In his latest film, renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar returns, at first glance, to the light-hearted style of comedy that marked his early career and established him as the central figure in the post-Franco Movida Madrileña. I’m So Excited! (released in Spanish as Los Amantes Pasajeros, meaning, literally, either “The Passenger Lovers” or “The Fleeting Lovers”) takes place almost entirely aboard an airplane that is revealed early on in the film to be destined to circle above an airport in Spain until a runway opens up for a crash landing. This is the extent of the “plot,” as such, in the film. With I’m So Excited!, Almodóvar has pared down his usually byzantine narrative style to really only feature one major digressive break from the dominant narrative. In other words, the camera only once leaves the confines of the airplane while it’s in flight. Compared to Almodóvar’s recent spate of complexly plotted explorations of obsession, sexual substitution, and trauma, I’m So Excited! seems simple. The effect of this stripping down, of this forceful spatial and thematic confinement, however, is not a feeling of claustrophobia or lack. Instead, the limited scope engenders a kind of focus: I’m So Excited! is Almodóvar clarified. Despite the occasionally manic energy behind it’s canted cinematography and the seemingly panic-inducing source material, the film exudes a kind of calm born out of the satisfaction of a journey completed, even if it is not the journey one set out to complete.
The film begins with a minor accident acted out by two Almodóvar regulars: Jessi (Penélope Cruz) crashes a luggage car into another airport employee when she catches sight of her lover, León (Antonio Banderas). León rushes to help Jessi, who reveals to him she is pregnant and, in their mutual excitement, the pair make a mistake in preparing a plane for takeoff. The short sequence ends with Jessi’s vehicular victim tweeting “I am bleeding to death,” and the space of the film moves inside the doomed plane. The brevity of Cruz and Banderas’ cameos, placed so close to the beginning of the film, reads almost like a joke in itself: No, Almodóvar seems to be saying to the expectant viewer, this is not All About My Mother or The Skin I Live In. Sorry.
Once inside the plane, the viewer is introduced to the passengers and crew. Joserra (Javier Cámara), Ulloa (Raul Arévalo), and Fajas (Carlos Areces) are the three flight attendants charged with making sure the passengers don’t panic upon their inevitably realizing their plane will crash. To achieve this, they quickly drug the majority of the passengers. All of the economy-class passengers are asleep for the length of the film, shrinking the cast of characters significantly. The lengths Joserra, Ulloa, and Fajas go to calm and distract the remaining (conscious) passengers provides much of the film’s narrative drive and many of the its funniest moments. This remaining ensemble includes a politically powerful dominatrix (Cecilia Roth), a virgin with the power to detect the scent of death (Lola Dueñas), and a famous actor (Guillermo Toledo) whose dramatic love life provides the fuel for one of the most stunning segments of the film. Two pilots (Hugo Silva and Antonia de la Torre), as concerned with sexual experimentation as with flying airplanes, round out the cast. In Almodóvar’s capable hands, the absurdity of this mix of whacky characters seems in no way forced. That the outrageous protagonists are played in large part by long-time Almodóvar collaborators adds to a feeling of self-conscious parody: I’m So Excited! is, in many ways, like a meta-filmic inside joke, concocted for the enjoyment of a devoted fan base. The film and its characters hover somewhere just outside of everyday reality, suspended in a place in which Murphy’s Law has morphed into something to be enjoyed rather than dreaded.
Like many of the director’s earlier films (1994’s What Have I Done To Deserve This, in particular), a kind of darkness quietly lingers beneath the sex, drugs, and dance routines of this ill-fated flight to Mexico. One of the passengers, a shady security agent named Infante (José María Yazpik), can be seen throughout the flight reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Beyond serving as a foreshadowing devise for viewers who happen to be fans of Bolaño’s opus of violence and corruption, the presence of the book reveals the serious issues still at stake in Almodóvar’s apparent return from heavy melodrama to light-hearted farce. Like Bolaño’s novel, sexuality in I’m So Excited! is tied inextricably to power, wealth, and violence: only the wealthy passengers are able to experience the sexual freedom of the flight as the remainder sleep in the back of the plane. This divide is only broken once, in a sequence in which the curious Dueñas ventures back into the dormant economy class, intent on losing her virginity. The eroticism of the resulting scene is decidedly one-way, and represents one of the most intense moments of discomfort and humor that crops up occasionally throughout the film. (One must wonder what the reaction to the scene would be should the sexes of the participants be reversed—the balance between humor and darkness would, I think, tip in the opposite direction.) The plane’s first-class cabin represents in some ways a space apart from the corruption and vileness of the world below it. It becomes a fantasy environment, one in which the desires of the passengers and crew are disclosed alongside their profound anxieties and traumas. (In the wake of the crash of Asiana Flight 214, the film, as you can imagine, takes on an especially strange tone. Viewing the film in Berkeley on the day of the crash, the atmosphere in the theater was uneasy at times, especially when a character mentions, off-handedly and coincidentally, another crash in which two passengers tragically died.)
Fans of Almodóvar’s recent films may be turned off by the simplicity of the plot and the relative lack of moments of tension and revelation in I’m So Excited!. But it is a film in which Almodóvar has opted for the charm and harmony of the circular over the elaborate intricacy of the serpentine. I’m So Excited! is the rare film that manages to exhibit both an aesthetic of excess and of restraint, simple on the surface yet rich in reference.