Trousersnakes on a plane

Reviewed: Pedro Almodóvar’s "I'm So Excited!".

I’m So Excited (15)
dir: Pedro Almodóva

Pedro Almodóvar’s new film is a ribald sex comedy confined largely to the business class section of a flight heading from Spain to Mexico: think of it as Trousersnakes on a Plane. The candy colours and the high campness quotient indicate a return to the tone of the director’s earliest work, especially his 1988 breakthrough success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, after some turgid melodramas. I’m So Excited! wears its apparent frivolity as proudly as a Carmen Miranda fruit turban. During a musical number lipsynced by a trio of male flight attendants, one passenger stirs from her slumber to ask: “What’s going on?” “Nothing,” replies her companion, which could be read as a comment on the film in general. (The last scene even takes place in a flurry of bubbles.)

But no movie in which the economy passengers are sedated for the duration of the flight, while the wealthy elite get to bitch and booze to their heart’s content, can be said to have surrendered its satirical intent at checkin. Like in any disaster film, the characters on board are carrying the sort of baggage that can’t be stored in the overhead lockers. There’s a disgraced financier with some complicity in Spain’s financial crisis and a dominatrix with a sideline in blackmail. Audiences are likely to appreciate the clairvoyant Norma most; she is played by Almodóvar’s chirpy, long-time collaborator Cecilia Roth, a woman you might feasibly want beside you if your plane was going down. Norma has foreseen terrible things for the flight but remains hopeful that someone on board might relieve her of her virginity.

I’m So Excited! aspires to be a light comedy about a heavy subject. Advance notice of its topsy-turvy perspective is to be found in the opening scene, in which a baggage handler and a member of the ground crew are distracted from their duties by a soap-operastyle revelation. Being a frumpy sort, the baggage handler is naturally played by Penélope Cruz. And who else but Antonio Banderas could star as her nondescript colleague? This is a nod to Almodóvar’s history with these performers, whose film careers he launched, but there’s a plot point here, too. It is precisely the inattention of these beautiful people on the ground that leads to catastrophe in the air: with the landing gear fatally compromised, the plane is forced to circle Madrid airport awaiting a runway to accommodate its crash landing.

Not the most promising start for a comedy, perhaps, but then it is important to remember that this is a director who finds laughs where none have existed. His 1980 debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap, began with a woman being raped by a cop whom she had attempted to bribe with sex, and Kika (1993) nudged at the boundaries of humour with yet another rape, this one borne by its victim with a pragmatism at once amusing and poignant. A rape of sorts occurs in I’m So Excited! (it’s of the female-on-male variety) but the stiffest test of taste is whether comedy can flourish on a doomed flight in times markedly less innocent than those that produced a spoof like Airplane!.

Comic responsibilities in Almodóvar’s film are laid mainly at the feet of the gay, male cabin-crew trio, headed by Joserra (Javier Cámara). They take it on themselves to keep spirits up by dispensing drugs and alcohol, while preparing a song-and-dance routine that turns out to have been part of their emergency training.

The situation is not too grave to stop them worrying about whether the pilot’s wife is wise to his affair with Joserra, or how much mescaline to put in the punch, or what exactly the flight attendant Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo) has in the corner of his mouth. The movie may be a trifle but you can bet that’s not cream.

Though it’s encouraging to find Almodóvar rediscovering comedy after two gruelling melodramas (Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In), the satire is never quite stinging enough, the laughs not as resonant as the staging and line readings would suggest. The elements of silly and sombre occasionally cancel out one another, leaving the film suspended in the same limbo as its characters. Still, no matter how dire the situation gets for the passengers, there is one consolation: at least they’re not flying Ryanair.

José María Yazpik and Cecilia Roth in "I'm So Excited!".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1970 issue of the New Statesman,

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism