Gay … in the old sense
VOLVER (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2006, 7)
Late Almodovar has a way of sneaking up on me. Almost a week after seeing this movie, I’ve already convinced myself that I’ve under-rated it (though that may just be the hangover of two major year-end disappointments — CHILDREN OF MEN and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER). I’ve had more-or-less the same reaction to all four of Almodovar’s *late* films — TALK TO HER, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and BAD EDUCATION. A ‘7’ walking out of the theater, and then growing afterward in my head and (in the first two cases) on subsequent viewing.
Michael Sicinski had a similar, if slightly more-negative, reaction to his first viewing of VOLVER (scroll down a little). We both made the mutual mistake of initially reacting to VOLVER based on our expectations of previous Almodovar films. Mikeski mentions the film’s lack of sex or sexual transgression — Penelope Cruz’s plunging neckline (the pervs can look to the right) being, by the standards of Pedro’s 80s films, practically a nun’s dark habit. To which I’d add the fact that VOLVER is never that I can recall laugh-out-loud funny. Although some of his films are relatively somber (LIVE FLESH, TALK TO HER), you would still describe most of Almodovar’s films as comedies or black comedies. And even as grim as TALK TO HER often is, it still has one sequence (“The Shrinking Lover”) that is simply one of the funniest in recent movies. VOLVER has nothing equivalent — a major all-comedy set piece. And with no sex or sexual transgression and little comedy, the film felt a bit insubstantial as I was watching it, like there were no stakes to it. Don’t get me wrong — never did I think VOLVER was anything but consistently entertaining and interesting (and occasionally amusing), and I was never even slightly bored. As I left the theater, I was debating between 6 and 7, so I obviously liked it initially more than Mike did.
But what VOLVER did have is key to ultimately what it’s all about — it’s got an infectious sense of all-around geniality, charm and good cheer, without ever seeming to push it into “Feel Good Film of the Year”-territory. You enjoy being in its company and its atmosphere and “vibe.” That “vibe,” though most prominent in such later films as ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and FLOWER OF MY SECRET, is a constant feature of Pedro’s films — even “the early, smutty ones” that you could never guess from just reading a plot description and their bizarre subject matter. His films are consistently sunny and happy (“gay” in the old sense, one is tempted to say), and never sunnier or happier (though never, as I said, exactly *funny*) than in VOLVER. Almodovar’s typical high-key lighting, geometric framing and candy-stripe color schemes are pleasing to the eye, and unthreatening. Sunny. The lead review at the IMDb describes the film as “vivacious” and seldom has an adjective fit a film better. But this kind of sunny vibe of fabulousness (am I moving up the Kinsey scale here at all) can sometimes feel like a lack of heft or ambition as has happened to me before with other Almodovar films.
But is there a “there” for this “sunny gay vibe of fabulousness” to serve? Hooray for what Jen told Michael to look for — this is a film about love in a female community (and without a hint of *that* for the pervs). “Ethic of care” is not the term I would have thought of first, but it’s certainly as good as any other. VOLVER shows a community of women, virtually without men (the most significant male is killed in the first reel), dealing with situations (a restaurant, another death, a death in the past) and personal and familial crises primarily in terms of how they relate to one another. And doing so successfully — think of how Penelope Cruz gets the restaurant restarted by borrowing a day’s worth of money and food from the other women in the neighborhood; and of how she disposes of another problem, twice, with the help of other women who neither doubt her motives nor deny her the help she needs (moving a refrigerator is “a man’s job” if ever there was such a thing).
Yes, VOLVER does have that slaying, plus a very dramatic, portentous score that Michael (rightly) compares to Bernard Herrmann. But that points in the other direction. The killing occurs offscreen so we primarily see how it affects the women in the movie, and in a very specific and defensible context that we’re never given cause to doubt. The blood is shown not being shed, but being cleaned up. Further, VOLVER never even hints at becoming a suspense thriller, even though the early plot events seem like a setup for such a film. The death is just put off the side while the real plot — about a sick aunt (Chus Lampreave), the appearance of the ghost of a dead mother (Carmen Maura), and issues surrounding these deaths for two sisters (Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas) and Cruz’s daughter (Yohana Cobo).
Most of impressive of all are these actresses. Can we just come out and say now that Pedro is the greatest director of actresses since … um … George Cukor? I was floored by my first view of Carmen Maura, who was in almost all of Pedro’s early films but none since she became the definitive Almodovar heroine almost 20 years ago in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (the film I’d say VOLVER most resembles). But she’s still her same fabulous self behind the wrinkles. Pedro also manages to get a good performance from Penelope Cruz, who actually acts like a human being in this movie — even better, one who’s capable, smart, lovable, has believable tics. And can sing marvelously. You root for her and she carries the film.¹ But every one of the lead roles is strong (even though Chus Lampreave’s “dotty old lady” is a role she could play in her narcoleptic sleep). Lola Duenas plains the plain-Jane role that never gets praised, even though she has what Michael rightly describes as the film’s key shot — running into a roomful of men and deciding against their aid — and its impact depends on her nailing the reaction shot, though Almodovar’s cutting and soundtrack help. So it wasn’t a cop-out for the Cannes jury to award an ensemble prize. Indeed in a sense, that very female-communal spirit is exactly what VOLVER is about.
¹ I’m of two minds on whether Cruz actually is just a better actress in her native language than in English (a perfectly understandable and precedented phenomenon. Sophia Loren was splendid in Italy, especially working with DeSica; a hypermammary abomination in Hollywood). Or whether Cruz is just as bad an actress in Spanish, but this monoglot Anglophone can’t see it for the language barrier. Still …. while I can’t converse with a native, I think I understand Spanish well enough to spot a simply bad actor. I’d appreciate some feedback on this point from anybody who reads this site but can speak Spanish like a native.
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