphusa, the star of a newspaper periodical he wrote intermittently for Madrid’s Diario. Patty was a symbol of the underground circles Almodóvar himself belonged to in the 80s (at a time when, as he writes, “We had no memory and we emulated everything we loved, and enjoyed doing so”), and eventually she became a template for many of his characters. When he released Kika in 1993 he actually published a conversation between the film’s titular character and Patty, who was undeniably her predecessor. Outraged over being rewritten for a new decade, Patty wondered what it meant that scenes from her own life had been recreated to give life to Kika: “Could it be that I’m getting older, or could it be that Pedro is repeating himself, as he grows old as well?”
The answer, of course, was that both things were true: she and Pedro were getting older and yes, Pedro would continue to repeat himself. A small scene about organ donation in Flower of my secret turned into the premise of All About My Mother; a movie poster in Bad Education later became a reality when Almodóvar shot I’m So Excited!; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown served as the real-life inspiration for the film-within-a-film “Chicas y maletas” being shot during Broken Embraces. In every instance, he gave his scenes new depth. And no selection of films shows this more clearly than the journey from Law of Desire to Pain and Glory, which anchored their plots in Almodóvar’s autobiography. The earlier film stars Eusebio Poncela as a filmmaker who creates sexually explicit movies where naked young men moan “Fuck me!” to the camera at the behest of an unseen film director. But Almodóvar filtered his own childhood through another more colorful character: Pablo’s trans sister Tina (Carmen Maura). In one scene set at an otherwise empty church, Tina begins singing along to the song a priest is playing on the piano, prompting him to tell her she reminds him of a young boy soloist from a long time ago. She shocks him by admitting that she and the soloist are one and the same. Relishing the chance of having caught the priest off guard, Tina regales him with the many memories she hasn’t been able to shake off, telling him there had only been two men in her life—the priest and her father—both of whom had abandoned her. Despite the way her dialogue hints at having been the victim of sexual abuse, she’s almost wistful about how she thinks of her childhood, a sentiment that rankles the already uneasy priest. And so when he urges her to find her way back to God (and to banish those memories, like he has), Tina utters a line that may well serve as an Almodovarian thesis: “I don’t want to run away from them. My memories are all I have.”
The Spanish director has long been open about the abuse he witnessed at his Catholic school (“They also tried it with me but I always escaped,” he shared on the eve of Pain and Glory’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. “There was a priest who always put his hand on me in the playground so I would kiss it, I never did it, I always ran away. We were very scared.”) In the hands of Maura’s Tina, this traumatic event is, in true Almodovarian fashion, made all the more outlandish. Maura’s darkly comic and almost flirtatious delivery bluntly gives voice to the abuse Almodóvar witnessed but frame it as far away from him as could be conceivable. For a boy who grew up idolizing strong-willed women in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Splendor on the Grass, the choice to map his own experience onto an equally fabulous diva like Tina/Maura wasn’t just obvious but seemingly necessary. Here was Almodóvar realizing the thrill and promise of storytelling, the chance to rewrite one’s own life and using its own discomfiting reality to create a colorful narrative that shed light on the darker corners of his childhood. To do so, though, much as he had done with the character of Patty Diphusa in the early ‘80s, the director chose campy female characters that grounded traumatic encounters in absurdist comedy bits: this was drag as autobiography.
Drag hinges not just on exaggeration and broad humor but on borrowed gestures and quoted lines. It has been through female characters (ones whose very femininity was overly performative) that Almodóvar has explored some of the most recurring themes in his work. With Patty’s stories Almodóvar approached desire through the chaotic energy of a sex addict, one who constantly had to find where her own limits lie. In one story, Patty meets a young man her age called Juan Félix. After he goes down on her, Patty discovers a photo in his jacket that features two young schoolgirls—one of whom is Patty herself. That’s how she learns Juan used to be Adela, her old classmate who had decided to transition just to be able to seduce Patty. Those who have seen Almodóvar’s Bad Education can immediately recognize that the plot for that 2004 film is a combination of that Patty story and Tina’s confrontation with the priest in Law of Desire. Fascinated by these moments which had queered childhood memories colliding with the present, Almodóvar framed Bad Education around the ways we tell stories from our youth so as to rewrite them.
In the early scenes in Bad Education we see a beautiful drag queen called Zahara (Gael García Bernal) picking up a random guy who’s seen her act in a nightclub and taking her back to her motel. When the guy is unable to keep his erection up, Zahara decides to rob him, stopping only when his wallet reveals him to be her old middle school crush, back when Zahara was a young boy called Ignacio. This sparks memories of the Catholic school where Ignacio met Father Manolo, who’d loved his singing and who’d clearly favored him above all his classmates. Zahara decides to confront Father Manolo after all these years in order to face the childhood trauma she’s had to deal with for so long. What in the 1987 film had been a mere monologue is fleshed out in vivid scenes at the Catholic school. And, yet again, we get a moment of righteous confrontation between a grown-up Ignacio/Zahara and Father Manolo. Where Maura’s Tina was content with merely conversing with her former “lover,” Zahara wants revenge: she’s written out a story that lays out all that happened between the two and is all too happy to stay quiet—for a price. That short story, titled “The Visit,” was in itself a piece Almodóvar had written years earlier and which he’d dusted off for Bad Education after first borrowing its plot line for Tina’s brief church scene.
In his most autobiographical film to date, Almodóvar took that short story and gave it yet another twist. By the time Bad Education wraps up, we learn that the scenes at the Catholic school as well as all the scenes featuring García Bernal as Zahara have been not flashbacks, as we’d been led to believe. Instead, they were filmed recreations that make up a film within the film. Enrique (Fele Martinez), the Almodóvar stand-in, has been directing. Ostensibly an adaptation of Zahara’s short story, the movie was also based on Enrique’s own relationship with Ignacio when the two were schoolmates who’d sneak off to the movies. This kind of labyrinthian metafictional aspect merely reinforces the way that, in Almodóvar’s world, memories are always already screened: they are always remakes, retouched and reframed for newer audiences. Even as we believe we’re getting an unvarnished look at Almodóvar’s own childhood in rural Spain, he’s offered only a twice removed recreation of it, a reminder that in his films nothing is ever original.
Pain and Glory hinges on a similar conceit. On its surface the film follows Salvador (Antonio Banderas), an aging Spanish director known for his cheeky 1980s comedies, who finds himself reminiscing about his childhood in rural Spain as he reconnects with not one but two men from his past. Set at a house that’s a near replica of Almodóvar’s own and with Banderas wearing Almodóvar’s own clothing, Pain and Glory doesn’t shy away from the autobiographical trappings of its central character. One of the earliest memories of his we see on screen is a young Salvador being asked to sing for a priest, hearing in voice-over how he soon became the choir’s soloist. Those familiar with Tina and Ignacio/Zahara will see here unmissable parallels. But if Almodóvar has yet again returned to his Catholic school days, it is not to tell a story of abuse.
In Pain and Glory Almodóvar skips through whatever happened between his young protagonist and the priest and lingers instead on a bond the young Salvador shares with Eduardo, a dashing handyman. Expanding on the queered coming-of-age tale he put forth in Bad Education, Almodóvar gives his young fictional self a moment of sexual awakening that’s as bold as anything he first envisioned with Patty or Tina or Zahara. Eduardo (César Vicente) becomes Salvador’s pupil, learning to read and write at the hands of this preternaturally smart eight-year-old. But there’s also something rather lustful about their relationship; young Salvador sneaks wide-eyed glances at Eduardo, transfixed by the young man’s full lips, broad shoulders, and disarming smile. When Eduardo asks him to sit for an impromptu portrait after he’s done painting and tiling their house, Salvador is flush with excitement. Later still, when Eduardo strips down and washes himself with no regard for the young boy staring at him, Salvador faints. Heatstroke, he’s told, though we’ve seen the way he was struck by Eduardo’s naked body, his chaste desire clearly getting the better of him.
But, as with his 2004 film, those childhood moments are revealed to be recreations, scenes Banderas’s Salvador is now shooting as part of an autobiographical project that makes Pain and Glory feel like an ouroboros of a film. Not only is he revisiting his memories to turn them into art, but he’s revisiting the theme of turning memories into art. To watch his latest film is to see Almodóvar’s career-long leitmotifs outright quoted and recreated, a reminder that creative self-plagiarizing has long been part of his creative arsenal. Moreover, just as in Bad Education and in Law of Desire, Almodóvar has created a character portrait of a gay filmmaker that depends on borrowed and stolen fictions. In the 1987 neo-noir, Banderas’ Ripley-esque Antonio exchange correspondence with a film director asking to be addressed by a pseudonym (“Laura P.”), a name borrowed from a film script, while in the 2004 film, Ignacio’s brother (played by García Bernal) passes off “The Visit” as his own while impersonating his older brother. In Pain and Glory, an old collaborator of Salvador’s stumbles upon a makeshift monologue/journal entry the film director has written and convinces him to let the piece be adapted for the stage. Salvador’s only request is that his name be stripped from it: the actor passes off Salvador’s writing (and therefore his personal history) as his own. In these films there’s always the fear that the fictions we tell about ourselves will become someone else’s. But there’s also the understanding that sometimes borrowed words are necessary to reveal one’s truth.
Almodóvar’s latest film is a melancholy look backwards, not just at his life but at his career—and, specifically, at the ways such backward glances in his work have always gone hand in hand with self-plagiarizing schemes. There’s a sparseness to Pain and Glory that seems to contrast with his baroque previous efforts, but by the time he shows us that half the film has been a film-within-a-film it’s clear this is a seasoned filmmaker polishing another one of his most famous tricks. The journey from Patty Diphusa and Tina to Zahara and Salvador is, on the one hand, a move away from artifice and towards verisimilitude. On the other, it’s a move towards ever more elaborate storytelling that has slowly shifted the focus from outlandish drag impersonators to sensitive young boys; in Law of desire same-sex attraction was violent and volatile, while in Bad Education it was a weapon to be used. In Pain and Glory, it emerges as a palliative balm that serves both the aging filmmaker and the budding choir soloist well. He may have told a version of this tale before, but with age he’s softened its edges and sanded it down to get at its central truth.
Writing about oneself is a process of rewriting one’s life. But, of course, once the writing is done, it means one’s life is nothing but a story, a narrative told and retold, edited and sculpted for consumption. Almodóvar, like many great artists, is obsessed with a small number of issues (desire, filmmaking, gender, Catholic abuse), and with Pain and Glory he’s returned to the one scene his career has long grappled with: the moment when a filmmaker sits down to witness his own queer childhood on the silver screen. There’s a distance now, which nourishes ideas that have gone from mere sketches to full-fledged films. Almodóvar has been turning these stories and characters over like a kaleidoscope, trying different angles, adorning them with ever more stylistic flourishes until he’s finally found yet another way to depict them on screen. He’s gotten closer to telling his own story while making sure the films that encase it remain jigsaw puzzles, obscuring the thin line that always divides fiction from autobiography.
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