DEFINING FEATURES The Women Of Pedro Almodóvar
In Defining Features, we look at the attributes of a certain director’s body of work, to be precise, what specific and recurring qualities define a world cinema director’s style and authorship over the span of their work. In looking at the defining features of directors, the focus here is on one of the most talented, idiosyncratic and original filmmakers of his generation, Pedro Almodóvar.
To watch an Almodóvar film is to watch brilliantly realised characters with vividly real or imagined problems come to life on screen before our very eyes. Watch any Almodóvar film from the low-budget cult kitsch of Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) to last year’s pseudo horror film The Skin I Live In (2011) and several things will be immediately recognisable. The bright vivid colours inspired by the high camp of telenovelas and the underground 1970s cinema of Spain sets the tone of many an Almodóvar film for the lives we are about to intrude upon. The melodrama of such telenovelas, as well as the 1950s Hollywood soap operas of Douglas Sirk and Howard Hawks, inform the plots of many of his best works, only to be turned on their head and twisted around with pitch black humour. But of all the things that make up an Almodóvar film, the defining feature may very well be the singularly female perspective that leads the majority of his work.
While certain films might be male-centric – Bad Education (2004), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) and Live Flesh (1997) especially – these are in the minority, a ‘usual’ Almodóvar film doesn’t simply include female characters as supports, as friends, lovers, wives or colleagues, but, instead, they are the focus – they inform the details of the plot and get to shine and grow, imbuing films such as All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006) with warmth and life. Not since Woody Allen has a director written with so much love and complexity for the fairer sex. Here are those women who have brought Pedro Almodóvar’s work to life…
All About My Mother is perhaps the epitome of the warmth, love and complexity that signifies an Almodóvar woman. These are not one note, shallow characters that many films often depict, they are messy – they love, fight, laugh and live together, creating a vision of what ‘womanhood’ and the female identity are all about. These characters, the eponymous mother Manuela, transgendered Lola, aging actress Huma Rojo and pregnant nun Rosa can all be seen to share a kinship, not only of the same gender, but of the same desperate plights and survival instincts that bring them together and tear them apart. They can even be read as the different stages of the female cycle, from pregnancy to motherhood, from aging and death to transcendent of gender. But whatever their situation or stage in life, the film is about women who coexist; the survivors who give life to the world and then add a little colour.
This is Almodóvar at his most heartfelt and sincere, devoting it to the ones who bear the brunt of the world’s problems and come out the other side with humour and grace.
In Volver, women rule the house, not so much by choice but by circumstance and fate. If All About My Mother is about the social outcasts on the fringes of society who band together in united resilience, then Volver, in many ways, is its companion piece about the fierce women central to their specific society who survive the worst that life has to throw at them.
The family we follow are fighters through and through, and gradually Almodóvar builds the view of the struggles and hardships that beset these women on all sides and the way in which they continue onwards regardless. All of these characters, from daughter Paula to the believer Soledad, ghostly mother Irene and, fiercest of all, Raimunda are fully fledged people – realistic characters whose tragedies have informed their strength and resolve.
The plot involves so much misfortune and heartbreak that would please a grim soap opera fanatic, but because of Pedro Almodóvar’s love for these women and their resilience; ultimately, the film moves us with its feminine power, pure emotion and gentle humour.
Pedro Almodóvar’s breakthrough film Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988) is one of the quintessential entries in his film canon if you’re looking for that recurring Almodóvar style. It’s lurid, melodramatic, vividly coloured, twisted and unendingly entertaining. It also utilises female characters and their actors to wonderful, electrifying effect.
Carmen Maura is a favourite of Almodóvar since his debut Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980). As an actress, she seems to embody the spirit of the female strength and complexity that Almodóvar gravitates so naturally towards. Here she is shown to, ultimately, take control of her life and destiny in a performance that is so strong and central to the success of the film. She manages to keep us drawn in and rooting for her through all of the chaos that inevitably comes her way.
In classic Almodóvar fashion, everything is thrown into the mix until we get an incredibly original piece of work that both implicitly and explicitly harks back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and their female pictures, with the likes of Joan Crawford (referenced here) being an obvious powerful female influence on the Almodóvar style of writing.
While these films are overtly female pictures and thereby are, in some ways, expected to have melodrama, relationship troubles and strong female characters, one could argue that almost all Almodóvar films, even his most ‘masculine’ ones, feature women or the theme of femininity just as strongly. In Bad Education, one can look at Gael Garcia Bernal’s double performance as balancing the two identities of gender, or as Roger Ebert described: “Gael Garcia Bernal has the same kind of screen presence that Antonio Banderas brought to Almodóvar’s earlier movies. For that matter, as Zahara, he also has the kind of presence that Carmen Maura brought.” We can therefore conclude that in the absence of a central female performance, Almodóvar still provides such a thing. Due to his cunning writing and some great acting, the script is not wanting for femininity. Moreover, I would argue the character of Zahara that Bernal plays is perhaps the most intriguing and thrilling character of the film because of that elusive feminine mystique. While the female characters of Talk To Her (2002) are comatose and literally elusive to their respective male companions, the central male relationship in the film has been described as feminine in its gentle and emotional evolution. Even Live Flesh, with its thriller tendencies and its machismo of the main male character, one, again, could argue that the small but important role of Penelope Cruz as the pregnant woman who gives birth to our lead before she dies is vital in bringing life (and chaos) into the world and emotionally screwing him up with her unavoidable abandonment.
The films of Pedro Almodóvar have many things in common that draw their viewers in, but the female characters at the heart of every story are the ones that keep you hooked until the end.
For more from our Defining Features series, click here.
Recent World Cinema Features
Five Underrated Movies You Need To See. Sometimes a film goes
unnoticed, perhaps because it didn’t have the right backing or it wasn’t…
Top 5 Films To Win Over World Cinema Sceptics. Despite the joys that world…
Animating Reality. By definition an animated documentary shouldn’t really work.…
Gael García Bernal – Spanish Language Cinema As Social Message. Much more than an…
Around The World In 80 Films: I-J. Good news everyone – June has arrived! The pla…
Leave a Comment
No comments yet