Pepi, Luci, Bom... and the other girls on the heap Review

This disc is currently only available as part of Optimum's Almodóvar The Collection: Volume One boxed set.

Owing to the Franco dictatorship Spanish cinema never really had a genuine sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll phase. Rather when democracy arrived in 1978 it was the period of sex, drugs and punk – and this is what Pepi, Luci, Bom… provides. Two years in the making (owing to its miniscule budget not because it was any kind of huge production) it emerged in 1980 as a rough, “unprofessional” venture which also heralded the arrival of Pedro Almodóvar. Yet he’s not the key reference point here; we don’t need an understanding of his later, slicker work to provoke the interest. All we need know is that the director melds the ethos of early John Waters onto the Spanish equivalent of the milieus depicted in either Jubilee or Liquid Sky and creates a piece with a raucous, transgressive energy all of its own.

This is immediately apparent from the plotting – if you can describe it as such. Pepi (Carmen Maura) is raped in the opening scene and sets about getting her revenge but instead ends up in advertising. Luci (Eva Siva), wife of the rapist who’s also a cop, decides to swap knitting and housewifery for independence, golden showers and lesbianism. And Bom (Alaska), the least significant of the three, plays in a punk band. Indeed, there’s not much here in concrete terms, yet it affords Almodóvar the opportunity to hang out with these people on the streets and in their apartment blocks and hopefully depict something of their lifestyle and the “scene” they inhabit.

As such the seeming lack of control behind the camera, the inherent roughshod quality to the film, makes sense. It matches the milieu and allows us to get closer. Alternately gaudy, throwaway and shocking, Pepi, Luci, Bom… has this overriding comic book/cartoon-ish quality which makes for huge fun. Despite the lengthy production period Almodóvar never once loses sight of the principle aim, and that is to entertain. Indeed, the transgressive qualities aren’t there simply because they can be, but because he knows to have fun with them. Moreover, he clearly loves – and was part of – this scene and the characters within it.

And so whilst it isn’t necessary to be aware of the director’s later efforts, it is this last element which forges the bond. Pepi, Luci, Bom… fits in seamlessly with Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, et al as one of his key female-centric works. It has a sparkling performance from Maura in what is ostensibly the first of the her many lead roles. And we see the homages to Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford and the rest already beginning to sneak through. Indeed, Almodóvar’s passion for cinema produces not only some startling set pieces (the opera-miming street violence being a particular standout), but also what could be considered to be the quintessential promising debut.

The Disc

Shot on 16mm, Pepi, Luci, Bom… arrives on disc in a condition that is generally fine considering its origins. The print is understandably grainy and demonstrates the rough qualities you’d expect from such a low-budget venture, but then it’s also true that the colours are as good as could be expected as is the clarity. That said, the film stock should result in a ratio 1.33:1, yet here we get the film in a more cinema friendly 1.66:1 frame. Of course, this is how many would have first seen the film, but it has the unfortunate side effect of cutting off the top of people’s heads and has also been transferred non-anamorphically. Indeed, the release would no doubt had been better if Optimum were able to track down a full-frame offering. As for the soundtrack, here we get a two-channel offering of the original mono in pretty as good condition as you’re likely to get. The flaws in the production are of course apparent, but then this should be expected. Rather the only genuine problem is the fact that the attendant English subtitles are of the burnt-in variety.

As for the extras these amount solely to an introduction of film critic and Spanish cinema expert José Arroyo. Though only speaking for ten minutes, he is able to cover most of the bases of Pepi, Luci, Bom…’s production as well as placing it within the larger context of Spain and its politics. Moreover, he demonstrates an enthusiasm of the film and Almodóvar’s work as a whole, though you could argue that this only makes you wish he could have carried on a bit longer and perhaps have provided a commentary. (The interview comes without optional subtitles, English or otherwise.)

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