Dolor y gloria
starring Antonio Banderas, Asier Exteandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Penélope Cruz
written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Varda par Agnès
directed by Agnès Varda
by Bill Chambers Salvador Mallo is first seen in hydrotherapy for his scarred back, lost in an underwater reverie. The lapping waves trigger a memory of his mother (Penélope Cruz, who must have a painting of herself rotting away in the attic) washing clothes in the river when he was just a boy. Played by Pedro Almodóvar discovery and muse Antonio Banderas, Salvador is an informally retired film director who dresses like Almodóvar, resides in Almodóvar's real-life apartment, and suffers a litany of ailments--spinal problems, tinnitus--much like Almodóvar's own. The kinkiness of Almodóvar's work has always made it seem personal and confessional, but with Pain and Glory he moves into the roman à clef territory of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz--although Pain and Glory is considerably more chill, treating even picking up a heroin habit in middle age as less self-destructive than incorrigible. Salvador is introduced to the drug while making amends with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), star of his acclaimed Sabor ("Flavour"). Alberto is a long-time junkie; Salvador once held this against his performance in Sabor but no longer does, because time has altered his perception of it. The two agree to do a Q&A at a screening of the film's restoration, which, uh, doesn't quite go as planned but does lead to Alberto putting on an unpublished play that Salvador wrote, which leads to Salvador briefly reconnecting with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the old lover the play is about. This spurs him to be proactive about his health: Salvador realizes that he needs to get back to making art, because sharing this one story with others has turned out to be so much more rewarding than wallowing in nostalgia.
Banderas is uncommonly gentle and soulful here--find you a man who looks at you the way Salvador looks at Federico, as the meme says. Pain and Glory is a bittersweet but genuinely funny film--this may be the first Almodóvar to elicit real laughter from me (particularly during the aforementioned Q&A, a scene bound to play best in a festival setting), not just polite arthouse mirth--that rebounds nicely from The Skin I Live In, including a return to Almodóvar's signature palette of zesty colours after that movie's distressing beigeness. (I especially love the vivid animations that illustrate Salvador's various conditions like anatomical pop art.) It also reframes The Skin I Live In's trans horror as a fear of doctors and invasive surgery, and might prove, with time, to be something of a Rosetta stone for Almodóvar's work in general, with its implicit revelations about his burgeoning queerness and cinephilia and his feelings of inadequacy as a son to his mother, who is incidentally played in old age by an actress (Julieta Serrano, another member of Almodóvar's stock company) bearing little resemblance to Cruz. The reason for this goes from irrelevant to quietly profound in a metatextual final sequence of some power; Pain and Glory is a gem.
Given Almodóvar's professed distaste for documentary filmmaking, I doubt we'll be seeing something as direct as Agnès Varda's Varda by Agnès from him anytime soon. Varda passed away last March at the age of 90, one month after premiering this career retrospective at the Berlin Film Festival, but on screen she seems immortal and very much alive. Up front, Varda, holding court over a receptive young audience at a French opera house, cautions that she won't be able to cover everything on her C.V., but this is a rich, deep dive into a body of work the filmmaker says has always been motivated by three things: creativity, inspiration, and an urge to share. What also emerges is a fascination with dichotomies and juxtapositions--there's a certain flow of continuity from 1977's One Sings, the Other Doesn't to Varda's late-life triptychs showing the humble potato at contradictory stages--that's reflected in her biography as the only woman in the French New Wave and as a white, foreign, diminutive chronicler of the Black Panther movement. The format of the piece changes shape over the course of its 115-minute runtime to accommodate episodes like Varda's reunion with Vagabond star Sandrine Bonnaire, who was 17 when it was shot and treated caustically by Varda, who now wishes she had "licked [her] blisters" in gratitude instead of trying to impress a Method reality on the actress. (She and Bonnaire do not, alas, then smoke heroin together.) What's unwavering is Varda's dedication to satisfying a sincere curiosity about her work. Indeed, Varda by Agnès is a model of the "X on X" form, though I suspect the reason these things are usually filtered through a third party (like HBO's recent Spielberg doc) is because few possess Varda's gift for self-reflection. Pain and Glory - Programme: Special Presentations; Varda by Agnès - Programme: Special Events