HIGH HEELS (TACONES LEJANOS) (Spain, 1991) *** 1/2
Enfant means "child" in French. Why then do we still call enfant terrible certain revolutionary or shocking artists when they're no longer young? Think of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, or closer to our time, England's Ken Russell (b. 1927). Is it because those people's work, lifestyles and self-promotion had an eduring youthfulness? Whatever the reasons, enfant terrible sounds right with some names though not with others. I suppose the criteria are like those of the judge who could not define pornography but knew it when he saw it.
Pedro Almodovar (b. 1951) is the enfant terrible of modern Spanish cinema with his odd, anarchic, lurid movies, his mix of melodrama, camp humor,provocation and sexuality. Openly gay, Almodovar must be the filmmaker of detente, since, with equal bounciness, he deals with all sexual persuasions.
"High Heels" revolves around the kind of parent-child relationship that has been such Hollywoodian fodder since Nickelodeon days. Becky Del Paramo (Paredes)is a self-centered pop star of stage and screen, married to a lout. Her daughter from a previous marriage, Rebecca (Abril) feels neglected, but loves Mama and loathes her stepfather. When the latter dictatorially orders her to stay in the kitchen (those were Franco days), the precocious Rebecca, then 12, causes, undetected, a fatal car accident. But she gains nothing. Her widowed mother, the career-oriented Becky, takes off on a world tour and forgets about her child.
After a 15-year absence, aging but still sought-after, the Lauren Bacall-ish Becky (note the diminutive of the name) comes home to Madrid, and, incidentally, to the Rosanna Arquette-ish Rebecca (note the "adult" name).
Now 27, Rebecca is a TV news anchor, ill-married to the station owner Manuel (Atkine), who used to be her mother's lover. We're in an an ocean of Freudisms, complexes, conscious and unconscious revenges.
Rebecca, in an outrageously inventive Almodovarian stroke, has been seeking a maternal presence of sorts by attending the shows of her best friend, Femme Lethal (Bose), a female impersonator of Becky in her prime.
What follows is too complicated to detail and too juicy to reveal. Almodovar's imagination, febrile and fertile -- to the point of gaminess sometimes -- is for sure as wild and woolly as David Lynch's ( "Blue Velvet" , "Wild at Heart").It is in the general tradition of the German melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder--but with Spanish zip instead of Teutonic dourness--and along the lines of movies made by Fassbinder's model, Hollywood master soapsmith Douglas Sirk--but without Sirk's slickness.
Almodovar takes additional nutrients from the overflow of Hollywood lore, on-screen and off, like the murder of Lana Turner's lover, Johnny Stompanato by Turner's own daughter. He adds to those a postmodernistic irreverence, not without resemblance to Robert Altman's "The Player" or the films by the Coen Brothers.
Sex permeates the movie. There is, early on, a memorable, unexpected, funny, and acrobatically erotic scene between Rebecca and Femme Lethal. It comes right after a scene of parody twice removed, in which a trio of Lethal's devotees mime right along his/her own imitation of Becky.Shades of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" !
Then the movie becomes a tongue-in-cheek thriller, a serio-comic film noir, but with garish, poster-like colors instead of the genre's dark moods and photography. It contains odd encounters and red herrings. It features kooky supporting characters, like an exceptionally nice judge and his bedridden (though healthy) mother who collects scrapbooks of (significantly) Brigitte Bardot, Mother Teresa, and Becky Del Paramo. Or like a statuesque prisoner who leads a lesbian ballet a la "West Side Story" in the courtyard of a women's prison. There are also references, both throw-away and eager, to Igmar Bergman's mother-daughter movie "Autumn Sonata."
As it proceeds, the plot becomes a dedalus of twists , with, often, holes the size of the Prado Museum, but these matter little given Almodovar's effervescence. Gradually, the earlier proportions of humor and satire to melodrama are reversed. But even during this shifting of gears from black humor to sentiment, the comic aspects never go away. Whenever the public might identify with the characters and their pathos, Almodovar throws in preposterously amusing details that eliminate all possible mawkishness.
Some of those turns are Bunuel-cruel but rather subtle, as when Becky, delivering on stage a song dedicated to her daughter, reveals, in her low-cut gown, a back wrinkled by age. Others bits are surrealistically funny, like the mother, at film's end, telling her child : " You must find another way to deal with men." In context, this is a howl, within a naughty, entertaining movie fantasy.
The English title is not as apt as the Spanish one, "Tacones Lejanos" ("Distant Heels"), a reference to the yearnings of Becky as a child when she used to watch, from the basement window of her janitor parents, the elegant heels of affluence on the street above.