Monday, August 6, 2007


2006, 121 minutes, comedy-drama, directed by Pedro Almodovar, Spain

Unless it’s in the sadomasochistic sense restraint is not typically a word you associate with a Pedro Almodovar film. Yet, it’s what I kept thinking of when I was watching Volver, which is a kind of fairy tale for adults that comes gift wrapped in the film maker’s signature vibrant and arresting visuals. It’s those visuals that reminded me of what a master Almodovar is at going right up to the edge of tacky, but stopping within a nanometer of crossing into its territory. This film is a near-spectacle, and I mean that as a compliment. Sometimes it felt like I was watching a series of paintings instead of a movie and given that the narrative wears thin I was happy to have the not-too-saturated colors and the just-shy-of kitschy composition to get lost in.

Volver is a death and sex-soaked film that begins with a quirky scene of lead character Raimunda, her daughter Paula, and sister Sole cleaning off the grave of Raimunda and Sole’s supposed-dead mother in their hometown in Spain’s La Mancha region. Later the mother returns, revealing herself first to Sole, who in one of the many allusions to Don Quixote, believes her to be an illusion or a specter. Later the mother reveals an ugly secret about Raimunda’s past, but between now and then fourteen-year-old Paula kills Paco, Raimunda’s husband and the man she believes is her father, for making sexual advances toward her and Raimunda covers it up. In a scene where Raimunda is cleaning up the pool of blood that she finds Paco in Almodovar closes in on a white paper towel absorbing a shock of blood. It’s a visual that in lesser hands could have been painfully trite, but he manages to make it seem it fresh and unlike the tired emotional shorthand that it could have been.

Despite sometimes looking like an aerobicized Anna Magnani, Penelope Cruz brings a lushness and sexual electricity to Raimunda that keeps her from becoming the long-suffering martyr that such a story almost demands of her character, and the other actors do a good job of keeping the story from crossing over into soap-opera-grade melodrama. The problem with Volver, though, is that its narrative has a soft, mushy center that leaves us with a fortune-cookie message about the enduring bonds of family and the healing power of truth and love. Maybe this was intentional, but it left me feeling like the movie was a purely surface-level experience—which can make for a more than watchable film, but not a memorable one.


Kirk Johnson said...

I've tried Almodovar, on and off, but we just don't click. I suppose that "soft mushy center" and "fortune-cookie message" has something to do with it. Or maybe it's that we grew up watching different movies. I somehow missed the reevaluation of Douglas Sirk that seems like a key to Almodovar's overlay of visual style with just-this-side-of-camp story lines. It's artistry, and as far as I can tell his career has an arc of accomplishment that puts him in the company of some very great directors, but it's mostly just wasted on me.

Which is also something like my Tarantino problem (those damn Kung-fu movies, in his case), and my Fassbinder problem, and my Lars von Trier problem. Or part of my John Waters problem, though the inept filmmaking in his case lets me off the hook. Try as I may, they all end up setting my teeth on edge.

Which makes me a poor excuse for a postmodernist, I guess. Just another lost child of Marx and Coca Cola, still waiting for the second nouvelle vague to wash back in...

Leopold said...

Pedro's films are always fun. And they've never really been about depth in American terms.

It's known that he laps up the influence of Spanish soap operas -- full of high and indeed shameless melodrama, sex, beauty, obsession, clothing, love, glamour, and all the tears and over-the-top'ness to go with it. For Americans that equates to mostly style over substance. For the post-Franco Spanish, it's part of the soul. Where the drama and exuberance themselves become the art, that expression.

He's more about creating the soap-style's short-term emotional intensity (and is able to push on taboos that are more palatable in the fantasy book arena he creates). The world of high emotion and drama is insulated and protected. Therefore anything is allowable there and anything can happen (I think Americans have real trouble with this concept, that transgression). Pain, glamour, and obsession protect (which is also so incredibly Spanish). And he's a master at delivering that. He's also very aware of his own kitsch, the fabric of what he’s doing, and he gives us permission to become aroused and to enjoy the candy. And he does well at pushing all the sensory buttons (and it's no coincidence that he and Madonna have shared a long-time friendship).

I'll admit to being shamelessly attracted to the world he creates. For its absolute departure. For its undeniably intense femaleness. Where art, taboo, beauty, drama, obsession, sex, love, and high glamour (in very high heels) reign. Where those things become the predominating forces of the day, and the characters are swept up by them. Ruling and being ruled by them. A world in which absolutely nothing is mundane. Especially in "Women on the Verge" (by the way, I've always loved the French translation of this title cuz it's fun to say: "Femmes au bord de la crise de nerfs") -- The female character who goes through several clothes changes in a day as way to glamour-off her pain and anxiety. All from the launching pad of the penthouse apartment. He's good with headstrong women who never quite land.

I haven't seen Volver. But I suppose I already know what I'm in for.

Leopold said...

Happy 49th birthday today to our lovely and very lasting Madonna!

"Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another."
--Justify My Love, Madonna

barnes said...
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