Sunday 28 February 2010

In the Electric Mist (2009)

In 1996, Phil Joanou made a very decent (and underrated) adaptation of one of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set “Dave Robicheaux” crime novels, Heaven’s Prisoners. Starring Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux, the movie had vivid characters, excellent performances and some intriguing and surprising plot developments that elevated it above its genre. Sadly, Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation of another Robicheaux story doesn’t repeat the earlier film’s success. In fact, In the Electric Mist (2009) is a hopelessly incoherent thriller that squanders the talents of some great actors, among them Peter Sarsgaard, Mary Steenburgen, Kelly Macdonald, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince and John Goodman. (Tommy Lee Jones, taking over from Baldwin as Robicheaux, is solid enough, but it feels to me that he’s been giving variations on this performance for a long, long time.)

The garbled story - updated to the 00s in order to incorporate some pointless Katrina references - attempts to mix a standard serial-killer-of-prostitutes mystery with Robicheaux’s memories of a 60s race crime (the link between the two plot strands remains indistinct) and - oddly - the protagonist’s fantasy conversations with Confederate General John Bell Hood (Levon Helm) who seems keen to help him solve the case. There’s a movie-making strand to the story too: a Civil War epic is being filmed in Iberia Parish; this leads to one of the film’s few witty touches: a cameo from John Sayles as the movie’s producer. (There's also some incidental enjoyment to be had from the outrageous character names. Top prize goes to Beatty as one "Twinkie Lemoyne." )

Unfortunately, Sayles’s cameo also makes you wish that he was at the helm of In the Electric Mist. I’ve found some of Tavernier’s French films odd and unfocused and their problems just seem intensified here. The director ladles on the Louisiana atmosphere, yet the movie never finds its tone and feels inauthentic throughout. Admittedly alot of these issues might not be Tavernier’s fault: apparently the movie was re-cut by the studio and a longer version is in existence. Whatever, someone’s made a mess of this gumbo. The 30 minute Making Of doc is much more entertaining than the silly, confused movie.

Saturday 20 February 2010

"Giving Up The Gun" by Vampire Weekend

Hot off the press, a slick and witty video for this delectable slice of Vampire-ism. Yep, that is Jake Gyllenhaal amongst those cameoing.

Friday 19 February 2010

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Rose Theatre)

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play that I never really look forward to seeing, somehow, yet it's one that I'm almost always delighted by in the end. A miracle of clarity, fluidity and uncluttered ease, Peter Hall's new production, just opened at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, gives some fresh reasons to love the play, by presenting it as traditionally as possible. The production also has one particularly special component: Judi Dench, as Titania, a role she first played for Hall at the RSC in 1962.

A brief opening conceit has Dench as Queen Elizabeth I, giving silent approval for the play to begin, and, it appears, taking the role of Titania for herself. But, overall, this is a production that is blessedly free of gimmicks or Brook-isms. Less vigourously vulgar than the excellent last RSC production, it is elegant, intellgent, and very funny. Dench is the big draw of course, and she's glorious - never more so than when cooing with delight over ass-headed Bottom (Oliver Chris), and delivering a "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?" that brings the house down. But the production is fully inhabited across the board. Even as it mercilessly satirises the mechanics of theatre, the play generously gives every character the chance to shine, and the actors seize those chances here. It's not just the fairy characters who supply the magic: it's there in Oliver Chris's wondrous conceit and posturing (the performance just gets funnier and funnier, culminating in a truly epic death-as-Pyramus); in Charles Edwards's wit and command as Oberon; in the grandeur that Rachel Stirling brings to Helena's unrequited love for Demetrius; in Reece Ritchie's delightful, slightly dangerous mischief-making as Puck; and in the entrancing embrace of Judi Dench's voice, speaking some of the most beautiful lines in Shakespeare. A delightful Dream, indeed.

Monday 15 February 2010

A Single Man (2009)

Notwithstanding the perennial appeal of Goodbye to Berlin (in its Cabaret-ed incarnation at least), the work of Christopher Isherwood seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years. While the author still has many devotees, as adaptation material Isherwood’s name can hardly be considered “bankable.” Which makes the fact that someone in Hollywood has seen fit to green-light an Isherwood adaptation a particularly pleasant surprise. Even more surprising is that the person responsible for the adaptation is Tom Ford, the Gucci guru, making his directorial debut with a film version of Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man. The results, which, it must said, feel like the opposite of a made-by-committee movie, are incredibly good.

Isherwood was inspired by a re-reading of Mrs Dalloway when writing A Single Man, and the influence shows. Like Woolf’s novel, the book (which is just 150 pages long) is a day-in-the-life/life-in-the-day narrative, following the protagonist from waking to sleeping. (And, possibly, beyond.) George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a middle-aged British professor of literature living in early 60s LA and grieving the death by car accident of his younger American lover Jim (Matthew Goode). The movie follows George through a day of “ordinary” encounters and incidents (some drawn from the novel, others created for the film). He observes his neighbours; gives a digressive lecture on Huxley; draws the attentions of a student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult); contemplates suicide; converses with a Spanish hustler; has supper with fellow ex-pat - and old flame - Charley (a ripe Julianne Moore); meets Kenny again; and experiences at least one Woolfian epiphany. Mortality, memory, and the trials and joys of human contact are among the subjects of the work.

Initially, there seems to be an insecurity to Ford’s approach to the movie, and he appears to be throwing too many stylistic tricks into the mix. We get slow-mo; flashbacks; a black-and-white sequence; and all kinds of fussy business with colours and framing. (It's an eye-fetish movie.) But, increasingly, these effects come to form an integral part of A Single Man's appeal and impact, and a crucial component of its serious endeavour to convey George’s consciousness. In the early scenes we don’t just observe the character’s sense of set-apartness; we live through it with him. And if Ford’s California sometimes looks rather “unreal” … well, that’s exactly how this disorientated Englishman abroad might experience it. (It also seems at first that the movie is going to swamp us in over-explicit voice-over, but this device only briefly book-ends the film.)

The movie’s expressionistic approach to Isherwood’s slight story takes some getting used to, but it pays dividends ultimately. Ford - who co-wrote the adaptation - keeps things intimate, sensuous, flowing. He proves himself a great director of actors, too. Hoult is superb, pitching his performance perfectly between innocent curiosity and provocation, while Goode is natural and appealing in the flashback scenes. Moore - sporting a throatier version of the rather actressy clipped-Brit tones she used in An Ideal Husband (1999) and The End of the Affair (1999) - is a bit more problematic; her appearance feels like a “turn,” and she’s not helped by the fact that much of Charley’s back-story (except of course her “tragic” love for George) is cut. She makes an impression, though, and is particularly delightful when bopping to “Green Onions.”

But A Single Man is Colin Firth’s show, no doubt about it. Firth’s a confounding actor: miscast, or in inferior material, he can seem merely blank and bland. But when he’s right for a part - and he’s perfect for this one - you can’t envisage anyone else in the role. Physically, vocally, he’s captivating as George, delivering a finely modulated performance that captures every contradictory shade of the character: depression, defensiveness, desire for connection, all underpinned by deep grief. The early flashback scene in which he learns of Jim’s death is a quiet phenomenon, and the performance only deepens from there. He incarnates Isherwood’s description (retained in the movie) of a man who, when looking in the mirror, sees not "so much a face as the expression of a predicament.” It’s why the brief connections he establishes - with Charley, with Kenny, with the hustler, even - feel so touching and redemptive here.

Ford literalises (yet somehow softens) the novel’s ending. And there’s also something odd - and puritanical? - about the way the movie denies George his late orgasm, especially since an early scene anticipates it. But these are tiny complaints. A Single Man is wonderful, a sensitive and haunting movie in which visual pleasure and emotional insight gradually become synonymous.

Saturday 13 February 2010

The Gold Diggers (1983) (Continued)

“Are you reconciled with your history? Do you know what it is?” So asks Celeste (Colette Laffont) near the beginning of Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983). It’s an apt question, for The Gold Diggers is a work that’s much concerned with history - cinema history, in particular, and, more particularly still, the role of women therein. In creating what the director has called “a cinematic pun - a sort of semiotic shuffle,” Potter’s film reworks, subverts, fuses and reuses a variety of film genres, among them the musical, noir, the detective mystery, silent melodrama, the caper movie, and the New Wave. The resulting cinephile wet-dream has something of Guy Maddin’s trying-it-on playfulness about it, and a look and sound that would seem to have influenced Bela Tarr. Like all of Potter’s films, it’s a thinking and feeling movie with stunning black-and-white cinematography (by Babette Mangolte), a wonderful score (by Lindsay Cooper), engaging performances and a wealth of ideas. And yet this fascinating film (made by an all-female crew) drew significant critical hostility upon its release and has seldom been seen since. Why? It’s a question that Jonathan Rosenbaum raises in his essay on the film, which wonders how a work “as beautiful, as witty, as imaginative, and as brilliant as [The Gold Diggers] could have given so much offence to certain spectators in 1983.”

In her splendid book on Potter’s cinema (celebrated elsewhere on this blog), Sophie Mayer explores the polarised reaction to the movie, explaining that though “the film packed in audiences at film festivals … its critical take on capitalism, heterosexuality and a mainstream film industry which promoted both unthinkingly left it out in the cold… A vocal section of (predominately male) critics … railed against the film so harshly that Potter withdrew it from circulation” (Mayer 2009: 16). Whether or not viewers are any more amenable to such critiques now than they were in 1983 is a debatable point, but the great news is that The Gold Diggers is available at last, in a typically deluxe and thoughtfully-produced DVD package from BFI. Good things, it seems, really do come to those who wait. I watched the film a month or so ago and its words and music and images have remained with me since, returning at unexpected moments, and offering comfort and delight. It’s a great movie, one that could - and indeed should - have inaugurated a Golden Age of British counter-cinema.

The story - such as it is; this is, unsurprisingly, a film that doesn’t have much patience with the “ejaculatory” mode of narrative - revolves around the investigations of Laffont’s Celeste into the mysterious “movement” of gold, money and women in patriarchal capitalism. A bank employee, Celeste discovers a repeated ceremony in which a woman named Ruby (Julie Christie) is paraded through the streets and taken to a ball. Having descended the archetypal cinematic staircase, Ruby is passed from male partner to male partner, prompting the intrepid Celeste to come to our heroine’s aid. (On a white horse, no less.) Celeste’s intervention initiates Ruby’s process of "reconciliation with her history," and allows, ultimately, for the development of a new story that departs from the cinematic narrative in which she - and, by implication, a history of screen heroines - have been enmeshed.

From an opening song (sung by Potter herself) that takes issue with the unpleasurable - and ideologically dubious - “pleasures” of mainstream entertainment, through its cine-centric riddles and gender-bending rescue(s), The Gold Diggers confounds and delights, offering a rethinking of cinematic pleasure that remains as valid now as ever. (The film’s title itself is a revision, replacing a pejorative description with a dynamic and thoughtful presentation of women as active investigators and excavators.) Some sequences are heavy-going, yes. But most are accomplished with a wondrous freshness and lightness of touch.

As she has demonstrated elsewhere (Jude Law’s startling performance in Rage [2009] springs to mind) Potter also has a gift for defamiliarising familiar performers, and her play with Christie’s star persona here probably deserves an essay in its own right. In my favourite sequence in the film, Christie is practically unrecognisable, as Ruby finds herself forced onto a stage, in the guise of a Lillian Gish-ish heroine. Her awkward performance (which is also being observed by Ruby herself from the stalls) elicits the jeers and boos of the male audience. Ruby’s unexpected rejoinder to this critique is perhaps the most overtly oppositional moment in the movie, an exhilarating response that encapsulates the film’s particular brand of subversiveness. Encompassing politics and play, the theoretical and the poetical, The Gold Diggers is serious fun.

The BFI DVD package is typically generous, including a selection of Potter’s short films and a pdf of related material, plus an excellent booklet of interviews and essays. I’m not sure that the experimental early shorts will be of much interest to anyone beyond Potter scholars, but the 16-minute The London Story (1986) is an intriguing and enjoyable piece. Thriller (1979), though, is another matter entirely, a superb 30-minute re-imagining of Puccini’s La Boheme in which the heroine Mimi is “resurrected” in order to tell (and tell again) the story of the character’s life and death. With Laffont cast again in the role of investigator, this brilliant short feels like a precursor and companion piece to The Gold Diggers and establishes that film’s de/constructive approach to traditional narratives. Knowing your history, in both of these inspiring movies, gives you the opportunity to revise it.

Thursday 11 February 2010

"On A Sea of Fleur de Lis" by Richard Shindell

One of Shindell's most enigmatic - and, I think, most beautiful - songs. He's touring in the UK later this year, and I for one can't wait.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Allison Moorer interview

Released this week, Allison Moorer’s seventh studio album Crows finds the Alabama-born singer-songwriter in rejuvenated form, turning in a thematically rich set of songs that take her into a sonic space she hasn’t really explored before. Produced once more by Nashville producer R.S. Field, who helmed her stately 2002 release Miss Fortune and contributed to its follow-up The Duel, Crows is a classy collection that, at its very best, exudes reflective Southern soul and a sensual grace that mainstream country artists just can’t rival. I caught up with Allison over email recently to find out more…

You’ve spoken about Crows as something of a departure from your usual compositional style. Could you elaborate on this a little?
It is a departure in that I wrote about half of the songs on piano, as opposed to guitar, which is new for me. The songs developed very organically over a period of about a year or so, and I was very easy on myself in letting them come naturally and didn’t force myself to write if I didn’t feel like it was happening. I think the songs reflect that ease. No specific music influenced Crows directly; if anything I would say that all of my influences converged in a more successful way than ever before, in that this record reflects more of my natural musical instincts than anything else I’ve done.

The album reunites you with producer R.S. Field. What were your reasons for working with him again?
I wanted to work with a producer that I knew would understand what sort of sonic environment I wanted to create, and I wanted to work with someone I already knew how to work with. I wanted to take the ‘getting to know you’ learning curve out of the equation. R.S. and I are great friends and already know how to communicate successfully. Plus, he’s great!

Do you see a specific mood or thematic thread developing across Crows?
The thread, if there is one, is triumph over tragedy, light shining in and drowning out the dark. Even if it’s hard won. Sonically, I really wanted to create a three-dimensional environment, one with shadows and highlights, smooth spots and also rough and rocky terrain. I wanted it to sound deep and textured.

What’s your favourite song on the new record?
Probably the title track, because I feel like it’s the most realised version of my musicality; or ‘Still This Side Of Gone’, because it’s so painfully honest.

The title track is great. What was the inspiration behind it?
The inspiration was literally a murder of crows in my yard. They spooked me at first, then I decided to make friends with them.

You appeared on the latest Transatlantic Sessions series, along with Martha Wainwright and James Taylor as part of the North American contingent. That show always looks like a group of musicians hanging out and just having the best time. How did you become involved, and how did you find the experience?
Jerry Douglas is a friend of mine and he asked me to come over and do it, and I said “Of course!” – it was that simple! I had an amazing time doing the show and felt honoured to be there among that group of musicians.

What do you enjoy most about playing live?
I love to connect with an audience and I love to sing and play, so it’s a win–win for me. I love to travel, too, so anytime I can experience a different culture I’m happy to do it.

Tell us a little about your contribution to ‘The People Speak’ documentary.
I sang two songs for the documentary – Yip Harburg’s ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’ and Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. The first one ended up in the film, and I am honoured to be a part of it. Not only because of the illustrious company, but because I think it’s a very important piece of work. When Howard Zinn calls, you show up.

A song of yours I’ve always particularly loved is ‘Ruby Jewel Was Here’. Could you say a little about how that narrative developed and what some of your inspirations for the song were?
Gosh, that feels like another lifetime! That lyric was really Doyle Primm’s idea; I’m not sure what his inspiration was for it – maybe a Western movie or something. Musically, we wanted it to be loose and roadhouse-y, and it was also very influenced by The Band.

What’s your take on the current country music scene? Are there any emerging artists whose work you find particularly interesting?
Honestly, I really don’t pay attention to mainstream country music. I think Miranda Lambert is really talented and is doing good work.

And your attitude to shows such as ‘American Idol’?
Talent shows are lame.

Your last record, Mockingbird, was a covers album featuring songs by some of the female lyricists that you admire. What motivated that project?
I had wanted to do a covers album for a long time – I think most singers want to – and when I decided to do it I knew I had to narrow the song choices down somehow. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do female singer-songwriters?’. It was also a way to shine a light on the breadth, depth, beauty and diversity of the female singer-songwriter canon.

I believe that you originally had around fifty songs listed for the album. Are there any chances of a Volume 2?
Not at the present moment. I did that album to take a break from myself and to refresh my own reserves, so now I’m having a lot of fun with my own compositions.

Is the label ‘female singer-songwriter’ one that you embrace? Or do you see music as essentially genderless?
Well, that is what I am, so I might as well embrace it! No, music is not genderless to me. There are very specific male and female energies that come out whether we want them to or not.

It’s often said that this is a great time for women in music, yet albums by female musicians or female-fronted bands represented around only 15% in polls of the best music of the last decade. Do you feel that female producers, composers and singers continue to be undervalued?
I do believe we are undervalued, underutilised, underestimated. Why that is would take longer than I have and longer than you want to read. But I would start with the fact that women are expected to do everything these days – taking care of the home, the relationships, the children, and also going out into world and being great at our careers. It can be overwhelming and I personally don’t know one woman who isn’t [overwhelmed]. The making of art is something that is ultimately a very selfish thing, in that you have to give yourself permission to take the time to do it. And it’s also seen as expendable in this country, so of course it’s always the first thing to go on the backburner. You really have to commit to making and fighting for your art, and when you have a million other things pulling at you, it’s hard to stand up and say, “No, I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to make my art, whether anyone else likes it or not.” Women aren’t taught to put themselves first. Therefore, we don’t put our art first.

What’s your great hope for the world this decade?
For everyone to find a way to live with one another, to accept each other’s differences and not feel threatened by them, and to think before acting.

And a very nice acoustic take on one of her new album's songs here:

Sunday 7 February 2010

Transatlantic Sessions

As compensation for missing the Transatlantic Sessions gig in London last night I've been playing some of the shows on YouTube. Here are two performances that I love from Series 3: Karen Matheson's tremblingly emotional "Crucán Na bPáiste" and Dan Tyminski's twangy and robust "The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn."

Friday 5 February 2010

Jackie Brown: Opening Sequence

One of my favourite-ever opening sequences to a movie. Perfectly edited, perfectly paced, perfectly scored. Re-watching this makes me think that I really do need to see Inglourious Basterds, after all.

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.