Women, Windmills And Wedge Heels
Cannes Preview: Pedro Almodóvar's Volver finds the director back working with Carmen Maura and Penélope Cruz, exploring themes about mothers and other ghosts from the past. By Paul Julian Smith
Pedro Almodóvar has let his hair go grey. Though his bushy locks remained suspiciously dark well into his fifties, now "the snows of time have silvered his temples." This poetic description comes from the lyrics of 'Volver', the bittersweet tango that lends Almodóvar's sixteenth feature its title. 'Volver' means 'going back' or 'coming home'. And after the rigours of the male-dominated Bad Education (2004) the new film stages at least six returns: to comedy, to women, to his native La Mancha, to his actress-muses Carmen Maura and Penélope Cruz, to the theme of motherhood in general, and to his own much mourned mother in particular. Almodóvar himself goes further, claiming that this return to his roots is also a celebration of a "bright, light Spain" where a funeral can be a fiesta. It's a world away from the black legend of Spanish ruralism, steeped in reaction and repression.
But things aren't quite so simple. Volver suggests that if you go back to the country, you might return with more than you bargained for, not least an undead body in the boot of your car. The film is a tale of two sisters. Feisty Raimunda (Cruz) is a desperate housewife coping with an unexpected emergency: her daughter has accidentally killed the abusive father who tried to rape her. Timid Sole (newcomer Lola Dueñas) has her own problems: on revisiting their native village to attend a funeral she encounters the ghost of their mother (veteran Carmen Maura), who accompanies her back to the city where she has unfinished business to settle.
Volver is the first feature by the famously agnostic Almodóvar to host a supernatural theme. And the superstitious have noted that the director's sixteenth feature marks six years since his mother's death and 26 since his father's, and that in the 1980s Almodóvar made six famous films with Carmen Maura, who is now 60 years old. But more is at stake here than this string of sixes. Once movie-mad Spain has seen a steep fall in its box office over the past year and Almodóvar himself is no longer the most popular person in the industry, having recently resigned from the Film Academy after being snubbed at the Goyas (Spanish Oscars). As Volver opens he is about to receive a rare retrospective at the Paris Cinémathèque, in which his oeuvre is screened alongside those of Sirk and Cukor, Murnau and Renoir. But the director remains a prophet misunderstood in his own land, and one wonders whether with Volver he can rescue an ungrateful Spanish film industry one more time. Will the new Spain, where smoking is banned in public places and same-sex marriage commonplace, wish to see the ghosts of the past resurrected or will it find this uncanny revival of rural roots too embarrassing?
Commercially canny as ever, Almodóvar has gambled that if you scratch an urban sophisticate, you'll find an earthy peasant underneath. After all, most Spaniards are still only one generation away from the village. And queuing outside Madrid's huge Palace of Music theatre a week after Volver's premiere in March, it's clear his bet has paid off. The line stretches round the block, and half a million people nationwide have seen the film already.
And what an audience! There are as many walking sticks in evidence as there are knee-high boots. Old women who could have come from Almodóvar's home town jostle with the fashionistas who, with a little help from Spain's best-known cineaste, have made Madrid the most modern of European capitals. A surprising number of foreigners have made the pilgrimage too, and the sense of excitement is contagious. Two hours later the vast auditorium will ring with applause.
So what of Almodóvar's multiple returns? First, Volver is blissfully comic. Maura's ghost-mother is placed in a series of farcical situations (hiding under a bed, impersonating a Russian vagrant), with the supernatural presented in a naturalistic way, resulting in an uncanny realism. Fans will savour too the revival of the wacky wit: for instance, when one village daughter shows off her mother's plastic jewellery she notes proudly that it's made of "the good plastic".
The film also marks a return to a world of women and to La Mancha. Sisters Raimunda and Sole rely more on each other than on any man, and have transplanted their country ways to the graffiti-scarred barrios of southern Madrid. When Sole goes back to their village for the funeral, the scene might have come straight from Lorca: black-clad widows huddle in a cloistered chamber, muttering prayers, while the menfolk hunker down over their drinks on the patio. This is a land, now as then, where women and men lead separate lives, and only solidarity among women can be counted on. Almodóvar even shows us repeated shots of that ancient icon of La Mancha, the windmill - only now a high-tech model that provides the villagers with renewable energy. The region's most famous son since Don Quixote is demonstrating that tradition and modernity can rub along.
Almodóvar's relationship with Carmen Maura is another miraculous survival: the giddy 1980s of What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown now seem as distant as Cervantes' golden age. After Spain's most notorious public quarrel, their reunion is a media phenomenon that doesn't disappoint. For an established star, Maura is conspicuously lacking in vanity; as the ghost-mother, with her hair in grey rats-tails and a wardrobe out of a charity shop, she looks authentically deathly. And Almodóvar cannily rations her appearances, giving her little to do in the first half but letting her loose with a shattering six-page monologue in the final act.
The return of Penélope Cruz, who played small roles in Live Flesh (1997) and All about My Mother (1999), is less momentous but no less moving. Betrayed by bad career choices in Hollywood, Cruz here is nothing short of sensational. As the housewife coping with a dark secret, a dead husband and a ghostly mother, she is a domestic goddess in the mould of the formidable women of Italian neo-realism. Almodóvar even includes a clip of Anna Magnani, the strong and sexy mother in Visconti's Bellissima (1951), glimpsed on a rural television set.
Cruz's fierce, dark look is strengthened by a liberal use of black eye-liner, a make-up design Almodóvar acknowledges as coming from Italy. A distant cousin of Carmen Maura's deadly housewife in What Have I Done...?, Cruz looks fabulous even in a mix of tacky purple cardigans and the season's most fashionable shoes: Raimunda hobbles down the mean streets of Madrid, pulling a shopping trolley behind her, in peep-toed espadrilles with the highest of wedge heels. She allegedly rehearsed for three months to lip-synch the fiendishly tricky tango that gives Volver its title, a musical interlude carefully crafted to be a classic moment in Almodóvar's filmography.
Raimunda is the latest in a long line of tenacious and inventive mothers, risking all for a beloved daughter. As Almodóvar has often claimed, mothers are a source of storytelling as well as of life, while men are marginal bit players in the family narrative. Raimunda's doomed husband is unemployed, scratching the twin itches of sex and alcohol; her father took a darker secret to his grave. Almodóvar has said that he never felt closer to his mother than when shooting Volver, and he even enlisted his sisters as dialogue coaches and cookery consultants on a film whose gastronomy is as rich as the cinematography by José Luis Alcaine.
But the dead hand of the patriarch hangs heavily over Volver, Almodóvar's bitterest attack on machismo. Absent fathers may not take the form of ghosts, but their memory haunts their traumatised daughters. Cruz's perfect eyeliner is all too often smudged by tears, and the film's comedy is undercut by loneliness, ageing and death. Chus Lampreave, Almodóvar's cinematic grandmother, still best known for What Have I Done…?, appears briefly as an elderly aunt but looks cruelly aged: it's unclear how much of her poor health is acted or simply lived. And the timid, wide-eyed Sole, whose name means 'Solitude', responds to her ghostly mother's enquiry about how she is with the words: "Alone, as ever." Sisterly solidarity, it seems, can make up only for so much.
Lampreave's character seems stranded in La Mancha and the sisters wonder how she can survive alone: village life is thus no communal paradise. Almodóvar himself has spoken of the empty streets of his childhood, lashed by the wind, and now the local river, where his mother took him to do the laundry, runs dry. The riverbank, where once housewives sang as they worked (the song plays over the film's first sequence), will serve in Volver as an improvised cemetery, another memento mori. In popular superstition the village that features in Volver is known for madness and burning buildings, both blamed on the relentless wind, and Almodóvar's cast of walking wounded will be damaged by both these phenomena.
Central here is an actress who is making her debut for Almodóvar. Blanca Portillo is known to Spaniards as an independent urbanite in the Friends-style sitcom 7 Vidas but is almost unrecognisable in Volver as Agustina, the most rural of the film's women. In a scene of cruel comedy Agustina will appear on television searching for her lost mother: the ghoulish presenter announces to the audience that she is suffering from cancer and calls, inevitably, for "a big round of applause". Rural reserve wins out over big-city exploitation (Agustina walks off the set with some dignity), but sickness and death cannot be spirited away. And the cycle of motherhood seems to have broken down: Agustina has neither mother nor children but only ghosts to care for her.
When Almodóvar himself appeared on television to promote Volver, he shed tears not for his mother, whom he said was so close during the shoot, but for his father, a much more distant figure. And Volver shows the conscious, even chilly mastery of technique we've come to expect from the director's mature period. Rejecting the tricky flashbacks and reversals of Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education, Volver's structure seems simplicity itself, with Almodóvar cutting coolly between the highly coloured city narrative (the disposal of a corpse) and the plainer rural strand (the encounter with an all too realistic ghost). The shooting style is similarly transparent: the camera tracks fluidly through the gravestones in the opening cemetery sequence, but more often simply sits alongside the women and asks us to pay attention to what they are saying. The occasional high-angle shots come as a surprise, as when Sole is mobbed by mourners or the camera looks cheekily down on Cruz's cleavage as she slaves over the washing up.
Even the score by Almodóvar's close collaborator Alberto Iglesias, recently Oscar-nominated for The Constant Gardener, is discreet and unshowy. Deftly following the film's frequent changes of register, Iglesias offers Hitchcockian strings for the thriller elements and tender harp chords for the supernatural apparitions. Almodóvar no longer needs to prove himself through the flashy visuals and soundtracks that characterised his earlier films, but seems rather to be posing - like his main character - as a simple workhorse. It's typical that when Volver visits Madrid's high-tech, Richard Rogers-designed new airport terminal it is only because Raimunda has a part-time job mopping the floors. The director's achievement is to get us to accept Cruz as an ordinary working woman, even as we (and he) marvel at her beauty. Like the film itself, she combines force and fragility.
The last line of dialogue in Volver is: "Ghosts don't cry." Uncovering what he has called (in a typically rural metaphor) "a well of emotions", Almodóvar has shown that after the bracing coldness of Bad Education he can return to deep feeling. It is a move he has made under the pressure of great expectations, both at home and abroad. Indeed, Carmen Maura has described how different it is filming with the director now rather than in the early days, when they were unconcerned by money or fame and just out to have fun.
Almodóvar himself is well aware of how difficult it is to sustain artistic creativity: recently he spoke of Fellini as a director who didn't know when to quit, and as Spain's own Fellini - once famous for his love of the grotesque - he must fear that he too will run out of inspiration. But his latest film bears no sign of decline. On the contrary, it continues an unbroken run of some 25 years of artistic and commercial successes that has few precedents in European cinema.
The tango 'Volver', sung by Cruz's character to her dead mother, promises that the encounter with the past is painful, but not impossible. And the film Volver proves that Almodóvar's body of work is now enriched by facing up to his own past. Suddenly the one-time "most modern man in Madrid" can afford to look behind him, even likening film-making to therapy. With two new projects in the works, Almodóvar, for all his silvery temples, is surely at the peak of his powers.