High Heels (1991 film)
High Heels (Spanish: Tacones lejanos) is a 1991 Spanish melodrama film written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar and starring Marisa Paredes, Victoria Abril and Miguel Bosé. The plot follows the fractured relationship between a self-involved mother who is a famous torch song singer and the grown daughter she had abandoned as a child. The daughter, who works as a TV newscaster, has married her mother's ex-lover and has befriended a female impersonator. A murder further complicates this web of relationships. The film was selected as the Spanish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Pedro Almodóvar|
|Produced by||Agustín Almodóvar|
|Written by||Pedro Almodóvar|
|Music by||Ryuichi Sakamoto|
|Cinematography||Alfredo F. Mayo|
|Edited by||José Salcedo|
|Distributed by||El Deseo S.A, Miramax|
Rebeca, a TV news broadcaster, is at Madrid's airport anxiously awaiting the return of her mother whom she has not seen since childhood. Her mother, Becky del Páramo, a famous torch song singer, is coming back to Spain after a fifteen-year stay in Mexico. While waiting, Rebeca recalls incidents from her early life when her mother, preoccupied with her career and romantic life, left her in the background. For fifteen years Rebeca has longed for her mother to come back and for the love and affection of which she had been deprived. Nevertheless, her love is accompanied by a deep resentment.
Rebeca has since become a newsreader for a television station owned by her husband Manuel. The intensity of the family reunion is heightened because Manuel was, many years ago, one of Becky's lovers. The night of her return, Becky, Rebeca and Manuel have supper and then go out to see Letal, a female impersonator whose drag act is based on Becky. For some time, Rebeca has been coming to see the show whenever she misses her mother. Backstage, Rebeca helps Letal to remove his costume and, kneeling in front of him, she is impressed by his manliness. Letal takes advantage of the situation and they make love. Manuel, who no longer loves his wife, wants to sleep with Becky again and divorce Rebeca.
A month later, Manuel is murdered in his villa. He had spent the evening first with his mistress Isabel, Rebeca's sign language interpreter on the news, and then with Becky who, having become his lover again, had come to announce it was over between them because she had learnt about his other mistress. It was Rebeca who discovered the body. The investigating magistrate, Judge Domínguez, knowing that their relationship has not recovered since Rebeca found out Becky was seeing Manuel, centres his suspicions on the mother and daughter.
On the day of Manuel's funeral, Rebeca confesses to his murder live on television while reading the news. She is immediately imprisoned, but the investigating judge seems desperate to prove her innocence despite all the evidence. Becky makes her return to the Madrid stage while Rebeca spends her first night in prison. In jail, she listens on the radio as her mother dedicates the first songs of her triumphant concert performance to Rebeca. Paula, a social worker, takes a special interest in Rebeca; like her, she is heartbroken, grieving the loss of Hugo, her boyfriend. Rebeca sees a nude picture of Hugo that Paula carries with her and thinks that Letal and Hugo are the same person.
The judge arranges for Becky to see her daughter, and Rebeca now denies the murder of Manuel. Mother and daughter confess their lack of love, their jealousy, and their secrets to each other. Rebeca draws a comparison between herself and the daughter in the film Autumn Sonata, in which the girl's mother, an outstanding pianist, asks her to play the piano and then humiliates her by telling her how to improve her performance. Rebeca suggests that she too has always felt inferior to Becky and has been forced to compete with her, winning only once by marrying Manuel. But even this victory was finally denied her, when Becky started an affair with Manuel. Rebeca admits that her desire to be closer to Becky led her, fifteen years ago, to murder her stepfather, and also played some part in her murder of Manuel, whom she saw as usurping her mother's affection. The extent of Rebeca's fixation and the limitlessness of her adoration are too much for Becky's frail heart and her condition worsens. Back in prison, Rebeca discovers she is pregnant – carrying Letal's child. At once, the judge releases her from prison despite the lack of any fresh evidence.
Rebeca goes to see Letal's final drag performance. In the dressing room, she discovers that he is the judge, with Letal being one of his disguises and Hugo being another. He explains that his dressing up was just an investigative strategy and, knowing about her pregnancy, asks her to marry him. As Rebeca struggles to take this in, they see a TV broadcast relating Becky's sudden heart attack. They rush to the hospital. Rebeca confesses to murdering Manuel, but Becky decides to take the blame in order for her daughter to go free. When Becky is taken home to die, Rebeca gives her the gun and Becky leaves her fingerprints on it, thereby incriminating herself and establishing Rebeca's innocence. When Rebeca hears the high heels of the women passing in the street, she tells her mother the sound reminds her of her mother coming home when she was little. She turns around and realises her mother has died while she was talking.
High Heels was an interpretative tour de force for two essential actresses of the 'Almodovarian universe': Marisa Paredes and Victoria Abril. The male lead was difficult to cast. The actor had to be believable in drag and as a judge. The role eventually went to Miguel Bosé, a famous singer in Spain and Latin America. His casting was a cause celebre of the film publicity.
- Victoria Abril as Rebeca
- Marisa Paredes as Becky del Páramo
- Miguel Bosé as Judge Eduardo Dominguez/Letal/Hugo
- Féodor Atkine as Manuel (Rebeca's husband)
- Miriam Díaz Aroca as Isabel
- Anna Lizaran as Margarita
- Bibiana Fernández as Chon
- Cristina Marcos as Paula
- Pedro Diez del Corral as Alberto (Rebeca's stepfather)
- Mayrata O'Wisiedo as Judge's Mother
- Nacho Martínez as Juan (Rebeca's father)
- Rocío Muñoz as Rebeca as a child
- Javier Bardem as floor manager at the TV station
High Heels, Almodóvar's ninth film, was co-produced by El Deseo and Ciby 2000 and was released in Spain in October 1991. It was enormously successful in Spain. By the end of 1991, it had attracted an audience of more than 1.5 million, and eventually it came second in terms of box-office takings to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown among Almodóvar's films released up to that point.
The reaction of Spanish critics to the film was, on the whole, hostile. Antonio Castro, writing in Dirigido por, felt that Almodóvar's desire to create a more straightforward narrative had merely led to a greater loss of vigor. Angel Fernandez Santos in El País, concluded that, in comparison with Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, which he regarded as an Everest, High Heels was a mere hill. And in Expansión, Eduardo Torres-Dulce was firmly of the opinion that Almodóvar had had his day. David Thomson, in Sight and Sound, concluded that in general High Heels did not measure up to much of Almodóvar's earlier work. For him the homage to the other films – including Autumn Sonata – "is counter productive, for it merely suggests the inferiority of High Heels".
High Heels was very successful in Italy and reviews were both heartfelt and moving. In France the film was a huge success. The film did less well in other countries, such as Germany where Almodóvar's films have not been well understood. He commented "My films move very freely and to understand them one must simply allow one's intuition and sensibility free rein… I’ve never been asked so many irrational questions as in Germany".
High Heels was less successful in the United States than many others of Almodóvar's films. Like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels was especially attacked on moral grounds, notably by certain women's groups. Almodóvar also complained that Miramax, the distributor of the film in the United States, did not understand the film and had no idea what to do with it.
The movie-review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes lists a 50% rating on its "Tomatometer" (based on 14 reviews). The aggregator Metacritic lists a 51% favorable rating (based on 12 published reviews). The New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote that High Heels has no real mirth and not even enough energy to keep it lively. Critic Roger Ebert said that "Pedro Almodóvar's films are an acquired taste, and with High Heels I am at last beginning to acquire it".
The original title of the film is Tacones Lejanos, which can be translated as Distant Heels and refers to Rebeca's childhood, when she was unable to sleep until her mother entered her bedroom and Rebeca was able to hear the sound of her mother's heels as she left, walking down the hallway. The inaccuracy of the English translation of the title affected the reception of the film, as the English High Heels suggests stylish comedy, whereas the Spanish Distant Heels conveys a feeling of family melodrama. The Spanish title Distant Heels is a reference to Raoul Walsh's film Distant Drums (1951).
The film High Heels which Almodóvar eventually made was not the one he had intended to make after the completion of Law of Desire in 1986. That film would have been a variation on García Lorca's classic play The House of Bernarda Alba and would have been set in rural Spain, not in Madrid. The story would have involved a domineering mother and her two daughters, both of whom leave home in order to escape her tyranny. The mother is subsequently thought to have perished in a fire but continues to pursue one of the girls for fifteen years. The proposed film did not come to fruition for a variety of reasons. Almodóvar turned instead to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which could be conveniently shot in Madrid. When he eventually made High Heels it was fundamentally different from his original idea. Only the title remained. The plot was developed around the idea of someone confessing a crime on a live television news bulletin.
High Heels relates to the American tradition of melodrama and the so-called "woman's picture". Imitation of Life (1959), directed by Douglas Sirk, was a major influence and there are some striking parallels between High Heels and Sirk's film. In both films, the mother is a performer – Becky a singer, the Lana Turner character in Sirk's film an actress – whose career takes precedence over a young daughter; mother and daughter are rivals over a man; both films begin with the child separated from her mother at a holiday resort; and at one point Rebeca tells her mother to stop acting, a phrase borrowed from Sirk's film. Imitation of Life was both a remake and a reinterpretation of an earlier film – John M. Stahl's 1934 version – so High Heels is very much Almodóvar's own film, distinguished throughout by his particular style and concerns.
With its tense mother-daughter dynamic High Heels also pointedly nods to Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945), though in that film it is the mother, a businesswoman, who obsessively loves her daughter. In Stella Dallas (1937), directed by King Vidor, the same kind of relationship is also prominent, though here the mother, Stella, is neither artist nor businesswoman but a lower-class woman who has social aspirations for her daughter.
High Heels alludes both to the films made by Lana Turner and Joan Crawford and to their lives, to the relationship between Lana Turner, whose lover was killed by her daughter, and to the tumultuous relationship between Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina.
High Heels is a melodrama, though its composite narrative (the poster image of a high-heeled shoe which is also a gun) testifies to the combination of two genres, melodrama and crime thriller. The themes are typical of melodrama: family relations dominate the storyline as do relationships between men and women. The narrative charts the reuniting of a long-absent mother with her daughter and their competition over men (one man in particular) and over professional success. All the characters have secrets that the viewer knows. The omniscient narration, typical of melodrama, allows suspense only in terms of how other characters react to revelations the viewer anticipates. For example, Becky conceals her heart condition from her daughter, Rebeca conceals the truth about murdering her husband, and the judge conceals his triple identity as Letal, Hugo and Judge Dominguez.
Thirty-five minutes into the film, there is a murder, but the plot does not turn the film into an investigative narrative. The story follows the conflict between mother and daughter, not the crime investigator. It is clear that Letal is the judge and that Rebeca probably killed her husband. The investigative role of Judge Dominguez is further undermined by the fact that his motivation is love for the murderess Rebeca rather than solving the crime.
The combined effects of voice, music and lyrics is one of the most prominent features of Almodóvar as a filmmaker. The director finds his most significant musical economy in the highly expressive boleros, which are at the forefront in this film. Almodóvar explained that he listened to an enormous number of songs to find those he used in the film. He finally chose Piensa en Mí and Un año De Amor. His idea was to find songs that would correspond to a singer such as Becky del Páramo both at the start and at the end of her career. Piensa en Mí is a very famous song in Mexico. It was composed by Agustín Lara and sung by Lola Beltrán. The director eventually chose a version by Chavela Vargas, sung as a lament. Un Año de amor, which Letal sings in playback during his show, is a French song by Nino Ferrer. There is a famous Italian version sung by Mina. Almodóvar rewrote the lyrics in Spanish.
Once the two songs were chosen Almodóvar had to find a voice that suited Becky del Páramo. After trying several voices, he found Luz Casal's fitted Marisa Paredes' appearance. Luz Casal, famous in Spain as a rock singer, accepted and the two songs became her biggest hits. Piensa en mi and Un año de amor, the songs that Luz Casal performed for the film were both included in her album A contraluz (Backlight), released in 1991.
High Heels also contains an unexpected prison yard dance sequence that makes reference to the famous musicals shot in fake prisons like Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley and John Waters’ Cry-Baby. The song used in that scene is a merengue: Pecadora by Los Hermanos Rosario.
The score, which Almodóvar did not like, was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto. For the title sequence and Rebeca's second confession in High Heels, Almodóvar used pieces composed by Miles Davis in the Sixties, that were inspired by Flamenco. The first piece, heard while Rebeca is alone waiting for her mother, is called Solea, meaning solitude in Andalusian. After her second confession to judge Dominguez, when Rebeca goes to the cemetery to throw a handful of earth on her husband's coffin, we hear the second piece, Saeta, by Gil Evans, from his Sketches of Spain.
High Heels received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and Goya Award nominations for Costume Design, Editing, Make-Up and Hairstyles, Sound and Supporting Actress (Cristina Marcos). The film won :
High Heels has been released on DVD in region 2. It is not available on DVD in the USA. In Mexico, it was released in multi-region DVD in November 2012.
- Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
- Strauss, Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p. 114
- Allison, A Spanish Labyrinth, p. 204
- Edwards, Almodóvar: Labyrinth of Passion, p. 122
- Edwards, Almodóvar: Labyrinth of Passion, p. 124
- Strauss, Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p. 118
- Maslin, Janet. Online at nytimes.com. Retrieved on 14 February 2009.
- Allison, A Spanish Labyrinth, p. 223
- Edwards, Almodóvar: Labyrinth of Passion, p. 125
- Edwards, Almodóvar: Labyrinth of Passion, p. 127
- Strauss, Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p. 117
- Allison, A Spanish Labyrinth, p. 142
- Allison, A Spanish Labyrinth, p. 143
- Allison, A Spanish Labyrinth, p. 201
- Strauss, Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p. 112
- Strauss, Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p. 115