Sunday, November 05, 2006

New Film: Volver

Literally meaning "to return," Pedro Almodóvar's Volver confirms its title through a number of related associations: director Almodóvar was born in La Mancha, where for the first time he has located one of his films; Volver stars two of his acting axioms -- Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura -- the latter of which he is working with for the first time since 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; and then there is the subject of "motherhood" that found expression in his All About My Mother (1999), which coincidentally was released the same year that the director's mother and occasional cameo Francisca Caballero passed away.

Here, Maura plays Cruz's and Lola Dueñas's deceased mother, Irene, who begins to appear to locals of their former home town, including their soon-to-be late Aunt (Chus Lampreave). Dueñas's Sole is the first of the daughters to see their dead mother, after she arrives for Aunt Paula's funeral. (Death, it should be noted, is everywhere in the opening portions of the film.)

However, it is less in this trans-grave reunion than in Cruz's familial plotline where the picture's melodramatic heft becomes apparent. After an initial visit to Irene's grave and Aunt Paula's home, before she passes on, Cruz's Raimunda and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) arrive home to find the shiftless man of the house lazing on the couch after losing his job earlier that day. After gazing at his teenage daughter, the gentleman climbs into bed with his wife, who withholds intimacy from him. The next day Raimunda arrives home to find her stunned daughter -- the implications of which are that she has been sexually assulted by her father (who claims that he is not this). To be sure, we learn that he did try, though as we also learn the young woman has slain her father in the midst of the act. Raimunda quickly intervenes, enlistening her female friends first to hide the body in a restaurant freezer and later to bury him in a spot beside a country stream.

In the meantime, Raimunda herself has stumbled upon an additional revenue stream -- necessitated by her husband's lost income -- by catering for a local film crew (at the aforementioned restaurant). It is at this point that Sole encounters her dead mother and the film's secondary plot commences. Sole takes her mother in as a hair-washer in her fugitive hair salon and soon Sole is forced to hide her ghost mother from her sister and niece.

At this point, the ontological status of Irene is still contested: is she actually supernatural? Is she instead alive? Or perhaps is she a fictional projection of the character's loneliness? After all, those that have seen her have all this loneliness in common. (In this way, Volver resembles the director's masterpiece Talk to Her, 2002; and like that film, Almodóvar poetically concludes Volver by bringing together two lonely people.) Whatever Irene is, suffice it to say that Almodóvar's masterful manipulation of narrative information allows the spectator to evolve in his or her thinking as to what Irene could be, before the director discloses the perfectly reasonable answer. As such, Almodóvar again reveals himself to be one of the world's most accomplished classical directors.

Then again, the classicism of Almodóvar, or rather his position within the framework of popular filmmaking might be more accurately described as "rococo." Indeed, commensurate with this term, Almodóvar's art seems to signal a style that is decorative for its own sake: the director's strong bold colors (blues, yellows and reds) and his canted angles and overhead camera positions all seem to exist for their own sake. If anything one could say that Almodóvar succeeds in producing visual pleasure. Nevertheless, the visual tropes serve as both a signature visual style and also position the artist's work within a tradition that stretches back to the melodramas of John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk.

Certainly, Volver is no less melodramatic than its hyperbolic sources, particularly given the film's central mother-daughter dynamic, to say nothing of the incestuous content. Yet, in the case of the latter specifically, it would seem that Almodóvar is again figuring the autobiography that is inherent in the picture's title (as one could also say of the film's systematic disclosure of familial secrets) -- that is, as long as one can read the homosexual Almodóvar into the experiences shared by the mother and daughter, given the clear autobiographical elements that are otherwise connoted in his almost male-free narrative. Either way, one might see in this generational exposition of victimhood an archetype of homosexual experience, as it also connects the film thematically to much of the director's corpus (where non-normative sexual experience are closer to the norm).

However, in identifying the author as homosexual, another important component of the narrative loses its obvious interpretation: namely, the emphasis upon the almost vulgar excessive physical beauty of Ms. Cruz. No longer a pure object of fetish, one might instead see in Almodovar's framing of the actress a curiosity in her other-worldly beauty that seems to connect to the picture's profane sense of humor through the director's often tongue-in-cheek compositions (like his overhead's of Cruz's cleavage). At the same time, Volver remains somehow restrained compared to much of the director's corpus. To be sure, it is for this reason, among others, that Volver stands out among the director's work -- this might be his finest film this side of the very similar Talk to Her. Further, the director's genuinely Hitchcockian handling of narrative information (the plot's amoral manipulations are certainly worthy of the master) makes Volver the finest fusion of art and entertainment released thus far this year.


Anonymous said...

Hey! How'd 2006's finest fusion of entertainment and art fall off the top ten list? Sorry, you'll probably think I'm insane for even noticing this. Thoughts on La piel que habito?

Michael J. Anderson said...

No, Anonymous, you're not insane for noticing; actually, it was originally on my top top ten (in the 8-10 range). However, after seeing a few of the titles now listed in the year or so after, it dropped off. 2006 was really an exceptional year, with fifteen or so films that would have the chance of making it most years, VOLVER included.

LA PIEL QUE HABITO was less successful in my judgement, though there really is a lot of Almodovar in it (and as my wife rightly pointed out, Bunuel). I suppose I should admit that I really am not the biggest fan of the director's - which is what made VOLVER, and especially TALK TO HER, such revelations for me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response. I'd agree with your comments on Piel. I found it was certainly an interesting/memorable cinema experience, but you're right in not considering it on the level of Volver and Talk to Her (and, I'd add, Bad Education and All About My Mother). If you'll forgive me for saying it, I've also wanted to point out that on your lists Wajda's first name ought to be spelled "Andrzej," and that in 1965 the film should be written "Paris vu par..." Awesome blog/s - I'm looking forward to your list for 2011!