Almodovar's new 'High Heels' is wicked and over the edge

February 20, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Pedro Almodovar's "High Heels" is a study of two women on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

Antic and perverse, it hasn't quite the punch of some of the Spanish hotshot's other films -- "Matador" remains my favorite, though "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!" has its adherents -- but it's generally of a piece with his oeuvre: fast, wicked, theatrical and bitchily funny. Almodovar is the Oscar Wilde or Truman Capote of world cinema, a bad boy who loves the attention.

The movie, which opens today at the Charles, bears a certain resemblance to Mike Nichols' "Postcards from the Edge," in that it takes as its centerpiece not only a tempestuous mother-daughter relationship but a tempestuous superstar mother-struggling daughter relationship. But it goes much farther and is far crazier. It's a postcard from way over the edge.

Rebecca (Victoria Abril), a Madrid anchorwoman, is the daughter of the international star Becky de Paramo (Marisa Paredes), who repays this love with the one potion guaranteed to intensify it exponentially: complete indifference. Becky has been busy these many years pursuing an international entertainment career, and has turned herself into an icon, so incredibly stylized and recognizable -- think of Carol Channing crossed with Judy Garland, with a little of both Miss Elizabeth and Miss Piggy thrown in -- that even in the shadowy bars of the demimonde, pale young men put on sequins and mile-high hair and become her.

This, as you might suspect, has created some psychic problems for the daughter: imagine growing up in a world where lots of boys walk around on high heels trying to be your mother!

Anyway, the movie takes place upon the week or so that Becky and her mannish assistant return to Madrid to visit her daughter. Perhaps "visit" isn't quite the right word: it's more like the Normandy invasion, a braying, attention-milking extravaganza of presence. Whatever Becky wants, Becky gets.

Perhaps the dynamic between the two might be best expressed in this line from the credits: "Victoria Abril, dressed by Chanel; Marisa Paredes, dressed by Giorgio Armani." Talk about never the twain meeting! In Almodovar, fashion is destiny.

When it turns out that Rebecca is married to a man who was once her mother's lover and who now wants to resume the affair -- the lout is played by the professionally sleazy Feodore Atkine, who looks like Rudy Nureyev on steroids -- the complications that ensue are somewhat dazzling. Then the lout is murdered and we are off on a merry chase.

Almodovar is on familiar territory -- that is, for him. The movie, then, is a melodramatic pastiche of cross-dressing, sexual confusion, murder, emotions as big as the Spanish Pyrenees, all realized in imagery so saturated with primary colors that it seems to be taking place on a signboard by the highway back in the '30s. It's even got a few moments of the most lurid and cheesy of all pulp genres: the women-in-prison movie.

'High Heels'

STARS: Victoria Abril and Marisa Paredes

DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodovar

RATING: R

***

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