Pedro Almodovar is tired.
The Spanish film icon is double fisting black coffee and water, his eyes look heavy, and he admits that after five days at the Cannes Film Festival, he’s operating on very little sleep.
Almodovar is in the South of France to hawk his latest, “Julieta,” an adaptation of three Alice Munro stories that stands as one of his most muted works. It’s understated depiction of a mother and a daughter’s deteriorating relationship is in stark contrast to his previous effort, the neon-hued airline comedy, “I’m So Excited.” That film had all the subtlety of a Gloria Gaynor anthem.
“Julieta” was intended to be a departure in another way, as well. Meryl Streep was attached to play the mother role. Almodovar intended to make his English-language film debut, while shooting for the first time in the United States.
“At the last minute I felt insecure,” Almodovar says.
The plan was for Streep to play the central part, aging along with the character as she morphs from a young, sexually vivacious woman into an older mother, drained by personal tragedies. In the completed version, the role is split between Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez. Transporting the film to Spain changed the narrative in another way, Almodovar said, allowing him to deepen the themes of loss and recriminations.
“I’ve done lots of films with lots of mothers in them, but guilt is not something that had ever appeared before,” said Almodovar.
The reviews for “Julieta” have been respectful, if not the raves that greeted previous Almodovar films such as “All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her.” The larger problem dogging Almodovar has been his association with the Panama Papers. In April, documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca were released that showed that Almodovar and his brother and business advisor, Augustin, established an off-shore business to help fund productions they made in the 1990s. Speaking with the assistance of an interpreter, Almodovar hits back at the coverage that’s bubbled up since the papers leaked. Although the documents reveal that many wealthy clients tapped the law firm to help them dodge taxes, Almodovar maintains that his actions and those of his brother were legal.
“What has been happening here has really been a marketing of information,” he said. “This has been transformed into a type of a reality show. It’s very difficult to find oneself in the very center of that kind of hurricane.”
Almodovar stresses that he has not been accused of any crime, nor is any court case ongoing. The scrutiny has primarily been to sell newspapers, Almodovar argued. When he walks the streets of his native Madrid, he said the public has had a very different reaction about his involvement with the leaked documents from the press.
“The way that the media has been dealing with the issue has been from an aspect of judging me and with a real sense of moral superiority,” he said. “In no way do I want to say that I’ve been a victim, and at the same time, I think it’s unfair.”
Over the course of his decades-long career, Almodovar has emerged as one of the preeminent directors of women. Actresses such as Penelope Cruz, Cecilia Roth, Carmen Maura and Rossy de Palma have collaborated frequently with the filmmaker, drawn to the way he crafts meaty, unconventional roles and stories that are driven by female protagonists. In a youth-obsessed industry, he’s also shown a willingness, as he does with “Julietta’s” Suárez to work with older actresses.
“Hollywood is losing an enormous opportunity when it doesn’t actually create these good roles for women of all ages,” said Almodovar. “When it doesn’t actually create good roles to talk about mothers, about girlfriends, about daughters, about sister-in-laws.”
When major studios do cast women, the parts are lackluster, he said.
“We’ve got all of these movies that are about heroes and about arch-enemies, and there’s the sequels and there’s the prequels,” said Almodovar. “With those movies, in general, and I’m only generalizing, if a woman appears, their function is to prove that the hero is not a homosexual.”
The director bemoaned the fact that actresses such as Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon have had to turn to television and theater as they age to find compelling projects. The situation is better in Europe, Almodovar believes, noting that middle aged actresses such as Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche continue to get starring roles. Were they to work in Hollywood, those opportunities might not exist exist.
“There’s a kind of diabolical sexism, and I say that it’s diabolical because there’s no one that we can actually accuse of being responsible for this sexism,” he said. “The roles are out there for someone like Meryl Streep, but they’re not out there for the others.”