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.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit