by Paul Julian Smith
from Film Quarterly Spring 2013, Vol. 66, No. 3
The April day I arrived in Madrid coincided with the funeral of Spain’s greatest diva, Sara Montiel, a veteran musical star. As her cortege drove down the Gran Vía (the equivalent of Broadway) and images from her classic films played on huge screens above the traffic, the funerary procession met up with a noisy demonstration against Bankia, the bad bank recently created by the government out of hopelessly indebted and corrupt local savings-and-loans. Rarely have film fantasy and social reality intersected so abruptly. It is in this context of crisis (for cinema and for Spain) that Pedro Almodóvar’s nineteenth feature made its bow.
Four weeks after its world premiere, Almodóvar’s I’m So Excited (the Spanish title, Los amantes pasajeros, translates better as “Standby Lovers”) is still playing on more than twenty screens in Madrid. Spanish films rarely last as long in domestic theaters. My 6 PM showing at the huge Cine Capitol on the Gran Vía (albeit on one of the smaller screens in the multiplex) drew a sparse crowd: groups of middle-aged women, discreet gay couples, and solitary types (like your correspondent), all fastening their seatbelts for a bumpy cinematic flight from Madrid to Mexico City.
I’m So Excited marks a much-heralded return to the transgressive and corrosive comedies of Almodóvar’s early period. This is signaled by the English title, taken from the film’s funniest sequence, in which a trio of campy flight attendants lip-synch to the Pointer Sisters’ 1980s hymn to unbridled pleasure. Questions arise, however. Notably: Why, now that Almodóvar is a feted and respected auteur around the world, should he return to farce? Perhaps the motive is pragmatic. Although his recent serious features (Broken Embraces  and The Skin I Live In ) turned a healthy profit, especially in the foreign market, they did not play so well at home. Or perhaps Almodóvar is feeling Spain’s pain. In numerous interviews he claimed that comedy would be a healing balm to a crisis-rocked country that feels the need to laugh.
A second question here is contemporaneity. I’m So Excited begins with an on-screen disclaimer: “Everything is this film is fiction with no relation to reality.” In fact, unlike Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In, whose tragic dramas played out in hermetically insulated milieus, I’m So Excited frequently references the current crisis and national and local themes. Even Almodóvar’s home region, unsung rural La Mancha, gets to play a central role.
A third question is perhaps the most pressing: Is Almodóvar still relevant? Where once his queer provocations were incendiary in a country that had only recently emerged from dictatorship, now they may seem like old news in a nation that legislated same-sex marriage rights without controversy eight years ago. Perhaps Pedro, like the damaged plane in his film, is going in circles around Toledo (“Ohio or La Mancha?” asks one typically clueless character), unable to make a successful landing.
Finally there is the unusual formal problem that Almodóvar has chosen to set himself with the film’s premise: how to stage a whole movie within the confines of an airliner without limiting dramatic development or losing the audience’s interest? The logistical aspects of this conundrum were solved by shooting in a full-size reconstructed plane set up in a studio hangar.
As so often in the case of Almodóvar, there is already a gulf between the English-language debate on his film (currently limited to the specialist trade publications) and local Spanish accounts in the general press. Variety wrote that I’m So Excited is “a hugely entertaining celebration of human sexuality . . . as light and airy as the skies in which it’s set.” Screen Daily praised the film’s “feast of bright colors, delightful production design and exuberant performances.” But Spanish critics, with whom Almodóvar has had high-profile battles in the past, were often hostile, citing the film’s supposedly “infantile” scatological humor. At the Italian premiere, the director invoked continuing homophobia as a motive for this negative reaction. Yet even in Shangay Express, the veteran local gay free sheet, a columnist who is a self-identified super-fan of Pedro confessed that he laughed only to keep from crying.
Clearly not everyone felt that way. I’m So Excited proved the biggest opening weekend ever for an Almodó- var film, grossing almost two million euros and attracting a quarter of a million spectators to theaters. Much of this success may have been due to a marketing blitz. The large cast was very visible on talk shows, and the stylish poster by Javier Mariscal, Spain’s best-known graphic designer, was ubiquitous. In addition, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, tried newer publicity routes. It staged flash mobs around the Pointer Sisters in the Gran Vía. And Pedro himself appeared on a balcony above the multitude, inspiring a cheeky tweet: “habemus papam” (Pope Francis had just ascended to the pontificate). Still, perhaps the most interesting Spanish response came from the respected movie monthly Fotogramas, which wrote that Almodóvar “resorts to extreme artifice to call up a joy that in his earliest work was as spontaneous as breathing.”
There is indeed something old and something new in a film that dialogues constantly with the past of Spain and that of its most distinguished director. The glossy cinematography (digital, for the first time) is by José Luis Alcaine, the expertly varied soundtrack is by composer Alberto Iglesias, and the hot scarlet and turquoise sets are by production designer Antxon Gómez, all frequent collaborators with Pedro in the past. The actors likewise come from all periods of Almodóvar’s now lengthy back catalogue. Cecilia Roth, here a dominatrix, played the young “pants you can pee in” girl 33 years earlier in Almodóvar’s first, chaotic comedy, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (although you will more likely remember her from such moving melodramas as All About My Mother ). Javier Cámara, one of the ditzy trolley dollies in I’m So Excited, played the sinister nurse Benigno in the accomplished Talk to Her (2002). Youthful Blanca Suárez, the earthbound girlfriend of a passenger, played the tragic daughter in The Skin I Live In. In brief opening cameos, Almodóvar’s favored superstars, Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, speaking in extravagant accents for comic effect, condescend to impersonate accident-prone airport workers.
After DayGlo retro credits, the camera cranes down on an airliner. Its fictional airline, Península, is reminiscent of Spain’s national carrier, Iberia, currently wracked by cuts and strikes and clearly emblematic of the country’s parlous state. There is a smaller, sadder in-joke here too: The plane itself is called Chavela Blanca, a reference to the beloved and recently deceased singer Chavela Vargas, featured in Almodóvar’s The Flower of My Secret (1995).
Once on board, Almodóvar cuts between the studied tedium of the flight attendants demonstrating emergency exits and a passenger reading a list of the “top ten financial scandals” in a newspaper. We are treated, as ever, to perfectionist art design: the figure-hugging male uniforms are by rising young fashionista Davidelfín (sic). Characterization is drawn with a broader brush. Of the trio of flight attendants (whose actors, incidentally, completed a real-life training course at Iberia as preparation for their roles), the first cannot tell a lie, the second is a slut, and the third prays at a portable altar for his colleagues to abandon drink, drugs, and backroom sex.
With the tourist class knocked out for the duration by muscle relaxant administered by the flight attendants, the action takes place in the business cabin, as overloaded with stereotypes as it is with pregnant plot points. Roth’s dominatrix has a date with Mexico’s biggest telephony tycoon, and her handsome hookup, played by Mexican star José María Yazpik, has something more sinister than sex on his mind. A virginal psychic is set on finding Spaniards missing in Mexico, but lets slip that she “smells death” on the flight. We are given loving close-ups of Miguel Angel Silvestre, Spain’s hottest TV actor (although underused in the film), as a newlywed who drugs his bride with the mescaline he has providentially hidden up his ass. This gives some idea of the register of the movie’s humor, which is unapologetically carnivalesque. The dialogue offers a wearisome repetition of the word maricón, a slur not so securely rehabilitated in Spanish as “queer” is in English. This is a very wordy film, whose fast-talking cast rarely takes a pause for breath. I wonder how subtitles will cope with the constant punning (one much-cited example: llamada/mamada or “phone call”/”blow job”).
It’s no surprise, then, that the film’s second act should see an outbreak of oral sex (just off screen) that stretches from the pilot’s cabin back to cattle class, no doubt the “celebration of human sexuality” hymned by Variety. Or that the dominatrix claims to have sex tapes of the 600 top Spaniards, starting “at the very top” (for the first time in Spain, the King is no longer sacred). So perhaps the most fascinating facet of the film is its attempt to incorporate current reality (such as the rapid decline in respect for the royal household) into the crazy comedy format that Almodóvar pioneered some three decades ago. Thus one character is a fugitive banker, responsible for bankrupting a savings-and-loan reminiscent of the one booed at Sara Montiel’s funeral. Another is a TV star who, like many in real life, has abandoned multiple lovers. The eeriest sequence of I’m So Excited comes at the end when the camera pans over the empty and unused airport of Ciudad Real in La Mancha (originally and all too aptly named for Don Quixote), a transparent symbol of corruption and crisis. We hear the grinding of gears and rending of metal as the plane crash-lands.
But perhaps Almodóvar is more exercised by his own personal and professional history than by that of his country. Roth is given dialogue that mimics her real biography, bound up as it is with that of Pedro: Her character “came to Spain from Argentina in the early ‘80s” and appeared naked on the cover of Interviú magazine, a notorious sex and political scandal sheet. Localist references of this kind, which will mean little to Almodóvar’s large foreign audience, are frequent. In a brief landlocked interlude (perhaps an attempt to break the monotony of the single location) we see a suicide attempt on the Viaduct, a picture-perfect location well known to Madrileños and familiar to Almodóvar fans from Matador (1986). We are also offered a very precise recipe for “agua de Valencia,” a real-life beverage not normally supplemented, as it is in the film, with ass-smuggled mescaline. The constant employment of phones in I’m So Excited reminds us of Almodóvar’s most accomplished ensemble farce, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. At the end Blanca Suárez will say farewell to an older lover at the airport, just as Carmen Maura did so movingly in Women back in 1988.
Beyond these self-citations, no doubt well earned, more difficult to reconcile are the images of homosexuality in what Almodóvar has himself called a very gay film. The male flight attendants prattle on about finding husbands. But the utopian hedonism of I’m So Excited, reminiscent of the 1980s, is very distant from current, sober concerns about equality and citizenship (Almodóvar is surely right that in spite of the consolidation of marriage rights, Spain is hardly free from homophobia). The film can only gesture toward a synthesis of the two sensibilities by setting up a final three-way relationship: It seems that the bisexual pilot’s wife has always known about and accepted his longrunning affair with a male colleague (she even has her own lesbian lover on the side). An apparent attempt at pathos, when that same pilot calls his wife and kids from the doomed plane for what may well be the last time, holds up badly against the genuinely moving sentiment of the superficially similar Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Returning to my hotel after the screening, I turned on the TV to see one of Almodóvar’s flight attendants performing in the second season of the sitcom Con el culo al aire (metaphorically “left in the lurch,” literally “with your ass in the air”). A crisis comedy set in a limited location (a trailer park in this case) to which newly chastened Spanish citizens are confined after their fall from financial grace, it shares evident similarities with I’m So Excited. Finally, then, and in spite of his overt hostility to the medium, Almodóvar owes a debt to television in his new film. Successful Spanish series tend to be, like his movie, feature-length ensemble fictions mixing crude comedy with dramatic elements; and most members of the ensemble cast of I’m So Excited are familiar to local audiences from TV. Carlos Areces (the flight attendant with the floppy hair) starred in a groundbreaking sketch comedy. Gorgeous Blanca Suárez graced two big-budget mystery series. And Carmen Machi, the queen of Spanish sitcom, has a cameo as the landlady of the suicidal lover, her presence surely owing more to her fame on the small screen than to the requirements of Almodóvar’s plot.
Pedro’s producers, Agustín Almodóvar and Esther García, are also granted cameos as air-traffic controllers. Yet this is a film that celebrates (with the Pointer Sisters) a defiant lack of control. I’m So Excited may prove to be minor Almodóvar in the context of what is now a large and complex corpus (and it is striking that Pedro did not take this film to Cannes as is normally his practice). But charting as it does a turbulent itinerary between film fantasy and social reality and between extreme artifice and unbridled joy, it serves still as an ideal in-flight entertainment.