Pepi, Luci, Bom: Almodovar’s Debut

pepi_luci_bom_and_other_girls_like_mom_posterAlmodovar showed promise in his feature debut, “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap” (“Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón”), a parody about patriarchy, machista, traditional marriage, lesbianism, and sadomasochistic relationships.  The movie is a send up of everything and anything that’s related to sexuality, except for one issue that matters to Almodovar the most and thus he would never joke about it: female friendship, a recurrent theme in many of his pictures.

This zany comedy centers on a triangle of women who, initially, could not have been more different in age, class, personality, and lifestyle.  Pepi is in her twenties and spoiled; Luci is a victimized housewife in her forties; and Bom a punk musician who is only fifteen. Early on, Pepi (Carmen Maura) is visited by a policeman (Felix Rotaeta) who has spotted her marijuana plant from his flat.  She buys his silence by offering oral sex, but the cop rapes her, thus destroying her hope for keeping her virginity for the best “bidder.”  Eager for revenge, Pepi asks her friends to beat up the cop, but by mistake, they attack his twin brother.

Pepi befriends the cop’s docile wife, Luci (Eva Silva), whom she introduces to the punk Bom (Olvido Clara ‘Alaska’).  Luci’s masochism and Bom’s sadism complement each other, and the two women become instant lovers.   When Bom first meets Luci, she says, “Fortysomething and soft, just as I like them.” Throughout the film, their sadomasochistic lesbian relationship is a parody of patriarchal stereotypes.

Forced to work when her father stops sending money, Pepi sets up her own firm, designing ads for multi-purpose underwear and other eccentric items. Pepi’s ads are a spoof of traditional gender roles: girls are not expected to fart on dates, wet their pants, or flaunting their dildos.  One of Pepi’s most popular products is a doll that sweats and menstruates.  Pepi also begins to write a script and shoot a video, based on Luci and Bom’s lesbian affair.

Bom, the aggressive rock teenage singer, plays with a punk group named Bomitoni.  Their parties draw gay men who are fond of a competition game called “erecciones generals” (“General Erections”).  Almodovar parodies female beauty parades, watched by voyeuristic males by putting the male organ on display, thus inverting the male gaze, which prevalent in traditional cinema.  Women, no longer passive sex objects, are allowed to gaze at men’s genitalia.  A voyeuristic male funds the frivolity, which he observes while cavorting with his bearded wife.

“Pepi, Luci, Bom” is one of the few Almodovar films in which the female characters are deliberately constructed as types.  Luci is the submissive housewife who cannot (and perhaps does not want to) change her ways.  Her social relationships are driven by the dynamics of sado-masochism.  Early one, she tells Pepi, “I need a firm hand,” confessing she had married her policeman husband not out of love but out of hope for being mistreated: “I thought that if I married him, he would treat me like a bitch.” And, sure enough, he does.

Determined to make Luci pay for misbehavior, the cop abducts his wayward wife.   Fully embracing machista, the husband reasserts his patriarchal rule in every interaction.  He silences Luci by saying firmly, “Shut up. This is not women’s business.” He questions Luci about her whereabouts, demanding to know if she had gone out to a bar, putting down her behavior as a groupie: “You know quite well that I won’t have any of that business of liberated women.”

For her part, Luci parodies her husband’s sexual mores, stating that she is “a victim of the wave of eroticism which is invading society.” When the policeman calls a colleague to find out if there are legal means to force his wife back home, his friend tells him, ”If it came to court, we would have every feminist in the country on our backs.”

The film satirizes dominant-subordinate relationships through the grotesque exaggeration of abusers and victims.  Luci complains to Bom that she (Bom) does not treat her badly enough.   When Luci returns to her husband, after being bruised by him and sent to the hospital, it’s not because of his authority, but because of her perverse pleasure in masochism and her enjoyment of his brutality.  Luci is fully aware that her life with her husband would continue to be abusive and never change.

Pepi refers to herself as a rich heiress. She is supported by her father, a faceless figure that serves a function. When he stops sending money, she seeks gainful employment for the first time in her life. Once she gets a job, she forgets all about her biological family. Moreover, Pepi (like her screen sister Pepa, in “Women on the Vege of Nervous Breakdown”) is so busy, that she has little time to appreciate her home.

After Franco’s detah, Spain has become an increasingly materialistic society, and this movie shows it. Money is the great social and sexual divide. Pepi is prepared to sell her virginity for 60,000 pesetas. Going to see a potential client, she tells Bom, “My capitalist lives around here.” Her friends, Toni and Moncho, sleep with older men, but they are not worried about selling their bodies.

Pepi sets up her own ad agency, and the ad for Bragas Ponte is inserted.  The commercial for anti-flatulence knickers shows the multiple uses of the product, as urine-absorbing knickers, and as dildos, when rolled up.  The parody becomes more ridiculous and exaggerated in each of the ad’s three sections.  The ad states: “Hagas lo que hagas, ponte bragas” (“Whatever you do, put your knickers on”).  At the end of seeingf Pepi’s ad, Bom remarks that she wishes the urine-absorbing underwear were real.

When Bom feels lost without Luci, the ever-resourceful Pepi comes up with a solution.  Bom should move in with her as her bodyguard, and she should start singing boleros.  In the final shot, which suggests an optimistic future, Pepi and Bom, dressed in lurid pink tights and sporting poodle-like coiffure, walk across a motorway.  Holding hands, they promise each other a better life.  Pepi says: “A new life is dawning ahead of you,” to which Bom replies, “Ahead of you, too.”  “That’s what I am hoping,” concludes Pepi.  The women are self-sufficient, and their happiness is not dependent on men.  The resolution presents friendship as a nobler value than romantic love or sexual fulfillment, heterosexual or homosexual.

Almodovar has said: “Men deserve to be deceived by women.  I love the idea of a girl deceiving her husband with a girlfriend.  It’s an image which I find attractive and which forms part of the secret autonomy of women.” In this and later films, Almodovar takes an ultra-liberal look at the post-Franco Spanish pop culture. Compared with future films, there is less concern with social or political arguments, and more of a celebration of freedom as a radical break from Franco’s totalitarian tradition.  Amateurish in both the positive and negative sense of the term, “Pepi, Luci, Bom” is a critical satire of women’s submissive roless in Spanish society, roles they have played for so long that they have reached the dangerous point of internalizing their victimization.

With its cheerful sense of trash and gross sex gags, which  recalled the early John Waters, and attacks on the government and the mass media, “Pepi, Luci, Bom” suggests that authority figures can be more perverse and corrupt than their normal subjects, or even dissidents.  Deliberately punky, consciously cartoonish, and unabashedly gay in viewpoint, “Pepi” is Almodovar’s first and only movie that justifies the label of kitsch, and on of two films to be shown in late screenings and become a midnight cult movie.

Tashlin’s influence is seen throughout the picture.  After the cartoon titles, accompanied by a trashy pop song from Little Nell (a bit player in “The Rocky Horror Show”), Pepi is introduced sitting on cushions and pasting stickers on Superman into an album.  Cartoonish irony also prevails in the casting.  Pepi is supposed to be young and virginal, but she is played by Maura, who was already 30 at the time. Some of the inter-titles are also cartoonish, as the one describing Pepi as “Thirsty for revenge.”  Cliches and empty slogans are deliberately inserted in the form of ideological declarations about feminism, politics, pornography, etc.  Luci’s husband says “Spain is going to the dogs with so much democracy,”without fully understanding what his own statement.

Neither the film’s professionals nor the civilians play according to any norms of decency.  Lacking any sense of ethics, the cop who discovers Pepi’s marijuana readily accepts her sexual favors in return for silence.  For her part, Pepi takes his compliance for granted when she lifts her shirt, which predictably provokes his sexual response.  Moreover, the cop doesn’t investigate his brother’s attack through the proper channels. He tries to enact revenge on Pepi for his wife’s transformation, wondering why there is no law to force his errant wife to return home.  A sexual predator, he tries to seduce his wife’s best friend, Charo.  And when another policeman, who serves under him, steals Pepi’s magazines in front of him, he takes no action.

Biological families are absent in Pepi and Bom’s lives, and they are negative in Luci’s case.  There are no mothers in this film: Luci may be one of the few married women in Almodovar’s work who has no children. To compensate for this lack, the characters look outside their biological family for meaningful relationship. “Pepi, Luci, Bom” is at its best as a celebration of female camarderie, especially when family relationships are absent or dysfunctional.   Pepi and Bom’s friendship is the central relationship, not the sexual affair of Luci and Bom.  “I wanted to make a film about autonomous women,” Almodovar said, “women who are owners of their bodies and minds, who do without men, who make use of men. But I didn’t want to make a feminist film either, but rather one that’s really outside morality.”

At one point, Luci says: “I think women have to find their true selves.” And, indeed, the women are at their most natural and spontaneous when there are no men around.  Pepi cooks Bom’s favorite dish, bacalao al pil-pil, and when they meet, they giggle spontaneously and chit-chat freely about this and that. Bom’s relationship with Luci becomes Pepi’s film project. Their intimacy stands in sharp contrast to the cold ambience in Luci’s home, when she is with her husband.  The women learn to be as aggressive as men by necessity.  Determined not to become a victim, Pepi takes revenge on the cop who raped her with sadistic pleasure—“give him a good beating,” she says, as she watches her friend beating Juan (who happens to be the wrong man).  Bom carries photos of nude women, while Luci delights in lesbian sadomasochistic comics.

In contrast, the males are softer and more tender than the usual.  The painters (Las Costus) who share their house have interests that are more characteristic of women; they read celeb magazine, collect folkloric figures and images of royal families. Pepi’s friend (Asumpta Serna) goes out with a boyfriend who is good-looking but mute.  A neighbor of Toni’s uncle and his wife, who speaks in a high-pitched voice and sports a beard, turns out to be a repressed homosexual.

The drag queen Roxy, played by Fabio McNamara, is cast as the Avon Lady, decked out in blonde wig, black beret, and glitter miniskirt.  He gives a long monologue about the virtues of face masks made out of fruit salad.  Like the other characters, he is capable of silly irrational behavior, seen here when he ambushes an innocent postman.  Roxy exudes scandalous sexuality and effeminacy—“I’m hysterical,” he says, using the feminine adjective.

Depicting sexual and scatological taboos, which challenge acceptable (bourgeois) taste, “Pepi, Luci, Bom” shows the director’s penchant for excess and provocation, his need to shock viewers with ultra-frank dialogue and biological and sexual acts that are considered “degrading” by mainstream society.

The film anticipates Almodovar’s subsequent career in further exploring the themes of female friendship and the impossibility of stable romantic love. Placing his film within a broader context, Almodovar makes references to literature, pop culture, and cinema.

Playing a nameless role, simply known as actress, Julieta Serrano (who would play the Mother Superior in Almodovar’s next film, “Dark Habits”) runs after a child outside El Bo nightclub at 3am in the morning dressed as Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone With the Wind.”  Tennessee Williams’ famous play, ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” is referenced, when the wife teases her repressed homosexual husband, just as Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie did to her reluctant husband-lover Brick (Paul Newman). The closeted homosexual is hopelessly married to the squealing, bearded Cristina Pascual, who thinks he is upset because his best friend has come out as gay.  Her husband’s repression turns him into a man who buys sex and gets voyeuristic pleasure by watching the members on parade in the “General Erections” contest. Almodovar is borrowing from the Williams’ scene in which Maggie the Cat (Elizabeth Taylor) charges in an argument with the alcoholic and impotent Brick (Paul Newman) that he is upset after his best friend killed himself because he was gay.

“Pepi, Luci, Bom” played at the San Sebastian Festival and received theatrical release in Spain in October 1980, but it was shown a full decade later in the U.S.  It took Almodovar three years to make the film. The script was written as early as 1977, but there were problems with securing financial backing—this was before Almodovar established with his brother Agustin their production entity, El Deseo. Those three years were crucial in Spain’s politics.  The production of this feature, which the director shot on weekends over a period of eighteen months, began after the first General Elections in Spain (since the Civil War) were held on June 15, 1977 and resulted in a Centrist UCD government.