Today: April 9, 2024

Back when distribution companies first began releasing and re-packaging the collected works of particular directors, eccentricities of choice could easily be explained away in terms of problems securing rights to well-known films. Thus, people wanting to learn about a director’s work by ploughing through DVD box sets would sometimes wind up having seen all of their minor works and relatively few of their major ones. However, as time has passed, the issue of rights management has begun to fade as we have entered a period in which well-known and historically significant films are being re-released almost on an annual basis as the rights are passed back and forth between distribution companies. What this means is that it is now completely legitimate to ask why a retrospective collection like The Almodóvar Collection would choose to include a film like Kika rather than significantly better films such as Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down or High Heels.

Kika is an interesting choice for a box set as it is not a great film. In fact, it is a film so desperately uneven that it can be viewed not only as something of a misfire but also as the point at which Spain’s greatest-living cinematic auteur began flirting with toxic form of self-parody. However, while Kika is neither a great nor even a good film, it is an intensely memorable and interesting failure.

The film opens with a man named Ramon (Àlex Casanovas) returning home to discover that his beloved mother has committed suicide after wounding his step-father, an American writer named Nick (Peter Coyote). The details of the woman’s suicide are rather peculiar, as is the behaviour of the step-father but Ramon accepts Nick’s version of the facts and slumps into a deep depression.

The next thing we know, Nick is being interviewed on television and his conversation with kooky make-up artist Kika (Verónica Forqué) concludes with a flirtatious autograph inviting her to meet him at his home. Happy to attract the attentions of such a famous and handsome man, Kika turns up at Nick’s home. Hoping to be seduced, Kika is disappointed to learn that Nick had only invited her over to make up the corpse of Ramon. However, as Kika begins applying make-up to the corpse, Ramon comes back to life and the couple begin an unsteady relationship hampered by the fact that Nick is both sponging off his wealthier step-son and sleeping with his freshly-minted girlfriend Kika.

This complex and colourful web of relationships recalls earlier Almodóvar films like Dark Habits and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. However, unlike those films that rested upon strong and yet vulnerable female characters, Kika rests on an admittedly excellent performance of an Almodóvarian naïf by Veronia Forque. At first, the strategic decision to shift from a pathos-based character to a comedy-based character works quite nicely as Kika’s upbeat manner and complete obliviousness serves both as a useful foil for emotionally eccentric men and a way of keeping the film quite light despite touching on issues like death, illness, suicide, and serial killing. Unfortunately, Almodóvar rapidly sets about complicating this dynamic and so loses control of his own film.

The wheels start to come off the second Victoria Abril makes her first appearance as Andrea Scarface, presenter of a sensationalist reality TV programme filled with images of death, rape, and mutilation. Scarface is an intensely memorable character in part because Abril really nails the psychopathic glamour of that type of character but also because of the costumes that were designed for her by Jean Paul Gaultier. Despite the character being both well-conceived and beautifully performed, she seems to have been dropped into the script from a completely different film as Almodóvar wrenches our attention away from the relationships between his characters and guides it towards a rather silly and toothless critique of sensationalist TV.

The film’s problems and successes are made abundantly clear in a scene where Kika’s lesbian cleaning lady (Rossy de Palma) opens the door to her brother, a former porn star and escaped rapist. After agreeing to have herself tied up and knocked unconscious for reasons that never make a huge amount of sense, the cleaning lady is unable to help when her brother decides to rape Kika. In a bold move, Almodóvar plays the rape scene entirely for laughs and much comedic hay is made from the fact that the rapist boasts of being able to orgasm four times without withdrawing and the failure of the police to prevent a rape even when pressing a gun to the rapist’s head. The scene is provocative and sensationalist and you can sort of feel Almodóvar trying to make it satirical by having the Scarface character turn up and ask inappropriate questions but in truth, the scene only serves to undermine the film’s satirical intent and highlight its own chronic lack of ideas.

Almodóvar has always been a provocative director and has never been afraid of using sensationalist imagery to break the ice of hypocrisy and plunge his audience into the frozen depths of emotional truth. However, while other Almodóvar films achieved this balance with a degree of panache, Kika shows none of the moral seriousness and respect for character that allowed him to get away with his acts of childish provocation. For example, Kika is repeatedly raped at knife-point, the images are transmitted on national TV, and her fiancé’s only response is to mutter something about her trying to get over it. However, despite enduring a horrible experience and receiving absolutely no support from the people she loves, Kika is soon back to her endearingly upbeat self. The galling thing is not that Almodóvar shows no interest in the consequences of extreme psychological trauma; it’s that he essentially treats the rape of his protagonist with the same misogynistic insouciance as the character’s fiancé. Yeah… yeah… nasty bit of rape that. Still… best not to dwell on it, yeah?

The re-mastered version of this film that comes as part of the Almodóvar Collection includes an introduction by the academic Jose Arroyo who, somewhat diplomatically, chooses to position Kika alongside other 1990s films as Natural Born Killers in which extreme imagery was seen as a sign of intellectual authenticity rather than emotional immaturity. He also says that Kika marked the point at which Almodóvar discovered postmodernism but this seems somewhat off base.

Postmodernism can be understood as a refusal to take cultural narratives at face value and our vision of postmodernism as a positive thing comes from the fact that detaching ideas from the cultural contexts that produced them has allowed people to reclaim good ideas from bad cultural moments and so create culture that takes the best aspects of problematic traditional culture and combines them with a set of values that are more up-to-date such as when Joss Whedon took the idea of the teenage girl who gets eaten by monsters and turned it into Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The problem with postmodernism is that when the moral purpose of the deconstructive process is overlooked or downplayed (as in films like Natural Born Killers), the techniques of postmodernism result in little more than the commercial process of updating old ideas in an effort to sell them to contemporary audiences. Almodóvar’s films have always been postmodern in so far as they subvert and distort elements of mainstream Spanish culture but while earlier films like Dark Habits and What Have I Done to Deserve This? use their transgressive images to articulate profound emotional truths; Kika seems content to transgress for the sake of transgression meaning that the film’s imagery winds up feeling not just insubstantial but actively exploitative. Turns out that even the most fabulous dresses struggle to conceal the emptiness inside.

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