Almodóvar and Maura: The story of a breakdown

Harriet Marsden

Harriet Marsden on the complicated relationship between the director and his first muse, Carmen Maura

30 September 2018 12:00

Thirty years ago, a romping black comedy of love, loss and barbiturate-spiked gazpacho propelled an unknown Spanish director to international acclaim: Pedro Almodóvar. Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, 1988) starred Carmen Maura as Pepa, a pregnant woman frantically chasing a lover who has abandoned her.

Almodóvar is now considered one of the only great cinematic auteurs of the Eighties, and arguably the greatest Spanish director, known for his long collaborations with leading ladies – while Maura, his first great muse, is all but unknown in the English-speaking world.

But it was this actress, already well established in Spain at the time, who helped Almodóvar make his first film and inspired his earliest representations of women. It came with a cost: Mujeres made them both internationally famous, but also destroyed their relationship. They would not work together again for 18 years.

In the late Seventies, the young Almodovar became associated with an independent theatre company, Los Goliardos, taking a small part in a production of Satre’s Les mains sales, in which Maura played the lead. As he told Frederic Strauss in their series of interviews, ‘Carmen was the star and I was the meritorio, the new boy, the one who works for next to nothing and who has to prove himself capable.’ He’d spend hours in her dressing room, watching her prepare for the show and tell her his stories.

Maura, in turn, was so fascinated with the young director that she helped him secure funding for his script, Erecciones Generales (General Erections), even offering her own money. That script would become his first feature film, the wild punk-rocking Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980). And with Maura at the helm as Pepi, the independent badass on a mission for revenge, the film achieved cult status in Madrid.

‘Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)

She would go on to star in four out of five of his next films, most notably as a transsexual actress in Ley del deseo (1987). The only film not to feature Maura was Laberinto de pasiones (1982), a Billy Wilder-esque comedy – and a commercial flop.

As Spain celebrated its newfound democratisation, and Barcelona became increasingly isolated by Catalan separatism, the formerly shabby Madrid was coming into its own. Almodóvar was established as a pioneer and personification of La Movida Madrileña – the pseudo-mythical explosion of culture and casting off of Francoism after his death in 1975; a carnival of new trends in fashion, art, film and sexual freedom, with a dose of British do-it-yourself punk rock, which provided the soundtrack for the drugs subculture.

The adjective Almodóvarian came to be used for when things got just a little too crazy. But, if he was the hurricane, Maura was the eye. As he himself said, it was ‘Maura who discovered me’. And it was Maura’s performance in La ley del deseo that would provide the inspiration for Mujeres. Almodóvar enjoyed her interpretation of Tina so much that he decided to make Mujeres as ‘an overdose’ of Maura. Tina performs a scene from Jean Cocteau’s play La Voix Humaine, speaking to her lover on the phone, and while Cocteau is still present in Mujeres, as Pepa frantically phones her ex-lover, it is more of a Georges Feydeau-esque farce; a camp homage to boulevard sex comedies.

Mujeres was Almodóvar’s breakthrough, catapulting him from underground radical to international darling. He was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Bafta, among others; feted as the new Fellini, the new Fassbinder, the heir of Buñuel. It established what would become some of his most recognisable tropes: tension between public and private spheres, artistically crowded mise-en-scenes, intertextuality and sexual shenanigans, to name a few. But the film undeniably owes some of its popularity to Maura’s ‘heroic’ efforts in the promotional campaign.

‘Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)

But, Almodóvar said, ‘Our relationship became impossible for personal reasons… it has something to do with the intense way I work with actors. My relationship with Carmen entered non-professional areas. It caused us both a great deal of pain.’

He might be an openly gay director, but he is known both for his love of, and pathological closeness to, women. While neither have ever discussed the specifics, he explained that, as the director, he is a symbol of power, but also personally implicated. ‘This can produce very good work, although as in Carmen’s case, there can be complications.’ He called himself a ‘dangerous director’ – ‘I become whatever my actors need at the moment – lover, father, mother. When the shoot is over I separate, and this can be difficult.’

Did he abandon Maura, like Ivan does to Pepa? No longer the meritorio, but a star in his own right, itching for Hollywood? Impossible to say; impossible not to wonder. But despite a very public – some might say performative – gesture of reconciliation with her at the Goya ceremony the following year, when he was forced to present her with the Best Actress award, and although he maintains that they resolved the situation three or four years later, they wouldn’t work again until 2006.

How strange it must have been on the set of his next film, ¡Átame! (1990), when Mujeres co-stars Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma and Maria Barranco (and even supporting actress, the delightful comedienne Loles Léon) all found themselves reunited – without Maura. Instead, they starred alongside the much younger Victoria Abril (a Hepburn-esque heroine, all doe eyes and dimples), Almodóvar’s next screen love.

‘Volver’ (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

The film was significantly less successful than Mujeres, as audiences (particularly American) were quick to misunderstand what they saw as the glorification of sadomasochistic violence in the Stockholm Syndrome love story. If anything, the film suffered for coming after Mujeres, not only because of the break with Maura, but because audiences were now expecting more of the same.

Maura eventually reappeared in the critically adored Volver (2006) – but as a much older actress, conceding the spotlight to Almodóvar’s latest muse, Penélope Cruz. Volver means ‘to return’, and Maura’s character Irene literally returns from the dead, first as a ghost, and then revealed to be a woman faking her own death, on the run from the violent crime against her philandering husband. Compared to the exaggerated sexuality of Cruz – Almodóvar literally had the actress pad her bottom to accentuate her curves – Maura appears almost unhygienic in her lack of grooming and vagrancy.

Perhaps Irene is the imagined future of Gloria, the downtrodden housewife protagonist in Almodovar’s ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? (1984). Gloria (played by Maura) accidentally kills her cheating husband in an argument, with a blow to the head from a leg of lamb (an homage to Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’). Had Antonio survived that blow and continued his infidelities, Gloria might have eventually been driven, like Irene, to set her husband on fire.

For her performance in Volver, Maura would again earn a Goya award – but as Best Supporting Actress, next to Cruz’s Best Actress (and an Oscar, no less). It was perhaps some comfort that Maura’s Almodóvarian return was more hotly anticipated in Spain than that of Cruz, who since a supporting role in Almodóvar’s Todo sobre mi madre (1999) had been languishing in some critically-panned Hollywood films of the early Noughties, like Vanilla Sky, which had earned her nothing but Raspberries.

Carmen Maura, Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz

Volver might have been Cruz’s return to Spanish language cinema, but it is Maura’s return that brings them all to triumph. Almodóvar said Maura entered his mind when he was writing the moment that Irene’s ghost appears, and it changed everything he had written. ‘I thought, this was the story I was looking for.’

Mujeres remains one of Almodóvar’s most popular, and one of the highest grossing Spanish films of all time – it even became a Tony-nominated musical, featuring the great Patti LuPone. Although it is seemingly one of his most conventional works, a 1930s-style screwball comedy without the more subversive elements of his Eighties films, it appeals to both high and low culture aficionados, with its Frank Tashlin aesthetics and nods to Hitchcock and Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957), particularly in the iconic opening title sequence.

It functions as a postmodernist parody of Hollywood melodramas, but also baits the audience with its eternally gripping themes of passion, desire, pursuit – the hunt – and survival. Because, above all, this is a film that celebrates female triumph and solidarity.

The phrase ataque de nervios (translated as ‘a nervous breakdown’, but with connotations in Spanish of a traditionally female psychological state, associated with hysteria), might raise eyebrows today, risking criticisms of regressive stereotyping, but it is precisely in his ironic subversion of the ‘hysterical woman’ that Almodóvar shows his sympathy.

Pepa has been nearly driven to the brink by Ivan, but she ultimately prevails. With the wonderfully delivered line: ‘I’ve had enough of being good,’ Pepa does a complete about-face, throws the phone out the window, Ivan’s suitcase off the terrace, drugs the policemen with her famous gazpacho and accidentally sets her own bed on fire. And in letting Ivan walk away at the end without telling him of her pregnancy, after she has saved his life, she chooses independence.

Where the film opens with ‘Soy infeliz’ (‘I am unhappy’), an old Mexican song sung by Lola Beltran, it ends with La Lupe’s ’Puro teatro’, an ode to the hypocrisy of men, playing over a scene of burgeoning friendship between Pepa and the sexually liberated Marisa, who has just lost her virginity via an unforgettable dream orgasm. The women might have come to the very verge of a nervous breakdown, but ultimately, they triumph. If, as one critic wrote, the film functions as Almodóvar’s love letter to post-Franco Spain and cinema, it is also a love letter to women – and to the woman who made him a star.

Harriet Marsden works for The Times. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.