Posted by: philosopherouge | September 6, 2007

The Lives of Women


It’s difficult to describe the ecstatic feeling I get watching Almodovar’s most recent film, Volver, as he tackles the woman’s experience in the modern world. In many ways, I think thematically and even stylistically his films are in the same vein as Douglas Sirk, but with a much more wicked sense of humour. Almodovar is also privileged enough to be appreciated by modern day critics and audiences, whereas Sirk was for the most part downgraded because he made “women’s pictures”. I don’t think it’s so much a shift in modern appreciation for the stories of women on the screen because looking beyond Almodovar and perhaps S. Coppola I can’t say many directors are exploring the lives of women, let alone being acclaimed for it. Almodovar’s skill at storytelling is powerful enough to draw audiences into the world of women, and this is plays into the reason why he is one of the best working directors in the world.

In Volver, Almodovar explores the lives of several women in a family spanning several generations. They are very different people but are all strong, and all have bad luck with men. The film is almost completely absent of any men at all, with the exception of Raimunda’s (Penelope Cruz) boorish husband and the man who asks her to take care of the restaurant. The only other man of notice never appears, and that is Raimunda’s father who is dead before the film even begins but who’s influence still haunts several of the characters. What is interesting about the male presence is that not only are the women not dependent on them, they are portrayed rather negatively. It’s bad enough that Paco is lusting after his teenage step daughter, but he is afforded the rare privilege of getting some of the only POV shots (that aren’t God’s eye view shots) of the film, and they serve solely to sexualize the women, in particular his daughter. I think while this is supposed to be representative of the male gaze, it doesn’t suggest all men are as brutish as Paco. It reflects more a societal view of women, and perhaps especially in cinema. Considering that most directors are male, women are seen through their eyes. In these two or three shots, the lens becomes Paco’s eyes and his vivacious daughter is reduced to his shallow perception of her. She almost loses her humanity as he focuses on her sex, and I think this is an important point in how women onscreen are viewed today. Even when women are afforded personality, the gaze squares in on on the most biological level what makes them women, and her existence in relation to men. This is actually interesting contrasted with Almodovar’s own appreciation for the female form including the now famous overhead shot of Cruz. The difference between these shots and the earlier ones are celebration. Almodovar doesn’t believe women’s beauty should be ignored for them to be respected, and most of his cleavage shots are not close ups but rather while the characters are washing dishes or talking, living their lives. It’s part of the appreciation and interest he has in the women’s experience.

The interaction between characters is also an essential cyclical ingredient that binds the characters together. The conflict and confusion of dealing with death, and hardship puts strain on the characters and their dealings with each other. It also reveals immense devotion on their part, and even greater sacrifice. There is no absence of tension between the women, and it has a tendency to occasionally boil over, but in the end their love for each other brings them back to one another. The decision in capitalizing on the almost extreme melodrama of patterned events works rather ingeniously in bringing the film together. Cruz, who has been hurt in the past learns from that and does everything she can for her daughter. It isn’t a Stella Dallas situation, where the daughter is spoiled or demands too much of her caring mother but a portrait of two women who love and need each other and are willing to sacrifice all they have for each other. When later we learn about Raimunda’s own relationship with her mother, and the reason behind their falling out we come to understand why she does what she does.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s rather apparent that Douglas Sirk was a great influence on Almodovar’s work, and most apparently in the stylistic approach. Use of colour is a defining characteristic of both of their work, defining a world that is abundant with beauty but also artificiality. The colours are always rich and are used to reflect the world view of the characters (even think of Tarnished Angels, the female protagonist had a very dark view of the world and the film was b&w… I may be REALLY overanalyzing in this case. I think I probably am). The passion for life and even death is apparent in every frame of the film. I’d have to see the film again to really look into perhaps the repetition of certain colour schemes to really flesh this out.

I wish I had more time to continue, but I have some work to do! I wish I could cover life and death, as well as further cinematic allusions and the use of music.

1. Aside from Almodovar, what are some modern filmmakers or films that explore the lives and experiences of women? It would be especially interesting if you can name American films.

2. What are some of your favourite movies about strong or interesting women characters?

3. Who do you think are among the best working directors?



  1. 3 random responses to question #1:

    Miranda July’s ME and YOU and EVERYONE WE KNOW had a couple of strong, interesting female characters. That’s an American movie and written/directed by a woman!

    The most interesting woman I can think of in recent cinema is Nora in Arnaud Desplechin’s KINGS AND QUEEN, but she’s nobody’s role model.

    I can’t say I find much insight in Sofia Coppola’s characters (who you mention), but I seem to be alone in the world on that one.

  2. Awesome, I don’t know much about it but I’ll definetely check it out.

    I haven’t seen that either, but I’m happy you bring up the fact she isn’t a role model. Some feminists get annoyed when women are portrayed as bad people, or negatively… but in the real world women can also be bad people.

    I love Coppola’s films actually, except Lost in Translation… but I need to see it again. I’ve done some writing in particular on Marie Antoinette that I may put here sometime.

  3. I loved Volver (and finally saw it on the insistence of my girlfriend, who was an Almodovar novice when she saw it and loved it). Great write-up, hope you get time to add stuff about life & death … now to unleash the floodgates:

    1. Contemporary filmmakers with a strong focus on women–off the top of my head there’s the late Ousmane Sembene; Gillian Armstrong; Catherine Breillat definitely; probably Nicole Holofcener (I haven’t seen her films though); Claire Denis (in certain projects); Todd Haynes (ditto). And speaking of Arnaud Desplechin, I’d tweak Ed Hardy’s recommendation a little and mention AD’s divisive masterpiece Esther Kahn (starring Summer Pheonix in an earth-shattering performance).

    2. Lots of Mizoguchi (Life of Oharu and Sisters of the Gion for starters), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Cloud-Capped Star, Late Spring (and plenty of other Ozu), Rossellini’s Ingrid Bergman films, Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon, Sternberg/Dietrich, Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos, Ford’s 7 Women, Breillat’s Une vraie jeune fille, Allan Moyle’s Times Square, Losey’s Steaming, actually this list could end up pretty long. As if it hasn’t already.

    3. Godard, Oliveira, Kiarostami, both Pedros (Almodovar & Costa), Hong Sang-soo, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abel Ferrara, Chantal Akerman, Arnaud Desplechin, Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bela Tarr, David Cronenberg, Richard Linklater, Clint Eastwood (until about 2003), maybe Takashi Miike and Jon Jost.

  4. Another important aspect in Almodovar’s work is the notion of place, which the Spanish have often used as a means to define the self or community.

    1. I think you could argue Sofia Coppola on this, since all 3 of her films deal with substantial female characters and feminist issues.
    I plan on seeing a bunch of Campion’s work soon, and as I recall, mos of her films are about women.
    Lars von Trier has done a good chunk of films about women.

    2. Purely offhand: The Marriage of Maria Braun, All About My Mother, Pandora’s Box, definitely Daisies . . . I dunno, my mind’s blanking. I could probably think of lots more.

    3. Again, offhand: David Fincher (on the theory that Zodiac will be good), Darren Aronofsky, Pedro Almodovar, Guillermo del Toro, Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg (though I don’t think History of Violence is as good as some of his older films), Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Richard Linklater (not really a favorite, but has made some really good films), Pierre Jeunet, Todd Haynes…

  5. Zach: Happy you loved Volver! I’ll see what I can do about expanding on my thoughts.

    Thanks for all the suggestions as I haven’t seen any of the films mentioned for part 1 (or films by the directors to be more accurate). My local cinematheque is having a tribute to Claire Denis’ soon, so hopefully I’ll be able to catch something. She will also show up once or twice, but I have slim hopes to get any tickets.

    I’m happy you mention Bergman and Rosselini, spot on! I need to see most of the rest although I have seen some Sternberg.

    I need to see many of your choices, notably the directors of Asian cinema. It’s one of my weak points.

    AR: Notion of place? It never occurred to me, so thank you for bringing that up.

    For me at least, Coppola almost goes without saying. I’m probably one of her more passionate supporters. I need to see Campion’s films too, the Piano has intrigued me for a long time. Von Trier is a filmmaker I don’t particularly want to explore. I saw Breaking the Waves and almost disliked it to the point of hate. I’m still willing to give him another shot sometime.

    Some good choices… well I assume, I’ve only see Pandora’s Box, and I definitely agree with you there. Most of Pabst work take a strong approach to women and their oppression in society, in one way o another.

    Zodiac is indeed great, I’ve only seen that and Se7en from Fincher’s FILMOGRAPHY and they’re both excellent films. I think Zodiac is a much more mature and methodological approach to similar material, and in the end beats Se7en by quite a large margin. I can’t really argue with any of your other choices, although Aronofsky has only really impressed me once, and that was with the Fountain. I still thin all of his films show immense creativity and are at the very least different.

  6. Have you written at all about Coppola’s films–specifically her treatment of women? I would love to hear what you have to say on the subject. I’m fascinated by her films even though I’m left cold by them. In fact, being alienated by them, and having everyone around me love them, almost makes me more obsessed with them.

  7. I have only done that for Marie Antoinette, and only contained within a wider review. Here are some relevant excerpts from what I wrote after the film came out. It’s a little rough around the edges because it’s almost a year old now:

    “Coppola humanizes and exposes Marie Antoinette in all her mystery, as one of the most notorious historical figures of perhaps all times. Right from the beginning we realize she is under constant watch and scrutiny. The innocent young teenager who arrives in France is shunned and criticized for everything she does or doesn’t do. In one scene, where she is being dressed Antoinette stands there naked as the ridiculous rules of the court make for a few uncomfortable minutes where the responsibility shifts from person to person to dress her as someone of higher rank continually enters the room. There is no privacy for her, and the subject of her sex life or lack thereof is openly discussed among all members of the court. She walks down the hall and hears these fragmented conversations about her inadequacy although behind closed doors we know it’s not her fault. Marie Antoinette is never even afforded friendship; those she associates with talk behind her back just like the rest and call her “that Austrian girl”. Not equipped to deal with this, Antoinette turns to escapism and excess. I honestly felt incredible sympathy for her throughout the entire film. She was lost in a world she wasn’t ready for, but when she was forced to be strong she was. This has to be Dunst’s best performance. She goes from child, to outcast, to escapist, to mother and it ends with her as a real Queen. All these changes are felt more through her performance than anything else, after becoming a mother we feel this incredible change in her demeanor and attitude, and the final tumultuous act this new determination and dedication as a failed monarch.

    Coppola effectively captures Marie Antoinette’s existence and especially her loneliness with her skillful direction. There is so much distance between herself and the world of the court and the world around her. There are many shots of her in these enormous rooms or corridors all alone, or separated from the group. She’s framed and trapped by doorways, and there is at least in the first half an almost constant overlay of dialogue and criticism that floats around as the backdrop for almost every scene. It’s easy to not even notice most of it, as it is so constant. Versailles itself is so excessive, and surreali that it is a world on it’s own. It’s like it’s own isolated country that doesn’t need the outside world, it lives by it’s own rules (90% of them ridiculous formality), we see why the monarchy was able to get caught up with themselves while forgetting the plights of the people. Sound and image are tied up with the defining of this film and what it stands for.”

  8. Almodovar has mentioned it in a couple of interviews. The region is very much a part of Volver, but it’s evident in aspects of his other films.

    I can understand your feelings on von Trier. I’ve only seen Dancer in the Dark, and I didn’t care for it much, despite Bjork’s fantastic music. I want to see Breaking the Waves, but mostly for Emily Watson’s performance (love her).

    Se7en and Fight Club really sold me on Fincher’s reputation, though Panic Room was a disappointment. But he definitely has a vision, coupled with a strong sense of style, which is usually what I look for in a filmmaker.

    As far as Aronofsky, I actually found The Fountain weak in comparison to his previous films. I felt the human level was neglected in favor of the plot concept and theme. Requiem for a Dream is thus far his most successful film IMO.

    I neglected Tim Burton, who I used to just adore. His work since Ed Wood has been so hit-or-miss, but I do think his best work will stand the test of time.

  9. Beginning with the third question, my favorite contemporary directors are: Egoyan, Godard, Greenaway, Haneke, Hou, Jia, Resnais, Rivette, Tarr and Varda.

    Moving on to a critique of the second, I don’t think films about strong women are inherently more interesting than films about strong men–or even necessarily more political.

    And finally the first: looking to my pantheon above, Rivette and Varda have consistently made films centered on women–Cleo de 5 a 7, Le Bonheur, La Religeuse, Celine et Julie vont en bateau, Vegabond, La Bande des quatre, La Belle noiseuse, Jeanne la Pucelle, Secret Defense, Va savoir and Histoire de Marie et Julien.

  10. 1. All good choices.

    2. I never implied that they are, but I would argue that they are indeed rarer at least in looking at more mainstream cinema.

    3. I really want to check out Rivette’s stuff, I have both La belle noiseuse and La religieuse at home but haven’t found the time to watch them. What I have caught though seems right up my alley.

  11. Well, as to why they’re rarer, it’s obvious that the film industry has and continues to discriminate against women.

    In France in the 1700’s women weren’t allowed to study history painting–then thought to be the highest form of painting–because it meant they would be around naked men; the reason there were so many women surrealists is because the surrealists didn’t require that kind of academic training.

    In film, which requires so much specialized labor and is so heavily over-unionized, it’s even worse. When Agnes Varda made her first film in 1954, the unions had veto power over a film’s release; they thought Varda’s film was bad for their prestige, because it didn’t have good production values. Even today, there are very few women filmmakers yet there are countless women video artists (Joan Jonas’ “Vertical Roll” is a particular favorite of mine).

    When I was studying film, we had an actor come into the class to do a workshop, and everyone was appalled (it was only me and four other guys in the class–no girls) at some of the slag terms used on film sets. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, and on film sets it’s apparently normal to call a medium long shot a tit shot. If anything, he was surprised we hadn’t heard the term before.

  12. All of that is interesting, and I vaguely know about some of it but you definetely cleared things up.

    About your final point, I was unaware of that and while I find it somewhat offensive I’m not surprised. Although I’m not studying at University level yet, I’ve met a lot of men classmates or teachers (although most teachers are good about it) who really favour their male students, or generally male ideals over female. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read where a woman has been raped, murdered, etc. or has turned into various “poisonous” alcoholic beverages. There are more than a few of my male classmates who won’t let girls handle camera or any equipment f they are forced to work with them. Then again, things are changing somewhat… as quite steadily, they are being outnumbered big time by girls. While in the cinema program, it’s probably just a few more females it’s impossible to tell because the classes are dominated by women. For whatever reason, young men are not going to school as much as they used to and the ratio in Quebec for University students is 60% women, 40% men… perhaps this will mark a general change in the industry, if this pattern is going on in the rest of the world. Then again, nothing may change. It’s really impossible to tell.

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