A new film from Spanish maestro Pedro Almodovar is a cause for excitement and enough to get me heading to the nearest cinema showing the work at the first possible opportunity. The flamboyant director always has some new tricks up his sleeve and all of his films since the start of this decade have shown a new maturity, contemplative approach, and a noir sensibility missing from his thoroughly entertaining but often hollow-cored early romps. On the surface his latest movie (which has attracted some of the most lukewarm notices of his career) may seem a throwback to the iconoclastic and empty-headed early farces, but there is far more to the film than that. Even if there were not, it is a joyous ninety minutes full of its own charms.
The original title "Los Amantes Pasajeros" (loosely translated at the Loving Passengers) tells one as little about the movie as the chosen English title taken from the Pointer Sisters' 1984 pop hit -- a rendition of which performed by three more-than-camp air stewards becomes the film's highlight. The action, such as it is, takes place largely on a transatlantic flight of a mythical airline between Madrid and Mexico City. However, in a seemingly unrelated cameo at the start of the film between two of the director's muses (Antonio Banderos and Penelope Cruz), the flight is sent off with a major fault -- its landing gear is compromised. When this becomes apparent, the flight captain radios for help in finding a suitable strip where he can attempt an emergency landing. Nothing seems to be immediately available...
What to do? The passengers and their stewardesses in the cramped economy section are drugged to keep them quiet and to avoid any panic. The panic is largely confined to the three gay stewards who act as the spearheads of the action forming a viaduct between the virtually empty business-class section and the cockpit (and never has that word been subject to more innuendos than in this film). In business class we have seven passengers: a honeymoon couple exhausted after three days of shagging, a failed actress turned dominatrix (Cecelia Roth -- one of the few members of the director's stock company with a major role) who claims to have video evidence of indiscretions by Spain's most powerful men, a famous actor trying to escape from his most recent failed amour, a banker fleeing the aftermath of his financial misdeeds, a shady 'business advisor' who is actually a hitman, and a plain, middle-aged 'psychic' who is desperate to lose her virginity. One of the stewards is the not so secret lover of the married pilot, while the second is panting to pleasure the purportedly hetero first officer, and the chubby third (a memorable Carlos Areces) spends much of his time praying at his portable pop-up shrine.
As the plane flies in circles over Toledo, the seven privileged passengers rattle about in their pastel cabin, exchanging intimacies, at first verbal and then sexual, egged on by the potent brew distributed by the irrepressible stewards -- a mixture of juice, champagne, and mescaline (retrieved from an unmentionable hiding place by the randy groom). Without any inflight entertainment or private telephones, their various secrets are revealed on the one public telephone which provides no privacy, as their conversations are boomed out for all to hear. In this imminently life-threatening scenario, each of them must evaluate what really matters in their lives and what they must do change things -- should they survive. Eventually they are able to land at the totally deserted 'La Mancha' Airport (shades of quixotic adventures) -- but actually a reference to one of two Spanish 'white elephant' airports built during an expansive boom period and now abandoned in the new age of austerity.
The film can easily be read to symbolise the state of the Spanish nation -- the unconscious and helpless majority in the cattle car blissfully unaware of long-range problems, while the privileged few find themselves in a holding pattern, without really knowing how to find the right answers. As a metaphor for Spain's financial woes, one might rate this movie a downer. However all troubles recede to the background in the irreverent hands of the stewards' wonderfully choreographed gay Greek chorus. Without them the film would be just a loosely-knit collection of mildly diverting vignettes, but their infectious joie de vivre in the face of catastrophe makes this movie a wonderfully entertaining trifle. Almodovar examines the state of his nation with a deft and irreverent hand, and while possibly a lightweight outing, this film is far, far from a failure.