On the surface Pain and Glory is a straight film telling the story of a retired artist struggling with ill health and bereavement but to me it feels like a dream movie. I don’t mean in the fantastical sense like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz or Inception; it is more like one of those dreams where the sleeper is processing memories and reliving things that actually happened but with a slightly different outcome or altered circumstances. I’m not suggesting this as a reading of the film either, where you question whether what you see actually happened, as with the ends of The Piano or The Dark Knight Rises. You just get the feeling that the events that are playing out on screen are part of a drifting narrative that aren’t absolutely tied to the rules of reality. Unlikely circumstances transpire to randomly reconnect people that haven’t seen each other for years. Illnesses are conflated in a way that smacks of unconscious patient catastrophising. Significant life events play out in wishful thinking, what if I’d been bold enough to do this not that scenarios. This is realism but not quite.
None of this is said as a criticism as it is clearly all deliberate on the part of writer/director Pedro Almodóvar. He is skilfully working with notions of recall and indeed much of the story is based on aspects of his own life. Even the parts of the film that aren’t the memories of the protagonist are, at least partially, the memories of the director so there is no element of the plot that isn’t subject to subjective recollection and Almodóvar uses this as his artists palette, dipping his brush into it and dabbing these conceptual notions up on the screen.
The ‘it was all a dream’ trope is actually really interesting in the context of this film because while he doesn’t use it, Almodóvar deliberately toys with it at the end. To say too much on this would spoil the closing moments but the director acknowledges and reclaims this cliche in a subtle and clever way. Almodóvar has used filmic and storytelling conventions in many different ways over his forty year career and although Pain and Glory feels like a departure he is really just exercising these same muscles. He has done comedy, ghost stories, thrillers, crime and this is him doing pseudo biography. The genre might be different but it is informed by the same understanding of cinema.