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Master of the Outrageous : For Spain's Pedro Almodovar, Life Is Just a Bowl of the Offbeat

December 20, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

In Pedro Almodovar's world, life always seems to slyly mimic art.

The colorful Spanish film director has been waiting for a call all day, the same fate that bedevils the heroine of his stylish new farce, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

In "Women on the Verge," his leading lady rips the phone out of the wall and tosses it through a window. Anxiously bouncing on a couch in his West Hollywood hotel room, Almodovar simply slid the phone under a table, like a fat man resisting an eclair.

"I have a very bad relationship with the telephone," he admitted, eyeing the receiver with thinly disguised disdain. "I know it's an invention of progress, but it doesn't help you communicate. It only hides you. The only real advantage of the telephone is gossip."

It turns out that Almodovar toiled at the phone company for 10 years before turning to film. "For me, it's become a device for all the crazy people who want to call me or leave messages in the darkness. Crazy people call my home all the time. They say everything. Love me! Hate me! Kiss me! Kill me! They even masturbate over the phone!"

He nervously fished for a cigarette. "It's because I've come to symbolize something important for them. But they don't exist for me. So there's a terrible imbalance. I don't mind crazy people who paint or write or make movies. But I get the crazy people who just want to talk to me on the phone!"

Almodovar laughed when a visitor suggested changing his number. "I've tried," he said mournfully, lighting a Marlboro. "But in Madrid, the bureaucracy is crazy--you wait forever for a new line. And you must have your name on the phone number. So even if you have--how do you say?--a secret line, they can still call the public one."

He shrugged. "I wanted to bring the officials my answering machine tapes so they could hear people sighing and masturbating. But what's the use? Everybody calls to tell me why I must make a movie about their life. They all think their life is special."

Almodovar blew smoke to the ceiling. "We are all such exhibitionists, aren't we?"

If Almodovar lived in Los Angeles, you'd bet his phone number would be 976-PEDRO. Spain's cinema superstar of the '80s, the chubby, chain-smoking 37-year-old director's reputation rests on a series of hilariously scandalous melodramas stoked with the impish spirit of John Waters and the stylish eroticism of Vincent Minnelli. Updating the slyly subversive vision of Luis Bunuel, Almodovar veers wildly between wiggy camp and wicked satire.

Almodovar's "Dark Habits" offers a convent whose occupants frequent seedy night clubs, score drugs and pen soft-porn novels (under assumed names). "Matador" features a gored bullfighter who arouses himself by watching snuff films. "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" gives a comic feminist slant to the life of a speed-freak cleaning lady who kills her boorish husband by walloping him over the head with a ham bone (which she cooks after he dies).

"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," which arrives here Wednesday with a bouquet of film festival awards, cements Almodovar's reputation as a master of the outrageous farce. It stars Carmen Maura as Pepa, a distraught actress who's been jilted--via the telephone--by her longtime lover, an actor whose specialty is romantic movie voice-overs.

As is his custom, Almodovar peppers the film with an oddball contingent of characters (Pepa has a girlfriend who falls for a Shiite terrorist), overlapping layers of erotic entanglements and a jumble of deliciously glossy sets that look as if they were lifted from a stack of 1950s Vogue covers.

Raving about "Women on the Verge" in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael called Almodovar "the most original pop writer-director of the '80s: he's Jean-Luc Godard with a human face--a happy face." Stephen Schiff of Vanity Fair added: "Almodovar has made the most tantalizing, original and altogether invigorating film I've seen since 'Blue Velvet.' "

In town recently to promote the movie, Almodovar wore a flamboyant wardrobe only a strobe light could love, sporting deep burgundy slacks topped with a purple polka-dot shirt. An eager advocate of Spain's hedonistic, post-Franco spirit ("I admire Fassbinder--we both are fat and like cocaine"), the ever-quotable director spoke freely in English, but relied on a translator when spinning more complicated theories about his directorial style.

He began the interview by paying homage to old Hollywood: "When I was a child, I felt that if you wanted to survive, you had to be as strong as Bette Davis."

The loopy characters in his films endure so many emotional binges that it hardly comes as a shock to discover Almodovar dreamed up "Women" sitting on a window ledge, waiting to throw himself out.

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