Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pedro Almodóvar - Kika (1993)

Kika was the first Almodóvar film I saw – late one night on SBS – and although I didn’t dislike it, it did make me pigeonhole his work… until I saw the amazing Hable Con Ella, still, I think, his best film. But as I draw near the end of my on-again off-again project of watching my way through his films, it seemed time to revisit the point of departure. Kika is, ultimately, a failure, one which is equally interesting and distasteful. The convoluted story involves Kika (Verónica Forqué), a chatterbox cosmetologist, her narcoleptic husband Ramón (Alex Casanovas), Ramon’s father Nicholas (Peter Coyote), his wife and Ramon’s mother (whose suicide opens the film), Andrea ‘Scarface’ (Victoria Abril), Ramon’s ex-girlfriend and reality TV host with an obsession for a story, Kika’s butch lesbian maid Juana (Rossy De Palma) and her imprisoned pornstar brother, Paul. You see why I use the term ‘convoluted.’

The film is aesthetically beautiful in typical Almodóvar fashion – indeed, one of his most visually spectacular - and also makes characteristic Almodóvarian references – Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s, the telenovela, Hitchcock, Weill, masochistic Christianity. As so often, the soundtrack is amazing, and is employed in ways which are integral to the narrative rather than remaining incidental. Again characteristic of Almodóvar, the trope of filming within a film, and the crime novel within a film, and the unfolding revelation of the secrets of the past and the present, are deployed to interesting effect. I also have an extremely soft spot for the fabulous Rossy de Palma (once a member of Peor Imposible). The use of the extreme reality TV show as a trope and a plot device is also an incisive commentary on contemporary culture, and one far ahead of its time.

Having said that, however, this is a confused film and one which is highly problematic. The social commentary aspect tends to become more confused as the film progresses. Almodóvar has suggested that each character belongs to a different genre, and, while an original conceit, in practice this plays to the sense of unintentional dislocation. More importantly, however, the tone throughout is one of high farce, vaudeville and melodrama, and the opening third of the film shapes up to be an excellent exercise in Almodóvariana. But when Kika is raped – in an extended slapstick sequence, which sets the rest of the plot in motion – the deft touch which has hitherto been apparent disappears in a welter of insensitivity. In a sense, one can see what Almodóvar is trying to achieve – if extreme violence and other forms of crime and cruelty can be subjects for this kind of treatment, as is so often the case, then should sexual violence be considered off-limits? But in fact, this treatment, which is misogynistic and highly distasteful, might well be the evidence that it should be so considered – or at least that to attempt not to do so is a task beyond the talents even of a filmmaker as skilled and canny as Almodóvar. Indeed, one can’t help thinking that the fact that the title of the film is the name of the main character, rather than Almodóvar’s usual tendency to more meaningful titles, is in itself a comment – and the director himself mentions that he rejected one preferred title, ‘An Untimely Rape,’ because ‘touchy people’ might misunderstand it as arguing for the possibility of a timely rape, a fact which suggests the lack of understanding or empathy apparent here.

From this point, the film cannot make up its mind whether to continue the light tone (à la Almodóvar’s earlier works) or to do some more serious exploration of human emotion in extreme situations (evident in his later work) and in the attempt to walk this tightrope verges into a heavier-handed melodrama. In this sense, we can read Kika as perhaps the central film in Almodóvar’s ‘bridging period’ leading up to the slew of extraordinary explorations which would begin with Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999). Ultimately, as my own experience confirms, this is a film which has more to offer Almodóvar fans than the uninitiated.

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