Made in 1980 on a shoestring budget -- and looking every bit as dirt-cheap as John Waters's deliciously trashy Baltimore chronicles of the early Seventies -- Pedro Almodovar's Pepi, Luci, Bom has the courage and outlandish invention of new discovery. For not only was Spain enjoying a honeymoon with life, liberty, and the pursuit of pansexual gratification after Franco's death in 1975, but Almodovar's direction at this early juncture was less culture-conscious, less driven by mainstream crowd pleasing than was later to be the case in, say, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. By some years Pepi, Luci, Bom precedes the director's first international successes (Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This!, and what is arguably his funniest film, Law of Desire); it was shot in 16mm and has recently been transferred to 35mm for the current release. The comedy is every bit as mordantly hilarious as his late-Eighties work, and as always, Almodovar gets biting performances from his women -- especially the wonderful and perenially saucy Carmen Maura, who plays Pepi, the ringleader of the eponymous triumvirate of the title.
Almodovar's cartoonish skill at quick-fire observations pays dividends in Pepi, Luci, Bom. And fast: Pepi is a rich heiress who lives on the fringiest end of Madrid's countercultural world (the habitual Almodovar faranduleros -- prostitutes, punk musicians, clubhounds, transvestites, lesbians, and homosexual men). As the movie begins, a police detective (Felix Rotaeta) comes into Pepi's apartment to arrest her for possession of marijuana (she plants the evil weed on her balcony for all to see). Pepi entices him with sex, and he gives in. But when she tells him she's saving her virginity for Mr. Right ("Do you mind if we do it from behind? I'm used to it that way," she smiles), he rapes her. And a vow of revenge ensues.
Pepi's vendetta takes her to the policeman's wife, Luci (Eva Siva), a retiring hausfrau who knits and accepts her lot without so much as a whimper. Pepi strikes up a conversation on the street with Luci, and asks her for knitting lessons. Later, at Pepi's apartment, after the lessons begin, Pepi pokes Luci by mistake, and Luci moans.
Then a brilliant sequence: Pepi, having discovered Luci -- the upstanding detective's wife, don't forget -- is in fact a rabid, fetishistic masochist, says to her, "Oh, you sow, you dirty bitch, you love it, don't you?" Then Pepi's lesbian friend, Bom (Olivido Gara), the lead singer of the punk group Bomitoni, drops by. Bom says she has to go to the bathroom, and Pepi calmly suggests that she relieve herself all over Luci ("It'll cool her down. She'll like it"). With no expression either way from Luci, Bom lifts her skirt and proceeds to do just that. Suddenly the fully clothed wife comes to vibrant life (no pun intended). As she reels in ecstacy at the steady stream of clear pee and begs for more, Bom reminds her, "Hey, I'm not a cow." At the conclusion of the discharge, some civilized banter: "Where are you from, anyway?" Bom asks. "I'm from Murcia," answers Luci. They instantly become lovers.
Ah, the unifying agent of urine.
There's another typically off-kilter scene when Pepi plays mistress of ceremonies at an underground disco. The men's private parts are measured in a "General Erections" pageant, and Maura gleams with dirty pleasure. Almodovar, never a director to hold back a solitary thing, provides a hyperkinetic picture of post-franquista Spain. He's also a keen satirist of TV's place in contemporary culture. Foreshadowing the advertising spoofs he would contrive in What Have I Done to Deserve This! and the marvelous assassin's mom detergent ad in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, there's a terrific tryptich as we witness Pepi's creative concepts in full leaf and flower. There are three ads for a line of panties (bragas is the vulgar Spanish word for them): In the first one, a romantic tryst is interrupted by the maiden just as her lover is about to open a bottle of champagne. What's a girl to do if she has to break wind? The narrator steps in and assures her she can fart to her crack's content, the ill wind will smell like flowers thanks to her panties. The bubbly is served, and the man inquires, "What lovely perfume is that?" She winks.
Call it Eau de Anus.
The second spot is a damsel in distress: she needs to go to the bathroom (in one of Almodovar's most perverse touches, the girl seems to think a telephone booth is the place to go). The voice-over comes on, reminding her that she can release to her bursting bladder's content, this line of panty will soak it all up like sponge. We're offered an animated picture of the undergarment turning yellow as proof. And the last ad shows us that a panty can have its mechanical uses, too -- especially for a woman on a lonely night, when she inserts a tightly wound cylinder for immediate pleasure.
This abusive scatological screechfest is wildly rambunctious, but Almodovar can't sustain it. The end of the film, for example, paints a bleak picture of Luci's fetishism (her husband beats her up and she winds up in a hospital, though ecstatic that her spouse no longer "treats me like his mother"). But even in that secondary foray into dark tragedy, there's something rather touching about Pepi and Bom as they walk off together to face the future as comrades in arms: its sisterhood is powerful, Castilian-style. Almodovar is almost picaresque in his perpetual motion and hints at deep emotion. Pepi, Luci, Bom is a woman's tale with grotesque circus elements as spheres of influence; it's Ingmar Bergman dancing a zapateado, cocaine-snorting and booze-infested, and thoroughly and irreverently homosexual in orientation. Yes, a nightmare, but the price of admission is worth every peseta.
And finally, before Almodovar's film opens on Friday you have chance to witness the American version of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Katharine Gilday's excellent documentary, The Famine Within, provides an incisive look at bulimia, anorexia, the quest for the perfect bod, and other matters of similar obsession in these parts. It is very recommendable even if this Canadian film often betrays its TV-expose trappings. Lots of information and stats strengthen the argument, namely that a generation of women are killing themselves as they walk the tightrope between the contemporary models of Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush.
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The only bummer is that title: The Famine Within sounds like a Somalian soap opera. Maybe it should be.+
PEPI, LUCI, BOM
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar; with Carmen Maura, Felix Rotaeta, Olivido Gara, Eva Siva, and Julieta Serrano.
Opens Friday at the Alliance Film/Video Project.
THE FAMINE WITHIN
Written and directed by Katharine Gilday.