The 2019 Cannes Film Festival was a real punch in the gut: two of world cinema's most irrepressible eternal adolescents both suddenly grew up all the way to make Old Man movies. Going by their U.S. release dates, we already had Quentin Tarantino show us his autumnal side with Once Upon a Time Hollywood; and now, the great provocateur Pedro Almodóvar, one of the leading lights of international queer cinema, a man who never met a sexual more he wasn't willing to transgress, has given us the achingly sincere and deeply heartfelt Pain and Glory, the most sober and gentle work of his career. The director was 69 years old when the film premiered, and in a sense, that's exactly what it's about: being 69, or anyway being so old that you have completely run out of tricks to convince your body that it still works, and when there are so many days in your past that they're crowding out your imagination of the future. It is a movie whose primary emotional impact comes simply from putting 58-year-old Antonio Banderas (playing an extremely obvious analogue for Almodóvar himself) on camera in lingering close-ups that ask us to really just stop and notice that holy shit, the legendarily sexy Antonio Banderas got old somewhere along the way. As will we all.

The particulars of the story hinge on the decline, physically and emotionally, of Madrid-based film director Salvador Mallo (Banderas), whose career has gone on for long enough, picking up enough critical acclaim along the way, that his 30-year-old provocation Sabor has been restored and digitally remastered and given a prestigious re-release. Because of this, he's been receiving pressure to publicly reconnect with that film's star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), to whom he hasn't spoken since Sabor's premiere (a falling-out inspired by Almodóvar and Banderas's own relationship between 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down and 2011's The Skin I Live In). This goes better than either man feared, especially after Alberto turns Salvador on to the glories of heroin as a way to mute the pain of the director's omnipresent back aches, and from here, Salvador enters an endless tumble through his own past, as he's plagued by uncontrollable flashbacks to his childhood, when he (Asier Flores), his father (Raúl Arévalo), and especially his beloved mother (Penélope Cruz) moved into a poor village where most of the homes are literal caves, given a coat of whitewash to feign some degree of domestic hominess. He also permits himself to dredge up the painful memories of a love affair from the 1980s, and in so doing, through an almost unfathomable coincidence, crosses paths with his old lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia). And while this is going on, he's desperately hunting for anything that will inspire him to make a movie again.

So, to clear out the low-hanging fruit: yep, this is Almodóvar's , and it's been a while since the last time we got a "Director X's " that was so disinterested in hiding that line of descent even a tiny bit. But also, I'm not sure if I can name the filmmaker presently living who has earned their own autobiographical meta-movie more than Almodóvar, whose entire filmography has been caught up in questions of desire that feel so tangled up with his own psychology that Pain and Glory feels much more like a natural outgrowth of what he would have been doing anyway, rather than some sort of indulgence. It's extremely thoughtful and methodical in how it establishes Salvador's creative block and his aging body (which summarised through brightly-colored animated sequences near the beginning that are one of the few places where Pain and Glory feels more feisty and energetic than reflective and autumnal), and downright cunning in how it works filmmaking into this; the film's breathtaking, spine-tingling final scene reveals that what has seemed solemn and sad throughout is in fact celebratory and empowering, and that's all I'll say about that.

And, of course, being a film by Almodóvar, all of this is communicated through vivid imagery. Banderas's face, I've mentioned, is a big part of this: beyond the metafictional value of casting Almodóvar's own Alberto Crespo as the filmmaker's worn-out stand in, Pain and Glory benefits incalculably by having an international movie star in the role. We all know what he looks like, and I'm sure I'm not the only one whose mental snapshot of the actor is from his peak hotness years of the late 1990s; this isn't the first film to land a huge gut punch from nothing more sophisticated than pointing that movie stars also get old, but it's doing an especially fine job of it, as José Luis Alcaine's camera moves in close to look at Banderas's wrinkles and the individual grey hairs comprising his thin beard.

Beyond that, the film uses color as well as any other film of 2019; we should expect nothing less, but it's still nice to see it. The film's palette uses every day-glo color that captures Almodóvar and the designers' imagination, but it ultimately hinges on shades of sky-blue and cherry red, set in constant opposition throughout the movie. Part of this, I am sure, is simply for the pleasure of seeing bright colors pop against each other, but the film sets up a strong pair of relationships, whereby blue seems associated with aging, quiet solitude, choosing comfort over forcing oneself into a confrontation with the past, and red is active, out in the world, draining, painful, and connected to other humans. The flashbacks, meanwhile, are a stunning, hard white, a blank slate waiting to be inflected with emotions. It's all remarkable stuff, not really all that complicated to work out, but this filmmaker has always favored potency over cunning.

And potent it is, even if it's stripped down and austere compared to much of the director's work. This lacks the sprawl of Almodóvar's best films, the sense of humanity's glorious messiness being blended together and splashed all over the screen in shockingly bright colors. Rather, one gets the feeling that he was so focused on fully communicating a series of thoughts and feelings that he telescoped in until basically just one human consciousness filled the frame. And Banderas, giving the best performance of his career, is well-equipped to be that one human: it's a relatively straightforward and - God forgive me for saying so - straight movie, but also kind and warm and honest and full of more self-reflection than you almost ever see even from the most thoughtful directors. This is far from Almodóvar's masterpiece, but I also feel like there couldn't be a finer capstone to his career than this reckoning with what that career has brought him to, and while I hope we get many more films from this filmmaker before all is said and done, this is a remarkable and moving declaration on the finality of age and nostalgic discomfort with a life not always well-lived.