Much of the humour of Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited) runs the risk of being lost in translation. To Spanish speakers the original title means “the fleeing lovers” or “the passenger lovers”. As always, director Pedro Almodóvar aims to shock. Fans and critics of his work will know what to expect but Almodóvar virgins beware: you will find yourself confronted not just by sexual references as found in his early work Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), but with graphic sexual scenes more akin to his later film Bad Education (2004).
The film opens with a Latin reworking of Für Elise that invites the audience to contemplate the brightness of the Spanish sun reflected in Madrid’s airport runway. Two of the film’s stars, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, appear in cameo roles as airport workers; their roles in the story are important and are catalysts for events that will later unfold.
The plot follows the flight of the Chavela Blanca, which due to a fault in its landing gear is forced to fly around in circles above the Iberian Peninsula. To keep passengers blissfully unaware of their situation, complimentary drinks spiked with drugs are offered. While Economy Class passengers are given little choice and no warnings about the impending danger, First Class fare holders are made aware of the situation and the contents of their “Agua de Valencia”. This offers a contemporary political allegory of sorts: the many Spaniards who were kept in the dark during the current economic climate when information and decision-making was available to the affluent or those with “political influence”.
In this life-threatening scenario, phones become an important plot device; telephones and mobiles are sole means of communication with significant others not on the plane, and characters use them to express their innermost feelings and to convey things that normally would have been left unsaid. At the film’s close, passengers also take the opportunity to change their ways and make the most of their second chance at life. Almodóvar links this beautifully with other events unfolding on the ground; for example, in a scene featuring a mobile phone falling from a bridge that is dropped by someone feeling suicidal, a ray of hope in what might have been a bleak outlook is provided by another who picks up the mobile, knows the exact same person and is able to intervene.
Both director and screen writer create a vision of a world of stereotypes; Javier Cámara (Blind Sunflowers 2008), Raúl Arévalo and Carlos Areces play the roles of Joserra, Ulloa and Fajardo, three very camp air stewards who entertain the passengers by singing along to “I’m so excited”, the song that gives the English title to the film. Taking centre stage alongside the gay flight crew are a Mexican assassin, a dominatrix, a corrupt businessman, a promiscuous actor and desperate 30 year old virgin. These characters, and also Almodóvar’s obsession with sex, suggest that the director is perhaps unable to move away from his roots in the Movida, a Spanish movement that rebelled against the oppression and sexual repression of Spain during the Franco years.
Today, Spain faces new challenges that could have been more interestingly explored. In my view Los amantes pasajeros represents a missed opportunity. Los amantes pasajeros has many satirical political references that may be lost to an audience living outside of Spain but Almodóvar shows that when it comes to comedy, he is still game. However, in times of crisis humour is a key tool to address hard times; as seen in films from Mexico during the late 60’s and early 70’s, cinema can explore the mood of oppression and despair that prevail in some parts of society through comedy. Although the destination of flight 2457 is Mexico City in Los amantes pasajeros, perhaps like the flight itself, the humour doesn’t seem to quite reach its destination.