Pedro Almodovar, Rounding Out Cruz's, Um, Career

Penelope Cruz put
Penelope Cruz put "earth energy" in Pedro Almodovar's film. (By Laurent Emmanuel -- Associated Press)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

CANNES, France, May 22 -- The fantabulous French film festival here is like the Oscars, but different. In Cannes, some of the reporters wear hot pants.

There is more smoking, naturally, and less use of socks, and many small dogs with undiagnosed personality disorders are allowed into public places. It is a beautiful and ridiculous chaos, this Cannes Film Festival, and there is a lot of champagne drinking and jet lag, but most of all, for 12 days in May, this place is absolutely obsessed with film.

In Cannes, Hollywood tends to get the headlines. The international blockbuster that is "The Da Vinci Code" premiered here Wednesday (it was critically damned but box office blessed, grossing $224 million worldwide). But for the Cannes crowd, no one is more Cannes-y than the gay Spanish director with the gray pompadour, Pedro Almodovar, who just wowed them at the black-tie gala screening of his new movie, "Volver," starring Penelope Cruz (sporting a prosthetic butt, more on this later). The critics loved it, and it already is short-listed to win the top prize, the Palme d'Or (Oscar translation: Best Picture).

Almodovar, a favorite among the art house crowd (for "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education"), is perfect for Cannes, the alpha and omega of the international film world, for his anxieties about death and mothers, his florid openness, lefty politics, absolute control-freakiness, and his palpable love and homage to film traditions and genres, which this bunch really gets .

On Friday evening, "Volver" (which means "to return" in Spanish) screened at the Palais, the much-photographed site of all gala film premieres in competition here, and though it probably is against the rules to reveal this, the Palais looks like a convention center built in Houston in the 1970s. Beige. Stucco. Glass. Oh, but the French, they put lipstick on this pig, and it is draped in banners and flags and there is the Cannes version of the red carpet, which here is actually red stairs, which looks wonderful on television but is actually a kind of velvety, pashmina-ish AstroTurf.

A few moments before the show, Almodovar and Cruz and the film's other female leads (Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Chus Lampreave) emerged from their Renault limos to the squeals of fans. The DJ was spinning mindless Euro techno house. It was silenced, then came the announcer: Madames, Messieurs, Pedro Almodovar! Almodovar was dressed in black, head to toe, like Johnny Cash but with poufy hair, wearing oversize sunglasses ( très Cannes) with his date for the evening, Cruz, who never left his side and looked like a shy model/bride dressed in a strapless white gown, ripe and ready for the honeymoon to come.

And the paparazzi go completely nuts, the Red Stairs erupting in a firefight of a thousand flashes, left, right and center, and Almodovar and Cruz mug (they have this pose down, cheek to cheek; it is on the magazine covers all over France), and then everyone rushes into the Palais.

The vibe inside the lobby? Like a night at the opera. Very grown-up. More attendees are older than young. All the men in black tie (the French, God bless them, call it "smoking, tenue de soiree tuxedo, dress shirt" -- which by the way they are serious about; this correspondent was required to spend 15 euros at the entrance to change his red tie to a clip-on black bow).

The lights dim, the movie is screened. The critics will have their reviews for its American release later, but "Volver" marks a return for Almodovar to his earlier fascinations, "a title that includes several kinds of coming back for me," he writes in his own description of the film. "I have come back, a bit more, to comedy. I have come back to the female world," to his home village in Spain in La Mancha region (known for its fierce winds that are responsible for an alleged "high rate of insanity"), and "naturally, I have come back to my mother. Coming back to La Mancha is always to come back to the maternal breast."

It is a film about women. There is a mother, a maternal ghost. Sisters and daughters. Indeed, the only substantial male character in the film ends up in an icebox, with a knife in his chest. There is a crime. A fire. Secrets.

And decolletage, which is relevant both to "Volver" and Cannes. The history of the festival here begins in the 1930s, when French cinephiles (and their press agents) decided that the Fascist Italian leader Mussolini should have some competition for the film festival then held in Venice, and so they hatched the Cannes fete (interrupted briefly by Hitler and World War II). Okay, getting to the cleavage: In 1954, the Cannes Film Festival became the international phenomenon it is today, with its reputation of risque business, when the French actress Simone Sylva -- posing for photos on the beach with Robert Mitchum -- exposed her top. (Reports vary: Some say Sylva "whipped off her bra," though others say she simply dropped her bikini top.) Sylva was followed by bikini-clad Brigitte Bardot and a legion of other "topless starlets," who made Cannes notorious -- and catnip for the press corps and paparazzi.

About his current muse, Miss Cruz, Almodovar has written: "Penelope is at the height of her beauty. It's a cliche but in her case it's true. Those eyes, her neck, her shoulders, her breasts!! Penelope has got one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema."

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