Pedro Almodóvar last graced our screens with 2016's slightly underrated Julieta, a layered adaptation of Alice Munro's short fictions that struck these eyes as an appreciable refinement of the storytelling this one-time enfant terrible began in earnest with 1995's The Flower of My Secret. His new film, Pain & Glory, feels like an attempt to apply the lessons learnt on that project to more personal material - the story of a pill-popping filmmaker enduring a moment of crisis or transition. As many observers have pointed out in the months since the film's Cannes premiere in May, this is Pedro's 8 1⁄2, his Day for Night, perhaps even his Sunset Blvd.: Pain & Glory even opens with a body in a swimming pool, a lengthy knife wound visible along its spinal column. The wound is but a surgical scar, however, and the body is just about still alive, that of a survivor found in suspension: the Madrid-based writer-director Salvador Mallo, greying lion of the Spanish film business, played by Antonio Banderas with hair and beard groomed in a recognisably Almodóvarian fashion. Mallo is not the first filmmaker to appear in what we might now call New Almodóvar - you'll recall Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), the ailing tyro of 2009's Broken Embraces - yet Salvador Mallo looks some distance closer to a self-portrait, and it's the first time Almodóvar has used a whole movie to anatomise a creative personality, inside and out.
Forwards and backwards, too: the plot of Pain & Glory proves to be two-way traffic, showing us where its protagonist came from, and where he's headed. In the present, there is the matter of a fraught reunion with one of his actors, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), ahead of a public screening of a film the pair made in the 1980s before falling out. Intermittent flashbacks, meanwhile, describe Mallo's underprivileged childhood, with Penelope Cruz assuming her now-regular Mother Courage role, nurturing her sensitive son in a sparsely furnished cave that can't help but appear somewhat womb-like. (Maybe that's what the adult Salvador is doing in the swimming pool: awaiting rebirth.) For a long while, this contraflow of images is the only real movement in Pain & Glory: the film feels a little sluggish, even before Salvador takes to smoking heroin as a means of alleviating his aches and pains. The post-screening Q&A makes for a lively scene, conducted long-range over the phone, with Salvador taking snorts of coke to deal with especially tricky questions: here's the Almodóvar who made a spiked gazpacho an essential component of his 1988 breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Yet we've generally come to this director's films to witness his vast empathy turned outwards; redirecting it towards a figure so close to himself risks leaving the resulting film looking a shade self-involved. Could it be that in 2019, with the Amazon burning and nationalism back on the rise, one of the maestros of modern cinema, a man feted in almost every corner of the globe, has made a woe-is-me movie about a director taking refuge in drugs?
Well, there is at least detail, rich and vivid, in the woe; in Pedro's world, even the doldrums retain compelling textures. While we wait for Salvador to get his head straight, scene after scene offers something to pique the eye: the idiosyncratic way our hero crushes his pain medication, as if preparing a meal, or his manner of tossing a cushion to the floor before taking a knee; his aspirational kitchen, with its gleaming cabinets set out in a shade we must now refer to as Almodóvar Red (much as there is Yves Klein Blue); at one point, just before rehearsals begin for a one-man play based on a confessional short story Mallo has penned about his addiction experiences, the screen fills with rows of empty theatre seats - a struggling director's worst nightmare. It becomes clear that Pain & Glory is trying to dramatise and visualise those depressive ruts and stupors creatives sometimes find themselves in, and the ways in which they come to be pulled - or pull themselves - out of them. Understandably, it's a more mellow, introspective Pedro we find at work here, but his writing still engages us, and there are elements that quietly leap off the screen. You can tell something's turned in the reclusive Mallo's thinking, for example, just from a brief yet oddly lingering shot of Banderas making vigorous use of a shoehorn: finally, we think, this dude's getting it together, heading out, going somewhere. P&G commits to giving its protagonist a reason to leave the house: a small triumph, but one beyond the reach of so many of our friends and loved ones, in these most depressed and depressing of times.
I wonder whether the film would be as resonant without Banderas in the lead role. Not unlike Cruz, he's been wasted in L.A. - or, more specifically, he's been asked to represent a very limited idea of masculinity. Almodóvar asks more of his star than any director has for some time, chiefly to put aside his cape and sword and open up to the camera, to let us see scars both within and without. If he isn't an exact stand-in for Almodóvar, a little more weathered by fifty years of countercultural activity, it's still a darn good approximation, and during the movie's simple, lovely single shots of Salvador listening or gently sobbing - shots that display exactly the admiring attention you'd hope one old friend might bestow upon another - you may start to wonder whether Almodóvar has, in fact, made what used to be known as a woman's picture, only about a man, or about himself. Almodóvar may now be at an age when publishers have started to hound him for some form of autobiography (imagine the pre-sales! Imagine the illustrations!), and Pain & Glory does look very much like a response to that: get some of the old gang back together (aside from Banderas and Cruz, there are roles for Cecilia Roth and Julieta Serrano) and make a movie about the way his world turns on a day-by-day basis. There's nothing as rapturous in that as there was in Julieta or Talk to Her, still the apex of this filmmaker's mature phase; it's closer to the talking through of a process, Pedro showing his workings. That's interesting, of course, as it always is to find out how artists see an idea through - it's just you may have to be the type who'd show up to an Almodóvar Q&A to get the most out of it.
Pain & Glory is now playing in selected cinemas.