Dark Habits (1984) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Dark Habits (1984)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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"Man will not be saved until he realizes he is the most despicable being ever created."

Okay, let me run this story by you: a nightclub singer is wanted and on the run. To escape her pursuers, she hides out in a convent. The convent is old and dilapidated, and badly in need of new blood as a its threatened by both internal dissension and financial woes.

In the convent, she soon finds that the nuns are as bad as the outside world, and each has their own set of problems ranging from OCD to hard drug abuse. The nuns are also caught up in a blackmailing scam, as they're attempting to get an endowment out of a widow whose only daughter briefly joined the convent before running off to Africa and mating with a hunter.

It gets weirder. One of the nuns writes dirty novels. Mother Superior wants to bang the night club singer like she's been doing with a prostitute who comes around for a place to sleep every once in a while. They also have a pet tiger.

Pedro Almodovar is not a fan of simplicity. As a film that certainly works as an antithesis to Audrey Hepburn's The Nun's Story (which even gets a namedrop here), Bad Habits is stark condemnation of Catholic propriety. The nuns here have become infected with the outside world, and worse, are actually contributing to societal ills. Besides consuming a range of drugs, they push them. Besides reading dirty books, they write them. Besides taking in prostitutes, they fuck them.

They take a licking and keep on ticking!

This is the world that Yolanda stumbles onto early in the film. She's the nightclub singer I mentioned before, who's hiding from the police after her junkie ex-boyfriend kills himself and leaves a diary behind blaming her.

She's devastated by this--despite him being a writer of dubious quality, she'd truly believed that he was the one--and she ends up hiding in the convent. Mother Superior takes a liking to her, and we watch her and the rest of the sisters grapple with both the convent's checkered past and their demons.

Dark Habits tries to balance this out as a black comedy, taking hits at the ridiculous nature of desire and how simply pretending these things away will not make it so. There's probably a lot of other stuff here, too, especially if you understand Spanish and can appreciate the jokes. Speaking as someone whose only connection is through the English subtitles, I left the film feeling I'd missed a spectacular amount of subtlety. And humor. And, oh, anything worth investing in.

The problems with Dark Habits is that it's too much weirdness and not enough of anything else. The film rotates between the small convent--Sister Manure, Sister Damned, Sister Snake, Sister Rat--and only touches on their stories with the minimum of an aesthetic diligence. We can see and understand these stories, but they're frenetic, unconnected, and just kind of there. The lack of a pressing storyline here undermines any sense of urgency, and the film can't stop but feel meandering, especially compared to Almodovar's tighter and more focused narratives that would soon emerge.

Watch that pussy roar!

It has the texture of a Luis Bunuel movie without the same edge--Bunuel would have made this a horror film, chronicling every vice and look with wicked smirk. Almodovar stays on the side of the women throughout the film, with no nudges about their authenticity to be found. It has the way of making the proceedings feel less pointed and more trivial. It lacks bite.

While Dark Habits is mostly unsuccessful, like in What Have I Done to Deserve This? you can definitely see Almodovar's hand behind the camera. Besides his almost trademarked shot of a woman sitting on the toilet and peeing (also seen in Volver and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), the outlandishness that persists in the face of reserved shock is at the forefront here. We don't quite have the technicolor dreaminess of his later films, but the macabre humor, though rough, exists.

Dark Habits is too rough of a draft, and perhaps too mired in its time and place to be much of anything more than a curio today. Almodovar will learn to tie his films tighter, smarter, and somehow, stranger from here on out.

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Posted by Danny

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