High Heels (Tacones lejanos)
Spain (1991) Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
Mostly in films about fractured relationships, it is a woman getting in between two men – but this is an Almodóvar film so naturally this situation is inverted, AND the two women in question just happen to be mother and daughter, which is just the tip of a very tricky iceberg.
Famous torch singer Becky del Páramo (Marisa Paredes) is returning home to Spain after 15 years away in Mexico, greeted at the airport by her adoring daughter Rebeca (Victoria Abril), a TV newsreader for a privately owned station. Things have been a little fraught between the two since Rebeca has always wanted her mother to notice her but Becky would put her career first.
Becky is determined to reconnect with her daughter, a task made more complex when she learns Rebeca has married one of Becky’s former lovers Manuel (Féodor Atkine), the owner of the TV station Rebeca works for. However Manuel has filed for divorce and, despite having an affair with news sign reader Isabel (Miriam Díaz Aroca), he wants to sleep with Becky again who refuses. Then a month later Manuel is found murdered.
You know that this won’t be a straightforward murder investigation with Almodóvar at the helm of the writing and he doesn’t betray the reputation that precedes him – and this is not restricted to the fact that the official in charge of the case just happens to also be a drag queen whose act is a tribute to one Becky del Páramo!
If this had been written by anyone else the idea of a drag queen magistrate would suggest a farcical comedy or perhaps something from the members of Monty Python, but in the hands of Spain’s prominent purveyor of the grandiose and colourful female drive dramas, this becomes almost an incidental aside and simply just another part of the film’s overall exuberant esoteric fabric.
Actually I am probably getting ahead of myself here as well as inadvertently dropping a huge spoiler with the revelation about drag queen Letal and Judge Eduardo Dominguez (Miguel Bossé) being the same person, but while his false beard may convince the cast, including Dominguez’s hypochondriac mother (Mayrata O’Wisiedo), but it doesn’t fool the viewers, which may be the point in teasing us as to where this tale is going.
With Manuel’s death not occurring until well over 30 minutes into the film, we may well find ourselves asking this question long before Dominguez makes his first appearance. Prior to this we are in firm familiar Almodóvar territory with a heavily verbose series of vignettes to establish the relationships and lay the foundation for the plot. Whilst Rebeca is waiting at the airport, flashbacks to her childhood reveal scenes her mother has forgotten.
There are initial hints of something Oedipal about this mother-daughter relationship, with Rebeca trying her hardest to get Beca’s attention and replicate many facets of her life, beginning with wearing the same earrings as a child to the obvious unsettling statement of marrying one Beca’s cast offs. It is left to our own judgement as for whom we feel the most concern, but Rebeca gains an early advantage on that front.
You know that this isn’t going to be that creepy or objectionable (even with a baffling 18 certificate) but Almodóvar likes to take us to the edge of our expectations before playing his trump card. Ideally it should come in the immediate fallout of Manuel’s murder, which takes a few uncomfortable twists and turns, but there are other distractions which push themselves to the fore instead.
Part of what drives the audience interest in the characters is that neither Beca nor Rebeca seem to be able to read the other as to what they are feeling; in fact this leads to frustration from the many near misses that are incurred as a result, when the truth would have avoided this. Obviously this is where the basis for the melodrama is formed, but as the layers of the truth are revealed, the rationale feels less convincing.
Ironically it is the murder mystery that weakens this aspect of the story, flitting back and forth between mother and daughter as to who is the culprit, and while it is ambitious for Almodóvar to try something different, it soon becomes a crutch to make the fissure between the principal players a decidedly hysterical affair, especially when Isabel is ruled out of suspicion immediately.
A rare misstep for Almodóvar but not irredeemable thanks to the raw emotion that compels Rebeca and the stunning performances from Victoria Abril and Marisa Paredes in providing the film with its most powerful punch. One of many two-handers between the two has Rebeca describing the plot of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata to her mother which reflects their own situation, a little meta nod for viewers who spotted this influence.
Serving as the prominent male is Miguel Bossé as the chameleon like Letal/Dominguez a true man of mystery, single handedly representing some of Almodóvar’s favoured tropes whilst defying expectations in one go. Bossé was better known in Spain as a pop singer so his casting helped draw attention to the film. Also in a small role is a young Javier Bardem.
Being the auteur that he is, Almodóvar laces this film with his trademark touches – bright colours (mostly red), black humour, seemingly incongruous musical numbers, a singular song of great personal importance for one person, and overt sexual confidence. The dialogue is typically garrulous, maybe not as witty as some of his other works, delivered at breakneck speed by the cast with the usual fiery Spanish aplomb.
High Heels comes at a transitional point from the garish 80’s to the cynical 90’s, setting the scene for the director’s future lauded classics over the next decade. It is pure Almodóvar but not prime Almodóvar. It’s a well-made film, with the usual top quality ingredients present but is perhaps a tad undercooked for its own good.