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?