Almodóvar and Portman’s New Films Illuminate Love, Heroin and Addiction

    Two current films wonder about the nature of addiction—one involving obsessive love, the other heroin use without the usual addictive concomitants.

    These two arthouse movies had differing fates on their opening weekend. Natalie Portman’s Lucy in the Sky did poorly and got poor reviews. Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, was ecstatically received by critics and did extremely well in the arthouse circuit, opening in New York and Los Angeles.

    Portman’s character, Lucy, portrays a real-life woman astronaut (named Lisa Nowak) who, enamored of a male astronaut, armed herself and traveled all night in order to attack a love rival.

    In order to put flesh on that story of the power of disappointed love, Lucy creates an outer space breakdown for Portman as the disoriented astronaut, kind of like the 1967 film The Trip, replete with spacey visuals.

    Lucy makes some sense in depicting the protagnoist’s situation. She has a dreary home life and an overbearing-yet-boring husband. When she meets her flashy love interest, played by Jon Hamm, she is all in. But Hamm soon turns to another woman.

    There is a certain silliness inherent in this story of a woman so misdirected that she thinks attacking a rival will solve her life and love problems. (And there was the oft-repeated detail of Nowak’s wearing a diaper while driving, which is omitted in the film.) The director (Noah Harley) seems torn between the absurdity and the tragedy of Lucy’s mental state. In the words of New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis, Harley “keeps shifting from serious to satirical while restlessly toying with the visuals.”

    But Lucy/Nowak’s story is as serious as they come. The real Nowak, who was carrying an eight-inch knife, was charged with attempted murder (she pleaded to kidnapping) and her space career, to which she was devoted, went up in smoke.

    What would make a person do that?

    They felt that their lives depended on their love object—so much so that they were willing to take actions that meant sacrificing everything else.

    Another case ripped from the headlines is not an answer to that question, but a testament to its seriousness:

    The Ramirez sisters, identical twins, had a problem: They were involved with the same man … Just before sunrise last Saturday, they started arguing, then screaming at one another. The dispute spilled outside. In the heat of the argument, one sister, who had grabbed a knife during the fight, stabbed the other in the chest, fatally wounding her. 

    Needless to say, the surviving sister lost not merely any chance of being with her love interest, but her freedom, career, chance of having a family—in fact, just about everything a person has to lose (her sister lost her life)—just as Nowak did.

    The Ramirez sisters and Nowak felt that their lives depended on their love object—so much so that they were willing to take actions that meant sacrificing everything else.

    As to the frequency of love killings, even where we least look for them, “more than half of the mass killing suspects this summer had a family or romantic tie to at least one victim.”

    As I have often written, based on my studies of, and work with, addicted lovers of all genders, love addictions motivate the most destructive behavior and are the hardest to quit

    All of us know people whose compulsive or obsessive engagements in relationships have caused great damage.

    Prevalence, given love addiction’s lack of official status and attention, is hard to estimate. A 2010 review put it at 3 percent of the general population over the past 12 months. Studies of college students, on the other hand, have found from 12 to 26 percent addicted to love.

    But all of us know people whose compulsive or obsessive engagements in relationships have caused great damage. I believe, in fact, that most of us have been addicted to love. Whenever I give workshops and lectures, I do the following exercise: 

    First I ask how many people have taken a painkiller.

    Everyone raises their hand.

    Then I ask how many became addicted. (Usually no one in my stable, middle-class audience has.)

    I then say, “If we define addiction as becoming enmeshed in a destructive involvement, but rather than extricating yourself, you continue to pursue it, causing yourself even more pain and damage, how many people have been involved in an addictive relationship?”

    A majority always raise their hands.



    Almodóvar’s film, meanwhile, is built around the heroin-using careers of three men. All recover. The Times’ Dargis also reviewed Pain and Glory. She loved it (as did I). Her review was titled, “Almodóvar’s Dazzling Art of Self-Creation.”

    Glory, like Lucy, drifts between reality and fantasy—the fantasies occurring for the protagonist (a film director named Salvador Mallo, played by Antonio Banderas) after using heroin. Per Dargis: 

    The colors glow like traffic lights—there are eye-popping bursts of stop-sign red and go-go green—and the movie is as visually striking as any Almodóvar has made. 

    Pain and Glory describes how heroin fits into the lives of the three men, both salving and exacerbating their pain. But when they find answers to their pain, they discard heroin organically. (Warning to Americans: Glory has no 12-steps groups or psychotherapy.)

    Mallo’s greatest problem stems not from heroin use itself, but from his lost will to live amidst physical pain and emotional isolation.

    Foremost is Mallo’s story, standing in for the actual director’s. (The film uses Almodóvar’s home as a set and Banderas wears Almodóvar’s clothes.)

    Mallo is not portrayed as being addicted to heroin. For example, he doesn’t undergo withdrawal when he quits using the drug. Mallo’s greatest problem stems not from heroin use itself, but from his lost will to live amidst physical pain and emotional isolation. As Dargis writes, “Salvador’s most debilitating issue is that he is a man without desire. He’s alone and hasn’t made a movie in a while, and a new one doesn’t seem on the horizon.”

    Mallo isn’t a heroin user as the film begins. Rather he is invited to celebrate a classic film he produced in the 1980s, which causes him to contact the actor who starred in it, Alberto.

    Mallo hasn’t spoken to Alberto in the aftermath of the movie. He didn’t like the actor’s performance, which he found too sedate, due to Alberto’s heroin use. In an example of the film’s humor, Mallo asks accusingly, “Why couldn’t you just use cocaine and alcohol, like I did?” 

    Mallo smokes heroin with Alberto when they reunite. 

    Almodóvar resembles Mallo in his pain (which is, after all, the first word in the film’s title):

    Those aches take many forms, both physical and spiritual. Mallo is debilitated by frequent migraines and back spasms, and he’s also haunted by a past relationship torn asunder by drugs as well as a mother he feels he has failed. All of these maladies were taken from Almodóvar’s own life.

    It seems that Almodóvar is also familiar with painkillers, although he declares that he has never used heroin. Thus, in introducing Mallo to heroin use, the filmmaker is making a statement that heroin differs only symbolically from opioid painkillers.

    But then, remarkably, heroin has a positive effect for Mallo. (Try that in an American movie!) He falls into a reverie in which he vividly recalls his childhood, to which he returns whenever he smokes. His life then was impoverished but idyllic—including having a loving mother (Penélope Cruz).

    These recollections move him along the road to recovering what he has most crucially lost. As Dargis puts it:

    How do you come back from the dead? For Salvador, the answer comes in fits and starts, in the burnished images of his childhood, in an old lover’s passion, in the power of art.

    Now, with his filmmaking urge rekindled by this chemical muse, Mallo will be able to give up his moderate and short-lived heroin habit.

    Meanwhile, we see that Alberto has continued his heroin use for decades. At the same time he maintains a stable, if—like Mallo’s—isolated and purposeless existence. How does he escape addiction?

    Mallo has written a treatment entitled “Addiction” describing a past lover he lost to drugs. When Alberto discovers the piece on Mallo’s computer, he implores the director to let him produce and act in it. 

    Mallo thinks about it, then agrees to turn the play over to Alberto. When he does, Alberto become hyper-motivated—so much so that when Mallo offers Alberto some heroin, the actor declines. Already preoccupied with the script, he tells Mallo that he needs “to focus.”

    Almodóvar doesn’t see addiction in the black-and-white terms most Americans do. His characters all drink liquor and get drunk without relapsing to heroin.

    Finally, the lover lost to addiction at the center of the script, Federico, appears in Madrid, where he happens upon Alberto’s performance. Deeply moved, Federico contacts Mallo. Subsequently showing up at Mallo’s apartment, he reveals to Mallo that he has been living in Argentina.

    Federico claims he quit his addiction because he couldn’t get heroin in Argentina. (Really?) Instead he got married, had two sons and started a successful restaurant. Federico—who was once hopelessly addicted—has led the most regular life of the three men.

    Almodóvar doesn’t see addiction in the black-and-white terms most Americans do. His characters, for example, all drink liquor and get drunk without relapsing to heroin. Mallo throws his drug stash away while awaiting his former lover. Meanwhile, he has been inspired to make movies again—and to live.

    The bottom line of the film: Connection and purpose are the solutions to addiction.

    As to which addiction—love or heroin—produces the worst cessation pain, Glory doesn’t depict anyone undergoing withdrawal à la The Man With the Golden Arm. (For the record, I rate heroin the fourth hardest addiction to quit after love, potato chips and cigarettes.)

    After he quits heroin, Mallo consults a pain specialist. The doctor explains the withdrawal he will undergo when he stops his opioid prescriptions, even though Mallo has already cold-turkeyed heroin.

    Mallo tells another doctor, a surgeon, as he goes under for a life-healing but not life-threatening surgery, that his film is in some ways a tragedy, and in others a comedy. 

    And, in a sense, heroin, addiction and life purpose are all linked together in Glory as human tragedies and dark comedies. Quoting Dargis once more:

    Salvador’s crisis is real, but its performative quality is a relief; it lightens the heaviness and gives you permission to laugh. Pain and Glory can be achingly sad, but its pleasures, rainbow hues and humor keep it (and you) aloft.

    It is, after all, a film about recovery.

    Screenshot from the official trailer of Pain and Glory, via YouTube.

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