Friday, 5 February 2010

All About His Women: Almodóvar

A lengthy blog after several days' inactivity... This essay on women's roles in three Almodóvar films was originally intended for PopMatters's Director's Spotlight series on Almodóvar. But we ended up with other gender-centred submissions and went with my essay on cinema referencing in the director's work instead. Women in Almodóvar is, of course, hardly a novel topic, but, with Broken Embraces just out on DVD in the UK, now seems as apt a time as any to give the piece an online airing. So here it is.

All About His Women: Almodóvar's "Female Universe"

With regard to factors such as tone and style, Pedro Almodóvar’s cinema has evolved in many significant ways over his 30 year career as a director. From the deliberately brash, La Movida-inspired provocations of Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) through the manic but precision-timed farce of Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) to the sensitivity and restraint of The Flower of My Secret (1995), Almodóvar’s corpus testifies to his maturation both as cinematic stylist and story-teller.

But if there have been many major changes in Almodóvar’s work throughout his career, there has also been a constant: namely, the strong presence of female characters in his movies. A fascination with the world of women is, undoubtedly, one of the most well-known and celebrated aspects of “un film de Almodóvar”. “I get much more inspiration from women,” the director told Francisco M. Blanco in 1989. “I’ve always liked the feminine sensibility and find it much easier to create female characters … Women have more facets, they seem to me to be more interesting protagonists” (Blanco, 136-7). Almodóvar has often linked his affiliation for women to his childhood, recalling with affection his hours spent listening to his mother and sisters talk with the other women of the community. Observing this network of female relationships was, Almodóvar has suggested, a vital influence upon his own interest in constructing narratives that revolve around women’s lives.

Like one of his major directorial inspirations, Germany’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and one of his own contemporary disciples, France’s François Ozon, Almodóvar is something of a rarity: a male director whose work consistently takes the female universe as its subject and places women in central roles. Each of these European filmmakers centralises female characters in a way that would seem less remarkable were it not for the continued male-dominance (both in front of and behind the camera) of mainstream American cinema. But while praised for the richness and diversity of the women’s roles in their movies, each of these directors has also, to varying degrees, faced accusations of misogyny and been charged with making films which offer fetishized celebrations of feminine despair.

Certainly Almodóvar’s insistence that “women cry better” might suggest a problematic emphasis upon the “spectacle” of female suffering in his work. (Though, as Talk to Her (2002) memorably demonstrated, men can cry pretty well, too.) But whatever the validity of the criticisms leveled against them, few could deny the extraordinary rapport that each of these filmmakers have established with the women who (re-)appear in their movies and the productive results that these partnerships have yielded on screen. Like Fassbinder’s work with Hanna Schygulla and Ozon’s with Charlotte Rampling, Almodóvar’s collaborations with his actresses - in particular, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, and, most recently, Penelope Cruz - has led these performers to some of their most iconic, career-defining characterisations.

In Almodóvar’s case, his films also offer a portrait of the evolving role of women in Spanish society since the end of the Franco period, a time known for its oppression of women. Challenging the limited and limiting definitions of womanhood advocated by the Francoist system, Almodóvar consistently creates female characters who can do it all. They include housewives, mothers, nuns and prostitutes, but also lawyers, writers, psychiatrists, bullfighters, make-up artists, journalists, dancers, singers and actresses. They range in age from children to the elderly, in social status from bourgeois to working-class, from the rabidly religious to the defiantly liberal and secular. They can be plain and dowdy or spectacularly, excessively glamorous. They can be heterosexual or lesbian, or both. They give up their power to lovers and, usually, regret it. They can be needy and possessive or fiercely self-sufficient. Many of Almodóvar’s male protagonists desire to be women, as evidenced by the transsexual and “drag queen” characters who frequently populate his movies. This essay, then, explores the varied roles of women in three of Almodóvar’s best-known films - What Have I Done To Deserve This?! (1983), Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988) and All About My Mother (1999) - examining the portraits of female characters constructed in these works and the films’ wider engagement with issues of feminism, misogyny and female solidarity in post-Franco Spain.

“The long-suffering and unsatisfied working-class Spanish woman …” What Have I Done To Deserve This?!

Almodóvar has stated that with What Have I Done To Deserve This?! he “wanted to make a movie about my social class, about my roots, and about my family” (Blanco, 63). But there’s little sense of nostalgia involved in this particular project. Rather, the film takes place in one of the poorest and ugliest districts of Madrid, in a tower block that functions as a cramped prison to its quirky inhabitants. Within this context, the film presents the existence of its housewife-heroine, Gloria (Carmen Maura), as a kind of life sentence. The put-upon Gloria has been described as the “saddest [and] most beaten-down” of all of Almodóvar’s characters (Vidal, 292). But while she’s certainly his least attractive or sparkling heroine, the director nonetheless demonstrates that she deserves the viewer’s sympathy and compassion. Gloria’s “deficiencies”, for Almodóvar, are simply “a product of the environment in which she lives” (Vidal, 112).

According to Almodóvar, “the world of the housewife amuses and horrifies me because it is monstrous in its alienation” (Vidal, 115) and his sentiments are reflected in What Have I Done To Deserve This’s distinctive mixture of melancholy and black humor. Gloria’s apartment is full of people (her husband, her two children, her mother-in-law) but she seems, nonetheless, completely isolated. While her family members preoccupy themselves with their own obsessions (from drug-dealing to an attempt to forge Hitler’s memoirs), Gloria is presented cleaning, washing, cooking and ironing. She’s a spiritual sister to Mike Leigh’s similarly down-trodden Mrs. Thornley (Liz Smith) in Hard Labour (1973), a potentially creative woman trapped in what Almodóvar has termed a “suffocating” life.

In the film’s most (in)famous scene, Gloria kills her husband with a ham-bone, just after the arrogant patriarch has ordered her to iron his shirt. Although the killing is accidental the film not only offers no suggestion that Gloria regrets it, it also allows her to get away with it: the police never discover that she was the killer. (Almodóvar reworks this scenario, with greater dexterity, in 2006’s Volver .)

What Have I Done To Deserve This!? might, then, be interpreted as a feminist text about a woman who ends up liberating herself from her “suffocating” life and marriage. But the film's perspective is more complex. For Gloria, the death of her husband and the loss of her family (one of the sons moves to the country with her mother-in-law, the other goes to live with a dentist) doesn’t signify a feminist triumph; instead it simply brings more loneliness and desolation. Gloria returns to the apartment and seems about to commit suicide - before a tearful reunion with one of her sons, who has returned home because “this house needs a man.” Gloria, it seems, has staked so much on her role as housewife that she has no identity at all without her family. While the son’s reappearance suggests the possibility of a fresh configuration of family roles (perhaps anticipating the productive mother-son dyad of All About My Mother), the tentatively hopeful climax does not blunt the sharp critique of the treatment of working-class women which Almodóvar offers in this film. Seemingly incapable of transcending her social role, Gloria becomes a tragic figure, and the film itself “one of the most beautiful poems ever filmed about the long-suffering and unsatisfied working-class Spanish woman” (Harguindey, 1999).

Farce and Feminism: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

The heroines of Women On the Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown are a decidedly more glamorous, upwardly-mobile bunch than Gloria in What Have I Done To Deserve This?!. Women On The Verge is 50s Hollywood comedy Spanish-style, a deliciously designed, hyper-stylised work that takes place in a Madrid in which, according to Almodóvar, “everything is beautiful … where people dress well and live in lovely apartments … The only problem is that men keep on abandoning women” (Vidal, 382).

The conflicts that this fact provokes form the focal point of Women On The Verge. The film tells the story of an abandoned woman, Pepa (Maura again, here replacing Gloria’s drab outfits with a stylish selection of suits and heels), who spends two days in search of her ex-lover Ivan in order to tell him some important news that “affects both of us”. During her frantic quest, Pepa encounters two other desperate women: her friend Candela (Maria Barranco) and Lucia (Julieta Serrano), Ivan’s ex-wife. Fooling her doctors, Lucia has secured her release from a psychiatric hospital; her unrequited love for Ivan has driven her completely crazy. Now she wants to kill him because “this is the only way I will be able to forget him”.

For Almodóvar, the roles of these three women are “interchangeable. Any one of them could easily turn into the other. The threat that hangs over [Pepa and Candela] is the threat of turning into Lucia” (Blanco, 101). For Peter William Evans, Lucia’s tragedy has a wider social context: this is a character who is incapable of “transcending the tyrannies of the past”, or, more specifically, those of Francoism (Evans, 48). Lucia’s entrapment in the past is reflected in her way of dressing: the clothes and wigs she wears are from the 1960s. She’s a woman trapped both in the madness of obsessive love and in a period dedicated to the physical and psychological suppression of women.

Almodóvar ensures that neither Pepa nor Candela end up turning into Lucia. Despite their moments of high-strung desperation, these two are liberated, modern women, fully capable of saving themselves. For Candela, this salvation comes in the form of a new relationship (with Antonio Banderas’s nicely nerdy Carlos), but for Pepa it involves facing the future alone. When Pepa finally meets up with Ivan (after saving him from Lucia) she realises that she has nothing to tell him after all; she recognises, simply, that she doesn’t need him anymore. But, in the end, we discover her secret: she’s pregnant with Ivan’s child.

This low-key celebration of prospective single-motherhood arguably turns Women On The Verge into the most overtly feminist of Almodóvar’s films up to this point. Nonetheless, the film’s feminism has a darker side: the only protagonist who labels herself a feminist is a lawyer, Paulina (Kiti Manver), who Pepa consults for help and who is, perhaps, the least sympathetic character in the film. (We also discover that she is Ivan’s new lover.) “You’re not a lawyer, you’re a bitch!” Pepa tells her before slapping her face, and, for some critics, this scene is evidence of Almodóvar “satirising feminist militancy”.

Certainly, no cosy myths of female solidarity are endorsed in this sequence, which presents female-female betrayal as perhaps more pernicious than male-female betrayal. In this way, Women On The Verge is a feminist film in the widest, most positive sense of the term, since its female characters are not uniformly “good”, any more than its male characters are all uniformly “bad”. (The elusive Ivan is, it turns out, less wicked than wuss.) Pepa herself is not a strong woman when the film begins, but she grows in spirit as the movie progresses and by the end she appears to have her destiny under control. In contrast to the hectic, frenzied tone of the majority of the film, Women On The Verge ends, appropriately, with a calm, peaceful scene that reflects a new stability in the life of a woman who has, momentarily at least, withdrawn from being on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Actresses: All About My Mother

In an interview during the promotion of Women On The Verge, Almodóvar stated his belief that “in crisis situations, women are more interesting, dramatically-speaking” (Blanco, 102). It’s an idea that runs through most of the director’s work, and one that’s explored directly in his 1999 film All About My Mother, the movie viewed by many as his masterwork. Uniting the comic and serious aspects of Almodóvar’s gynocentric universe to create a film that‘s been described as “screwball melodrama”, Mother is a work about actresses and mothers, and about the role of performance in endurance. It’s also the most affirmative vision of spontaneous female solidarity that Almodóvar offers until Volver.

The plot, as is well known, is a typically convoluted network of coincidences and literary and cinematic homages. Almodóvar’s protagonist, Manuela (Cecilia Roth, reuniting with the director for the first time since her starring role in 1982’s Labyrinth of Passions and her cameo in Dark Habits [1983]) is a nurse who, following the death of her son Esteban in a car accident, flees from Madrid to Barcelona, in search of the boy’s father. In Barcelona, Manuela encounters various women, among them Penelope Cruz’s pregnant nun, Rosa, and the woman who inadvertently caused Esteban’s death - the lesbian theatre diva Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), who is currently appearing as Blanche du Bois in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It is the relationships that Manuela forms with these women that help her begin to overcome her grief and give some renewed sense of meaning and purpose to her life.

From its title onwards, All About My Mother also announces itself as an overtly intertextual work, one that is replete with references to other female-focused texts, both American and Spanish. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, John Cassavetes’s Opening Night, Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, and Streetcar are all used by Almodóvar as inspiration for his own narrative and characters. As usual in Almodóvar, this involves a subversion as much as an endorsement of these particular texts. Most obviously, All About My Mother revises the scenario of Mankiewicz’s film, turning a comedy of female betrayal - All About Eve - into a celebration of female friendship. Almodóvar also subverts Blanche du Bois’s fate by refusing to allow any of his female characters to descend into madness here. “A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life,” Manuela states at one point, highlighting the blurring of fact and fiction that is central to Almodóvar’s world-view. (Huma, we learn, began smoking in order to imitate Bette Davis; the character also borrows Blanche’s line about “the kindness of strangers” in her first meeting with Manuela.)

Acting and seeing plays is central to the lives of the film’s women and especially to Manuela, bringing her a sense of meaning and catharsis. Almodóvar’s thesis here relates to the capacity of all women to act and pretend, a facility that the film presents as a particularly feminine strategy for survival. In his notes in the film-script, Almodóvar observes that when he was a child “men reigned … while women really solved the problems of life … often having to lie to do so. Could this be the reason that Garcia Lorca said that Spain had always been a country of great actresses?” (Almodóvar, 169).

Almodóvar’s esteem for actresses is further reflected in All About My Mother’s touching final dedication. Name-checking Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands and Romy Schnieder, the film is dedicated to “all the actresses who have played actresses, to all the women who act, to all the men who act and become women, and to all the people who want to be mothers”. It’s a final flourish that encapsulates the film’s open-hearted celebration of womanhood, of performance, and of maternity in all its diverse forms.


The three films discussed here give just an indication of the range of women’s roles and representations within Almodóvar’s cinema. From the tragicomic depiction of Gloria’s struggles in What Have I Done To Deserve This?! through the feminist-inflected farce of Women On The Verge, to the sympathy and humor of All About My Mother Almodóvar creates films which focus in a wide-ranging way upon women’s suffering and survival.

Almodóvar’s self-definition as one of the “least chauvinistic, most feminist” of directors (Vidal, 35) would seem to be borne out in the majority of his films, but this is not to suggest that his depictions of women have met with universal acclaim. As previously noted some critics have judged Almodóvar’s films to rely too frequently upon stereotypical notions of womanhood, arguing that his female characters are too often presented as needy and hysterical, or as suffering victims.

Certainly, some of the representations of women in Almodóvar’s work may be viewed as problematic. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1990) and Kika (1993), in particular, offer provocative depictions of female masochism and compliance (not to mention a “comic” rape scene) which were greeted with justifiable concern. But to focus exclusively on these depictions is to overlook the multiplicity of female roles in Almodóvar’s cinema and the variety of interpretive opportunities that he gives to his actresses.

Clearly, Almodóvar has no interest in presenting uniformly “positive” images of women in his work. What he does offer, however, is a series of diverse and complex representations which allow his female characters - and the actresses incarnating them - a full range of emotion and experience. Almodóvar’s female protagonists are not saints, and they are not strong, necessarily, when their stories begin. What Almodóvar is particularly skilled at doing is showing the processes by which some of these women become strong(er), and the creative uses that they make of the pain and setbacks that they experience.

For Spanish audiences, perhaps, these depictions have a wider resonance: Almodóvar’s heroines can be seen to be shaking off the legacies of the (Francoist) past - in particular a dependency upon male attention or approval - in order to forge their own destinies. While such a politicized, polemical reading arguably overlooks the wit, playfulness and sheer fun of Almodóvar’s movies, what is undeniable is the challenge that the director’s work offers to the stereotypical image of Spain as a macho, patriarchal country. Consistently, Almodóvar s films replace that cliché with a gynocentric vision that views women’s lives as more intrinsically dramatic, interesting and worthy of attention than men’s. Often contentious, sometimes romanticised and always interesting, Almodóvar’s multi-faceted explorations of women and what they do remain a major part of what makes his work rewarding for audiences all across the world.

Works cited:

Almodóvar, Pedro. Todo Sobre Mi Madre. Madrid: El Deseo SA, 1999.

Blanco, Francisco M.. Pedro Almodóvar. Madrid: Ediciones JC, 1989.

Evans, Peter William. Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. London: BFI, 1990.

Vidal, Nuria. El Cine de Pedro Almodóvar. Barcelona: Destinolibro, 1990.

*Translations from Spanish are my own.

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