How to Talk About Movies’ is a fortnightly column by Michelle Wang.In this column, Michelle Wang watches all the latest hit films and breaks down how they can ease the social pressure when you’re in need of conversation.
scenario one: it was a classic scene – the bride on her father’s arm, eyes brimming with tears, floating along in a white confection to the heartfelt strains of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the air laced with the heady smell of roses… fast forward 15 minutes and you’re in the powder room with the bride dealing with some post-ceremony-pre-reception nerves.
Weddings behind the scene are stressful. The bride is on the brink of a minor breakdown – mainly because her father was very very late, and this involved a last minute flurry to find Uncle Bill to walk her down the aisle, you know, just in case her father didn’t make it. All she can think about is his lateness and how this is definitely related to his perennial absence from her childhood. Her clinically diagnosed fear of abandonment is flaring up in full force; her tears of joy have morphed into fretful tears haunted by the deep hurt of yesterday.
As one of her oldest friends it’s time to diffuse, distract and move the situation forward. You wrack your brain trying to think of something, anything else to talk about. When was the most fun the two of you ever had? You remember the one year of university that you both spent in Madrid… Madrid! Sipping on horchatas and carefree afternoons at the local el cine of Los Asturias watching the latest Pedro Almodóvar movie… and you just saw his latest movie set in Madrid: Pain and Glory (2019). Quick, start talking.
Grab her attention with the sizzling stars of the movie: Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas.
You know you’ve got her attention now – Puss in Boots (i.e. Banderas as a suave yet adorable feline hero) triumphs over any emotional breakdown. You know her well. But not to be confused with the present film Pain and Glory, in which Banderas plays a character of a very different ilk that is aging film director Salvador Mallo. Salvador suffers from various health problems that have led to a creative rut and made him too weak (at least in his view) to physically make films. He spends most of his days moping around in his stylish, art-filled Madrid apartment, reflecting on his life, loves and films.
scenario two: no one tells you that wedding receptions can feel like forever – even when you’re on one of the more ‘important’ tables among old friends and family. That’s another thing people also don’t tell you about wedding receptions – the carefully orchestrated hierarchy of table arrangements.
The whole scene is delightful, it really is, but minute by minute… it’s a bit more excruciating to push through with the repetitious conversations about what “so-and-so is up to and who so-and-so is now dating and which so-and-so is moving overseas for work”. After the umpteenth version of this, and after all you are surrounded by old friends, why not throw some more Almodóvar banter into the mix?
Pain and Glory is not Almodóvar’s first film about a gay film director – in fact it fits into a loose trilogy after Law of Desire (1987) and Bad Education (2004). It is also the most autobiographic of the three: Banderas’ hair is styled in a distinctively Almodóvarean blow-out and he wears clothes that look like they’re from Almodóvar’s wardrobe. What’s more is that Salvador’s impeccable apartment is modelled on the filmmaker’s own actual home.
Beyond the film’s surface, Almodóvar’s internal dialogue permeates Salvador’s ruminations. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the filmmaker said: “I’m trying to convince myself I’m talking about a character… But deep down I know I’m talking about myself.” The film does feel very personal, as we spend its entirety exploring Salvador’s inner thoughts and memories. It’s a blended and beautiful fictional reality. We traverse Salvador’s childhood memories in the sun-drenched white cave that is home, the warm love and entrepreneurial spirit of his mother, played by Penelope Cruz, as she tries her best to give her son an education despite their poverty. And now, as the past merges into the present, Salvador reconnects with the lead actor, Alberto Crespo, of his first film Sabor – a humorous clash of personalities that leads to unexpected opportunities.
scenario three: the sentimental and poignant finale of the day’s festivities has arrived, as all the guests gather on the lawn to release lanterns into the sky and send the newlywed couple off with good wishes.
The dark night, illuminated by the poetic glow of lantern light invokes a sense of softness and gentle contemplation. Weddings can be strange and lavish displays of love, but there is something heart-warming and significant about them at the end of the day. It’s a milestone in life, shared with an audience of loved ones – a personal moment, magnified. Funnily, this again reminds you of Pain and Glory: a deeply personal tale from Almodóvar, shared with filmgoers worldwide.
All of Salvador’s memories and reflections resonate with the resounding rhythm of a life’s purpose found in filmmaking. This pulse quickens as the film moves towards its end, when Salvador is finally convinced to stage the confessional text Alberto finds on his computer. Echoing the reflections of Pain and Glory, Salvador’s text navigates the emotional and mental landscape across the scale of his own lifetime- recalling his mother, childhood, a past lover- all framed in reference to the films he has made. Just as Almodóvar makes Pain and Glory from a personal place, so Salvador gives over his text to the audience – which we discover at the very end is the basis for the film that we are watching. It is a brief and fitting moment of revelation as the film’s metatextuality is exposed in these layers: essentially this is a film about a film about films.
Almodóvar himself has remarked that “I’ve now reached the point where film is the only thing that makes me feel whole. Cinema is the only thing I have. It’s finished up being both the end and the means for me.” Although Pain and Glory is about the human loves that shape and remain with one, it is above all an open love letter to Almodóvar’s most passionate and enduring relationship, that is, with cinema.
In 113 minutes, Pain and Glory dives into many of life’s defining moments and chapters. Age, memory, childhood, regret, love, yearning – it’s all there. You sigh, this makes accepting today’s mix of emotions easier – feeling wishful and hopeful for this new life chapter your friend is embarking on; yet you’ll miss her, and you’re also reminiscing about all those afternoon horchatas… cocoa-vanilla-cinnamon scented memories fading into a gold-tinted past that looks ever sweeter from afar. Ah life, movies, storytelling – what a mysterious and magic mix.
And who could resist a moment of sentimentality, surrounded by all these lanterns?