Silicone And Sentiment
A hit in Europe and big success at Cannes, All about My Mother proves that Pedro Almodóvar is one of the greats of European cinema, blessed with the secret weapon of imagination, argues Paul Julian Smith
In the climactic sequence of All about My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre) the protagonist Manuela (Cecilia Roth) finally confront Lola (Toni Canto), the transsexual father of her dead son who has been absent from her life for years and from most of the film. The dying Lola, who has nevertheless indelibly marked the lives of all the film's women, tells her, "I was always excessive and now I am very tired."
If Pedro Almodóvar too has founded a career on excess, he is clearly by no means exhausted, either creatively or commercially. All about My Mother follows hard on the heels of last year's hit Live Flesh, and promises to be yet more successful than its predecessor. The first of Almodóvar's 13 features to be shown in competition at Cannes, All about My Mother not only won him the prize for best director but also proved to be the popular hit of the festival, with the often cynical Cannes audience granting it a lengthy standing ovation. Clocking up over 1 million admissions in France alone, All about My Mother has held its own against such mainstream rivals as the Connery/Zeta-Jones Entrapment all over Europe, thus fulfilling its director's prediction to the Italian press that the big budgets of Hollywood could only be beaten by something that comes free to Europeans: imagination.
All about My Mother is the final part of what can now be recognised as the loose trilogy of Almodóvar's mature 'blue period' (as opposed to the earlier, more florid 'rose' films). Like the first of the threesome The Flower of My Secret (1995), it focuses on one woman's grief, in this case Manuela's at the loss of a beloved son; but like the second, Live Flesh, it boasts a complex plot and a gallery of characters whose lives intersect with clockwork precision and to deadly effect. If All about My Mother is, then, and "Almodrama" (as Cuban critic Cabrera Infante calls the new genre), it is one of unusually wide interest: as attractive to film theorists as to fashionistas and as remarkable for its masterful cinematic technique as for its new commitment to social critique. And as in the earlier films of the trilogy, cinematographer Affonso Beato (a veteran of the Brazilian cinema nuovo movement) and composer Alberto Iglesias (a long-time collaborator with Julio Medem) help to set a tone at once gravely austere and powerfully sensual.
The opening credits shimmer and dissolve as the camera pans slowly over medical paraphernalia: drips and dials in blue, red and yellow. In a typical combination of economy and stylishness, this colour coding will continue throughout the film. Manuela shelters beneath a primary-hued umbrella on the dark, rainy Madrid night when her son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) is run over seeking an autograph from drama diva Huma Rojo (veteran Marisa Paredes) after a stage performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. And the second theatrical section of the film is yet more stylised: escaping to the Barcelona she left when pregnant 18 years earlier, Manuela encounters in swift succession the tranny prostitute La Agrado (newcomer Antonia San Juan), pregnant nun Sister Rosa (played by Spain's favourite young actress, Penelope Cruz) and Huma herself, whose production has transferred to the Catalan capital.
The marginal milieu, if not the glamorous production values, is almost parodically reminiscent of Almodóvar's 'rose' manner. And All about My Mother is densely self-referential. Cecilia Roth, who has worked in her native Argentina for the last decade, has not starred in and Almodóvar feature since Labyrinth of Passion (1982); memories of her as nymphomaniac Sexilia sit oddly with her brave performance here, at once fiercely emotional and unsentimental. Her character Manuela is a nurse who participates in training seminars on counselling relatives of prospective organ donors. This is a sequence repeated near verbatim from The Flower of My Secret, but now with the twist that the simulation of death will be repeated for real. Almodóvar completists will love other tiny gestures to fans: La Agrado's Chanel suit matches Victoria Abril's in High Heels (1991); her defiant claim "I'm authentic" echoes Rossy de Palma's lesbian maid in Kika (1993). The dubbed inserts of Bette Davis in All about eve recall the Joan Crawford clips form Johnny Guitar in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), while the scenes of A Streetcar Named Desire, shot with an eye for the ironies of on- and off-stage life, parallel those of Cocteau's La Voix humaine in The Law of Desire (1987). Self-citation is used as narrative shorthand, increasing the density and intensity of the new work by calling up the rich universe Almodóvar had created over 20 years.
But the condensation and displacement of Almodóvar's earlier oeuvre are matched by a newly analytic use of cinematic resources. The plot may be melodramatic and the ambience theatrical, but Almodóvar has coached his actresses to produce what Spanish critics have called a "Swedish" performance style in which less is more. Prone to tears, in accordance with the director's belief that "women weep better", All about My Mother's circle of females also confront death, disease and abandonment with a stoic mask of grief all the more moving for its impassivity. And there are some pitiless close-ups of transsexual San Juan and diva Paredes, revealing the traces of time on ravaged faces, however theatrically preserved. Yet there is still space in this hybrid "screwball drama", as Almodóvar styles it, for nicely judged moments of comedy, as when Sister Rosa claims that "Prada is perfect for nuns."
This extended range of performance style is matched by Almodóvar's shift of location. Hitherto confined to the old imperial capital of Madrid, his films have ignored the decentralisation of the Spanish state that has been the great achievement of democracy during the period in which the director has worked, a constitutional experiment the UK has only just embarked upon. And Barcelona, the maritime metropolis, has never looked more beautiful than through the lens of the unrepentant son of arid la Mancha. Introduced with a swooning helicopter shot from the Tibidabo hill down to the night lights of the bay, Spain's second city lives up to Almodóvar's claim that it is the "greatest of film sets". The distinctive towers of Sagrada Familia (relit specially for the film) swim and buckle as reflected in Manuela's taxi window. La Agrado's home beat is the grimy but multi-racial Raval (formerly known as the Barrio Chino), while Sister Rosa's intolerant mother resides in a glamorous apartment decorated in ornate Catalan art nouveau.
But location and dislocation go hand in hand. The visually striking scene in which cars slowly cruise prostitutes as if in some lower circle of suburban hell is shot not in Barcelona but in Madrid, albeit with Catalan trannies (more showy than their Castilian sisters) imported as extras. The soundtrack features the swelling chords of the Argentine bandoneón, appropriate for the central character Manuela but highly incongruous in this Catalan context. And the bilingual status of Barcelona is barely acknowledged, with the actors essaying only the barest of greetings in the local language. Indifferent to local politics, still Almodóvar writes a visual love letter to the Catalan capital - one welcomed by the Catalan press, which has often been friendlier to the director than that of his home town.
As mobile as Manuela, shuttling between Barcelona and Madrid, Almodóvar is also as consistent as her, in his focus on love and loss. And this alternation of motion and stasis is played out in his shooting and cutting styles. The director has remarked how reluctant he now is to move the camera without good cause. So such key moments as Esteban's accident are shot with studied simplicity: the camera merely cants sideways to the ground as from the dying son's point of view we see a sodden Manuela come howling into shot.
Three subtle features, however, contribute substantially to the film's narrative and aesthetic effect. The first is the slow pans along walls, floors and curtains that introduce many sequences. Like Ozu's interpolated shots of flowers or chimneys, unmotivated by plot, Almodóvar's pans suggest that his characters are caught up in a web of accidents that constitutes everyday life and cannot be extricated from the highly coloured locations they inhabit. The second technique is the dissolve. The grid of Esteban's notebook fades into the flashing lights of the theatre where Huma was performing, a reference to the unwitting cause of the youth's death at once tragic and ironic. Or Almodóvar cuts from the black mouth of a waste bin to the ever-receding railway tunnel through which Manuela flees the city. Narrative pace is quickened by bold, elliptical editing: located as we are within Manuela's mind, we see only those essential elements that drive forward her drama of primal loss and ultimate redemption.
The final technique is the two shot. Consistently exploiting the wide screen and scorning television-friendly square composition, Almodóvar's framings privilege the relation between characters. In the prologue mother and son are kept constantly together on screen, whether watching Bette Davis on television or Huma Rojo on stage. Later the central figure of Manuela will generously share the frame with the supporting players: Huma, Rosa, La Agrado, and Niña (Candela Peña), Huma's junkie lover. Superficially similar to Live Flesh, which also focused on the relationships between several characters and boasted sharp shooting and cutting, All about My Mother is significantly different from its predecessor. For in All about My Mother the bond between the characters is not sex, but solidarity. Perhaps the boldest of Almodóvar's innovations in this respect is his secularisation of Catholic iconography and ideology. Manuela is Mary in a new Holy Family (hence the appearance of the Sagrada Familia), the grieving mother of a son of doubtful paternity. Chic Sister Rosa will be martyred to the contemporary afflictions of unmarried motherhood and Aids. And the biblical injunction to love thy neighbour will be fully put into practice by Manuela as she embraces the lives, loves and babies of the women she meets. But she does so in the name not of Christ but of the Blanche Dubois played on stage by Huma: we are all shown to be dependent on the kindness of strangers.
This sense of solidarity comes from breaking down barriers. Just as the actors share space within the frame and Manuela touches the lives of all those she encounters, so the themes of the film point to a cohabitation without limits. Esteban's heart will beat within another's chest, the ultimate gift of life. Inversely his father Lola (originally known as Esteban also) will transmit a fatal virus to Rosa. Letters, photographs and children circulate among the cast, eventually reaching their destination. Esteban never sees a photograph of his father, but his father will see a picture of the son s/he never knew before s/he too dies. Huma will write the autograph for Esteban she refused him on that fatal night. And a third Esteban ( Rosa's son) will come to take the place of his lost father and brother in Manuela's care. Opaque on the page, such complexities are crystal clear on the screen: this is and open-heart cinema in which the way we touch one another is shown to have immediate and mortal effect. Creation and procreation (cinema and motherhood) are both implacable masters here, God-given gifts that become self-inflicted scourges.
I take the reference to the Lacanian notion of "letters reaching their destination" from an article on All about My Mother in Cahiers du ciné ma . And its popular success notwithstanding, the film offers itself up all too easily to academic interpretation, particularly by the man critics who now see gender not as identity but as performance. In a blissfully comic sequence La Agrado takes to the stage to perform her own lifestory as a transsexual well endowed in both the male and female departments. A modest but generous chick with a dick, she runs through the real cost of 'authenticity': each of her body parts has a price at the plastic surgeon's. And she also claims that the truest parts of her are the silicone and the sentiments. But it would be wrong to take this monologue as proof of Almodóvar's 'post-modernism', his delight in style and surface. Rather, in his loving attention to lives at the margins he suggests a respect for others that can only be called humanist.
This newly radical humanism and the increasing engagement of the 'blue period' trilogy with social issues, even amid the lushest of visual pleasures, have clear political implications in Spain. The Flower of My Secret's sentimental drama was set in a Madrid racked by strikes and anti-government protest. Live Flesh began with the imposition of a Francoist curfew and ended with a celebration of 20 years of Spanish democracy. All about My Mother goes yet further: the birth of Rosa's child coincides, we are told, with the imprisonment of an Argentine general, while the integration of Aids into Almodóvar's chain of solidarity is hardly casual in a country where the rate of HIV transmission is far higher than in the UK. Asked by movie magazine Fotogramas for his hopes for the millennium, Almodóvar replied with the earnest desire that Pinochet be brought to trial. But some critics have objected to the film's politics and marginal characters: the reviewer in the supposedly liberal daily El Mundo wrote that he "failed to recognise" himself as a heterosexual man in Almodóvar's Spain, a nation of lesbians, drag queens and junkies. All about My Mother may prove more appetising to the minority foreign audience who felt that Live Flesh was a betrayal of the director's early genderbending work, but in a home market where he remains the only native director whose name can 'open' a film, Almodóvar's mainstream status causes some of his audience to complain about being excluded from a distinctive filmic world that has shaped many foreigners' perceptions of modern Spain.
Finally, the US influences paraded by All about My Mother are red herrings. Unlike Eve Harrington in All about Eve, the good-hearted Manuela will not betray the star whose life she infiltrates; unlike Blanche in Streetcar, Almodóvar's heroines hold on to their sanity to the bitter end. All about My Mother ends, moreover, with a very Spanish reference as Huma rehearses the role of the mourning matriarch in Lorca's Blood Wedding. Equally at ease with Prada and Lorca, Almodóvar's film fuses style and feeling, silicone and sentiment. Newly mature and boundlessly creative, the director has proved himself worthy of the comparison to Spain's greatest dramatist.