When a subtitled film gets a wide release, I’m always torn between elation that it is going to be more widely seen and a terrible fear that there will just be two of us in the multiplex screen. The other possibility is that people will see it and loathe it. I wondered if this might be happening with Pedro Almodóvar‘s new film. It was a strange experience watching it in Hebden Bridge Picture House where it seemed to go down very well (Hebden is a very interesting and diverse community) and then to head home to discover that on IMDb it had a 5.7 rating and several damning reviews. Checking the box office figures, it has actually done OK business with £750,000 in the UK after three weeks – down on Almodóvar’s recent titles but a good result for a subtitled film. I can only assume that the poor IMDb response (mirrored on Rotten Tomatoes) is some kind of conservative backlash.
The film’s English language title refers to the Pointer Sisters’ song from 1982 which for me marked the high spot of the film. The Spanish title may be untranslatable but means something like ‘In-flight lovers’. At least this makes more sense than the using the song title. I felt that the film was a familiar camp, transgressive farce that contains some satirical elements but which was fundamentally humanist and actually quite sweet. Reading the coverage in Sight and Sound (May 2013), including a short piece by Almodóvar himself, I think that there is a general agreement about the comedy but some variance over whether the effect is satirical, melancholic or ‘light’.
The plot involves a passenger aircraft with malfunctioning landing gear that must circle losing fuel until a suitable runway can be prepared for a crash landing. In the meantime the crew attempt to divert the business class passengers with booze, drugs and a song. The economy class passengers have all been drugged/tranquilised so that they sleep through the proceedings.
Most commentators see the film as a throwback to the early Almodóvar of the 1980s and there is certainly something reminiscent of his 1987 hit Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK at least was a breakthrough film. However, I do wonder if some of those critics who attack the new fim so savagely have actually seen any of the director’s earlier 1980s work (let alone his 1970s 8mm output). Almodóvar’s current status derives mostly from the success of his mainstream melodramas/thrillers in a sequence that began with Live Flesh in 1997 and which includes the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999). It is the audiences that discovered the director through these films that is probably ‘shocked’ by the new film.
I think that the key to enjoying the film is to take it at face value as a farce, to try not to compare it with any recollections of the earlier work and certainly not to worry about any kind of ‘social realist’ commentary. Some audiences seem to have real problems with questions of sexism and other forms of moral judgement. That way madness lies in an Almodóvar film! After the screening – and perhaps after a second screening – it might be possible to analyse what the director is suggesting through satire. Spain is clearly in a mess with a banking crisis, an economy in meltdown and dangerously high levels of unemployment. The aircraft is circling above Central Spain without a landing strip ready to receive it safely when it crashes. The ordinary people are unaware of what is happening and their leaders/the rich don’t know what to do and are trying to run away to Mexico instead. Of course one of them is a banker and one of his failed schemes involves an airport that has been built but never used . . . The others have personal stories that can be exposed and possibly brought to some form of conclusion through healthy doses of sex, drugs and music. Almodóvar cites Hollywood screwball comedies as his inspiration, adds a touch of Busby Berkeley and pays hommage to Luis García Berlanga. Berlanga was one of the great Spanish directors of the 1950s and 1960s, creating satirical works that evaded Franco’s censors. I have fond memories of his satire on Francoist attempts to woo the Americans in Welcome Mr. Marshall! (¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!) made in partnership with Juan Antonio Bardem in 1952. In a tiny cameo at the beginning of the film, Almodóvar’s two biggest stars launch the film narrative in an unexpected way and then severalof the main players in the farce turn out to be familiar Almodóvar actors Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother), Lola Dueñas (Talk to Her etc.), Javier Cámara (Talk to Her, Bad Education) etc. – I’m sure there are plenty more in what is a ‘family affair’.
So, enjoy first and think about it afterwards!