The Review/ Feature/
Pedro Almodóvar’s posters are as sumptuous as his films
For many, Juan Gatti’s designs were an introduction to the Spanish auteur
A shark rising from the depths towards a nude swimmer; a giant (perhaps even 50-foot) woman attacking cars on a freeway; Rhett Butler clutching a bare-shouldered Scarlett O’Hara. Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
“There are millions of people who have a Gatti in their house, and many do not even know it.” —Vanity Fair
To viewers only familiar with Pedro Almodóvar through later films like Talk to Her or Bad Education, the director’s 1986 film Matador might seem like the first “real” Almodóvar film (though there’s also a strong case to be made for the wild 1984 comedy What Have I Done to Deserve This?). Matador is the first Almodóvar film to seriously explore what would become the director's pet subjects (violence, desire, the ambiguity of truth); the first with a relatively large budget ($8 million); and the director’s first significant collaboration with Antonio Banderas, who would become the most prominent male in Almodóvar’s stock company.
Equally important, it was the film that initiated Almodóvar’s professional relationship with Juan Gatti, the art director whom he would work with for over 30 years. It’s thanks to Gatti’s vibrant designs and graphic sensibility that many of us first discovered Almodóvar's films amid the chaos of crowded video-store shelves.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1950, Gatti began his career designing magazines and record covers before fleeing Argentina in 1978, after serving a six-month jail term for protesting a military parade in his underwear. During a brief stint in New York, Gatti connected with the then up-and-coming fashion designer Kenzo Takada, and agreed to collaborate with him in Paris following a brief Christmastime stopover in Madrid. At the time, the Spanish capital was experiencing a renaissance: in the wake of Franco’s death and the end of four decades of fascist rule, a new wave of music, film, drugs, and free love dubbed La Movida Madrileña had flooded the city. Caught up the excitement, Gatti opted to remain in Spain, forcing him to postpone his collaboration with Takada for several decades.
Like many countercultural movements, La Movida is a slippery thing to define. After decades of repression, Spain was “having itself one ongoing coming-out party,” as a particularly rosy Rolling Stone article put it, “the kind you like to have when the folks are away for the weekend. Only this time the Old Man isn't coming back.” Exactly whose party it was and who was actually involved remain up for debate — but unquestionably, one of the scene’s biggest stars was the young Almodóvar, whose first rush of films in the late ’70s and early ’80s “suggested that the country had leaped from Opus Dei to the Mudd Club in a single bound” (The New Yorker).
The artwork for these early films was created by other key figures of La Movida, such as filmmaker Ivan Zulueta and underground cartoonist Ceesepe (Carlos Sánchez Pérez), who illustrated the posters and title sequence for Almodóvar's scrappy debut Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom, which maintained a Rocky Horror-like cult status in Madrid for years.
Though Zulueta was himself the director of one of the movement's defining films, Arrebato, by the early ’80s he had moved on to a new career designing posters for his contemporaries, including Almodóvar's Labyrinth of Passion, Dark Habits, and What Have I Done to Deserve This?
As Almodóvar's reputation grew outside of Spain over the next few years, most distributors avoided using the original Spanish artwork — which they feared that international audiences might read as cryptic (and perhaps a little crude) — to introduce their new discovery to the world.
By the time that many of his early works reached foreign markets, Almodóvar had already made his next few films, each of which featured the magnetic young star Antonio Banderas, who had made his very brief big-screen debut in Labyrinth of Passion — a bit part later inflated into a starring role by poster artists around the world (all-too-common practice).
Matador was not entirely exempt from this sort of sensationalism (many European releases exploited the film's more prurient stills), but it is Juan Gatti's original Spanish poster that has endured.
Based on a painting by singer Carlos Berlanga, who had crafted the credits for Almodóvar's short film Tráiler para amantes de lo prohibido, Gatti's design simplified the artwork into a piece which evokes both Picasso and fashion illustration.
Almodóvar's next film, Law of Desire, was his first produced through El Deseo, the new company founded by himself and his brother Agustín. “We always work with the same people,” said Almodóvar. “Esther García, our production manager; Pepe Salcedo, our editor; Juan Gatti, our designer. It's like a family, all the more so because there are two brothers at the head of it.” Included in this family was Almodóvar's Movida-era conspirator Ceesepe, whose painting style had matured as much as had the director's filmmaking.
Though many of the film’s international releases fell victim to the abovementioned Banderas Effect, Law of Desire also spawned a fascinating French poster that seems more fitting for a Robert Bresson film, and a stunning Italian poster illustrated by Peter Ermanno Iaia, a Rome-born artist popularly remembered for his iconic posters for Billy Jack and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
Though Gatti's influence wasn't strongly felt on Law of Desire, his fingerprints are all over Almodóvar's next film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, most memorably in the film's opening titles.
"Pedro wanted the film to be as stylized as the high comedies we both loved, like Stanley Donen's Funny Face and Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther,” recalled Gatti of the pair’s collaboration on Women on the Verge in a 2006 New York Times profile. “Also I was very interested in Alexey Brodovitch's work at Harper's Bazaar magazine in the 1950s. I wanted to mix all those influences."
The resulting title sequence — which Almodóvar says functions in the film like the “overture of an opera” — evokes the feeling of flipping through an early-’60s fashion magazine. The film's promotional materials took this “overture” idea further, borrowing elements from the titles to firmly establish the tone of the film before a single frame is projected.
The international releases of the film generally took advantage of the almost universally comprehensible nature of these posters, though some regions still opted to put their own particular stamp on the film, such as the delightfully eccentric Czech and Hungarian sheets and the conventionally “zany” North American poster.
The opposite is true for Almodóvar's 1989 follow-up Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which — perhaps owing to the film's tricky sexual politics — seems to have inspired a new poster in every region in which it opened (though it must be said that none of the alternate versions deserve to be hung on the same wall as Gatti's Saul Bass-inspired original).
High Heels (whose poster Gatti counts as his personal favourite) marks another juncture in the long collaboration between filmmaker and designer: from this point onward, Gatti's work (or at least riffs on it) was almost exclusively used for the various international releases of the films — though as always, certain regions produced some spectacular outliers.
There was still room for clumsy variations on Gatti's original, such as the superfluous silhouette added to the Italian High Heels poster (above) or — in the design equivalent of putting a balloon between two students at a dance — the North American one-sheet for Live Flesh, which flips and separates the poster’s nestled pelvises.
The Academy Award-winning All About My Mother was Almodóvar's first film in over a decade to not utilize Gatti's talents, though the work of Spanish illustrator Oscar Mariné has antecedents in both Matador and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
Gatti's deceptively simple poster for Talk to Her seemed to take on the status of classic almost as soon as it arrived in cinema lightboxes — so much so that Barbra Streisand's Duets album “paid homage” to it mere weeks after the film poster appeared.
Though the Bad Education poster above was used near-exclusively worldwide, it obviously presented some challenges in the Japanese market, which utilized an alternate design that anticipated Gatti's upcoming poster for Volver.
Asked about his working process with Gatti, Almodóvar explained, “we sit at a table and flick through books, magazines and collections of film posters to find images which might start us off. I steal a lot of ideas. But there's a great difference between the images we start from and the one we end up with, and that's where Juan comes in.” (For readers looking to get a sense of this experience, Gatti’s Instagram account is a steady, scrapbook-like feed of beautiful miscellany.)
The non-Almodóvar films produced by El Deseo also benefited from Gatti's involvement, including Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, which is certainly in the running for the title of best poster of the last decade.
Gatti's handiwork is also often on display in the endless books-, plays-, and films-within-films that populate Almodóvar's work.
Gatti's beautiful teaser poster for The Skin I Live In utilized an illustration style the designer was increasingly exploring in his personal art — though the film's official release opted for a more prudent design foregrounding the faces of stars Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Gatti described himself and Almodóvar as “divorciados” (though amicably so), which accounts for his lack of involvement on Almodóvar's two most recent films, Julieta and I'm So Excited (though ironically, he had already produced a crude poster for Enrique Goded’s version of Los amantes pasajeros in Bad Education.)
Though the bulk of the promotion for I'm So Excited utilized artwork by Spanish polymath Javier Mariscal, teaser artwork was developed by infamous photographer Jean-Paul Goude.
Barfutura,the Madrid/Los Angeles agency behind the stunning one-sheet for Almodóvar's recent hit Julieta, are certainly conversant in the language of the Gatti-Almodóvar posters: note this silk-screened teaser poster, evoking in spirit (if not style) the Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! poster, as well as the obvious nod to Women on the Verge in this promotional image.