As the film beginning a run of mid-period Almodóvar vehicles which, while interesting, were more problematic than the dark intensity of his earlier works but hadn’t yet developed the majesty and emotional kick of his finest later films (the trilogy comprising Todo sobre mi madre, Hable con ella & La mala educación), I wasn’t expecting particularly much from TL (particularly given the cold critical reception it initially received). Mistake!
The Almodóvar trademarks are there – the gorgeous design and vivid colour (in Almodóvar’s universe, the perfect interiors provide the ideal contrast to the messiness of human relationships, emotions and the body), as well as stunning lead performances by two notable Almodóvariennes, Victoria Abril & Marisa Paredes. Like his other films, TL quotes the classic female melodramas so adored by Almodóvar (in particular, here, Bergman’s Autumn Sonata), and echoes the narrative of such works, inflected through a sensibility which turns the transgression, sexuality and queer knobs up past ten.
The plot concerns the troubled relationship between Rebeca (Abril), a newscaster, and her mother Becky (Paredes) who is returning to Spain after fifteen years in Mexico (the Spanish title, Tacones Lejanos, translates as ‘distant heels,’ capturing the melancholy of this relationship in referencing Rebeca’s childhood memory of her mother’s presence, rather than the more comedy-oriented nature of the English title). In the meantime, Rebeca has married Manuel (Féodor Atkine), once a lover of her mother’s, and become close friends with a drag queen, Letal (Miguel Bosé), who pastiches Becky’s 60s persona. And when Manuel is murdered, things take a turn for the even-more-complicated, leading to the unraveling of facades within facades, an exploration of history and identity in terms of surface and reality (not to mention celebrity), delivered with the hysterical emotional lability which is also an Almodóvarian hallmark.
Unlike some of his other works, this narrative is compelling and never drags – a particularly impressive feature is the Rashomonesque untangling of Miguel’s murder – a theme which ties in to the central question of appearance and reality in world as hyper-real as its décor, where characters are ‘larger than life’ in the sense that their identity is lived out through stage or screen personas, and where events gain emotional reality and even truth status (only) by their enactment in such venues. Oh, and just in case there weren’t enough exploitative elements here, there are a number of set pieces (including a bizarre but strangely fitting choregraphed dance piece) set in a women’s prison. But here we can contrast Kika, Almodóvar’s next work – where Kika takes the (prescient) exploration of ‘reality’ and truth on the screen, as well as acts of cruelty and transgression, to absurd extremes in ways which, while intriguing, fail inasmuch as they betray a callous insensitivity to human emotions, TL walks this tightrope much more successfully. The soundtrack, which features various divas of the Spanish musical world and at times becomes powerfully diegetic, is also particularly strong, comparable only to Todo sobre mi madre, while the score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, works well within this context (despite Almodóvar’s expression of dislike for it).
If there is a weak point, it is the performance of Bosé as the male lead – his casting was apparently a cause célèbre given his status as a famous Spanish-language singer, but his acting and indeed his ‘look’ seem stilted and banal, out of place in the lush and vivid environment of the film, while his transformation into various personas as the film progresses is obvious in a way which takes the omniscience of melodrama a tad too far. Despite this, however, this is a work which is beautiful and thought-provoking, one which fits beautifully into an evolving, yet circling, Almodóvarian project, yet at the same time holds its own in terms of the visceral and intellectual pleasure of the viewing experience, and in terms of originality.