Thursday, December 14, 2006

Volver

Penélope Cruz & Yohana Cobo, Volver (Courtesy Dendy Films)

As with any meaningful art form, perception of a film may change over time as one evolves. And appreciation of a director or his works may evolve as one sees subsequent works or even repeat viewings of the same work. I have seen five or so of Pedro Almodóvar's films, enjoyed each of them, but never quite understood the degree of reverence others have for this director. Watching Volver, I feel I can start to pinpoint what troubles me about his work. It's not that I dislike Almodóvar's films but there are significant aspects that fail (or perhaps elude) me.

Almodóvar is a perfectionist and is nothing if not expert in the technical aspects of film-making. In Volver the camera work is beautiful to watch. There are interesting angles and the scenes are well edited. The score merges effectively, seamlessly and unpretentiously into the film's narrative.

The ample use of vibrant colours and lighting are superb, adding stylistically to the film. The colour red is especially bold and recurrent: lipstick, clothing, a car, the cutting up of red peppers and especially the mopping up of blood. Not since American Beauty have I seen a crimson pool depicted in such an exquisitely artful manner.

Spain has a turbulent history that continues to this day. Unlike many of his compatriots, Almodóvar seems uninterested in depicting politics in his films even though he has taken a public stand on political issues. His films are more concerned with the narration of human stories and relationships – dysfunctional or otherwise. They are often populated with characters of ambiguous sexuality and perversity, a defining and intriguing quality of his work.

While Volver is full of dysfunctional and fractured relationships, the only moral dubiousness involves the smoking of a joint by one character and a neighbour who supports herself by prostitution. In trademark Almodóvar style, these incidents are treated nonchalantly without moral judgement.

The film is culturally rich, capturing stylised glimpses of Spanish village life with its superstitions, rituals and idiosyncrasies. It has much in common with my perception of Italian culture and social traits. There was, for example, ample cheek-kissing, which appeared to be exaggerated with a light comedic effect.

Where Volver fails to connect with me is in the crucial areas of plot and characterisation. There are gaping plausibility holes in the plot and characterisation fails in two areas: camp melodrama and gender stereotyping.

Almodóvar is famous for his depiction of strong female characters. While he shuns description as a gay film-maker (but rather, a film-maker who happens to be gay), I suspect that his life experiences have a significant impact on his gender depiction.

Many males, gay and straight, grow up experiencing bastardisation by other males. Just as there are females whose attitude is that 'all men are bastards', there are males who share that view. Volver also seems to project a position that all men (well, at least heterosexual ones) indeed are bastards.

Reflecting Almodóvar’s reported upbringing, males are superfluous in Volver. The only male character with anything approximating significant screen time is a caricature. From his introduction he is clearly set up as a domestic monster. With no ambiguity to his character at all, his chauvinism is rammed home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

In one scene we are subjected to an extreme close-up in which we are forced to feel nothing but disgust towards the character. Were something adverse to befall him, we would feel no pity for him. Another male is absent, but ostensibly of similar character. Almodóvar doesn't risk that we will fail to judge men poorly.

Conversely, the female characters appear to be celebrated not just in spite of, but because of their flaws. A woman can have a 'princess bitch' syndrome, but because she's beautiful, we can more than accommodate this. Or so the director seems to think. There is a flawed lack of both subtlety and balance in the treatment of male and female characters. For me this detracts from the sense of humanity of the director, his work or both, and an obstruction to engaging fully with the film.

Much has been said by others about the preoccupation that Hollywood has with male roles to the detriment of good female roles. It is arguable how many good roles are available in Hollywood for anyone. Putting that question aside, a common stereotype is a set up with entirely male protagonists and antagonists in which females play minor incidental roles that are no more than window dressing.

Almodóvar has been lauded by prominently putting women in strong roles, supposedly reversing stereotype. While it's highly desirable to see women in good roles, I find Almodóvar’s depiction the opposite side of the same sexist coin. The polar opposite of the Arctic is still ice. The opposite of exclusion of one is not the exclusion of the other – it is inclusion.

If Hollywood is sexist and misogynistic, then Almodóvar's work may also be seen as sexist – not misogynistic, but misandrist. His work doesn’t counter a gender imbalance – it merely adds to it. Bear in mind that I believe there is an ubiquitous and overlooked attitude of misandry in western society.

Am I reading too deeply into Almodóvar's films? Maybe. After all, though he is a serious film-maker, he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. His films seem to be largely tongue-in-cheek, verging on comedy and melodrama. Volver often feels like it will break into slapstick, but fortunately doesn't. This leads to another problem I have with his work.

Almodóvar is a perfectionist with the technical aspects of his films; they look like art house films. Yet the characterisations often appear to be not that far removed from television soap opera with its camp melodrama. Volver, by the way, includes trash TV in the storyline. Coincidence? I think not. More likely he is paying homage to it.

Too much of the plot seems to be intentionally manipulated to follow an implausible pre-engineered destination. It disrupts the natural flow of the narrative. Resisting logic, the film lacks verisimilitude and it becomes hard to emotionally buy into the story.
Some examples of how Volver resembles soap opera:

  • Little Penélope Cruz lifts an impossible weight by herself
  • Shocking incidents in which the participants don't appear sufficiently traumatised (as if the incidents were almost passé)
  • Others who are blasé when they learn of said incidents
  • Melodramatic acting

There are some genuinely good emotional moments, but the plausibility gap renders the flow fractured.

Almodóvar has described Volver as a dramatic comedy. He has intentionally mixed genres, treading a line between Hollywood mainstream, Italian and Latin American melodrama and European arthouse. It tries to be all things for all people, but one element detracts from another.

Interestingly, Almodóvar produced Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labrynth which also mixes genres (fantasy/horror and drama), and also with mixed results.

The previously mentioned American Beauty is an example of a film that more successfully combines drama and comedy. It has other uncanny similarities: both films are concerned with family dysfunctionality, moral ambiguity, perversity, smoking of joints and violent death. Sam Mendes’ film succeeds where Volver fails because of the respective levels of plausibility.

François Ozon is a dramatic film-maker who has flirted with comedy (8 Femmes) but in separate films. While I prefer his more serious films like Under The Sand and Time To Leave, his comedy is more entertaining than Almodóvar’s. I’m not questioning Almodóvar’s skill, but I do doubt his judgement.

Critics have heaped praise on the performance of Cruz. I enjoyed her performance, but don't understand the degree of accolades. It seems to me that aspects of her role were gratuitous, and that she landed the role for three reasons: her popularity, her perceived beauty and her ample breasts.

While Cruz does look nice on screen and her acting is undoubtedly credible, her casting appears to be window dressing that detracts from the realism of the film. The remaining characters look much more authentic. The film is overtly conscious of and preoccupied with her beauty (and her breasts in particular) to the point it becomes tiresome.

There is much to like about this film, but it represents a wasted opportunity. Much of it is shallow, emotionally unengaging, unsatisfying and ultimately forgettable. Like X-Files' Fox Mulder, I want to believe, and am simultaneously intrigued and nonplussed by this unconventional director. Right now, I don't fully believe. I intend to revisit his films to both get a better handle on Almodóvar’s intent and to further test my hypotheses.



Dir, Scr: Pedro Almodóvar Rating: M Duration: 121 min Genre: comedy/drama Language: Spanish Country: Spain Release: 21/12/06, limited Dist: Dendy Films Prod Co: El Deseo Prod: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García Sound Des: Miguel Rejas Phot: José Luis Alcaine Ed: José Salcedo Prod Des: Salvador Parra Mus: Alberto Iglesias Cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Chus Lampreave

Official website IMDB

In loving memory of my gentle son Abhi Martin 31/8/89 - 14/12/06

22 comments:

delon melville said...

Well, I'll be seeing it tomeorrwo (today in fact, Friday) and I will comment then. thanks for the precis, and I am not in favour of unctuous displays when one has no relationship, and at the risk of sounding trite, sorry about your son Paul.

I am enjoying your work.

delon melville said...

Paul may I ask if you are related to the Age film reviewer? Been meaning to ask, sounds a little boorish, albeit the previous "david Lynch" curiosity/inference was facetious.

Alison Croggon said...

Paul, what a shock. I read it three times before I could take it in.

My deep condolences, I am so very sorry. Take very great care.

Marina said...

Excellent review. I have to say that these were some of the same thoughts that crossed my mind and though I enjoyed the film, it's not one of my favourites of this year.

delon melville said...

My sentiments echoed on your review. Flirted with farce, and perhaps a pastiche of day time TV as you suggested.

Anonymous said...

paul i knew abhi and i reckon he was such a sweet boy... i am so sorry this has happened to you. I pray to god that you will get through this which i bet you will. same experience happened to me and i know how you feel... again im really sorry

Paul Martin said...

Thanks those who have offered their support at a difficult time. I had pretty much written my review prior to Abhi's passing and for some reason I felt it was important to post it in spite of the tragedy. I wanted to put the tribute up as part of my grieving process.

I hadn't thought about the meaning of Volver at the time. 'Volver' is Spanish for 'coming back' and the film is about a woman coming back from the dead. Of course, the film is completely trivial compared to this real life scenario.

For those who have enquired, I am fine. I am no stranger to grief, and know that as I go through the roller coaster of emotions I'm not going crazy. I can be crying like a baby one moment, and laughing the next. Anyone that's been there will know what I'm saying. Fortunately the human species is reasonably resilient. I know that I'll be fine. Somewhere down the track, I may post something about death and grief. There's certainly plenty of films on the subject.

For anyone interested, the funeral service for Abhi is being held at Springvale tomorrow (Monday 18th at 2.30pm) at the Renowden Chapel.

Delon, thanks for your comments. No, not related to Adrian Martin, though I've heard very good things about him. I'm on the look out for some of his writing when I get the chance.

Marina, I'm not sure if it was your review, but I think someone mentioned Volver is basically a chick-flick. If a chick flick is one where men are treated as useless and disposable, and women are put on a pedestal for being obnoxious, then yes, it's a chick flick. And I'd be saying the same thing if the sexes were reversed.

Anonymous, do I know you? Sorry to hear you've had a similar experience.

I haven't gotten around to putting my hotmail email up yet, but if anyone wants to communicate direct, you'll get me at pmartin1960 hotmail com (you know what to do with the '@' and '.')

Thanks all.

Kayla D said...

HeY THere.. i went to school with abhi at endeavour hills college i was in his year level.. it is such a shock to hear abouT this.. i know it must be extremely hard for you to talk about what hapenned, but im still trying my hardest to work it out. i feel like im goin crazy,, hearing different stories. i just wish to know the truth.. maybe it will put my mind at a little more ease if i knew. my Deepest deepest sympathy goes out to you and your family at this time. please reply.

Paul Martin said...

Hi Kayla, we had a large turnout today from Abhi's school. I can't tell you how much that means to myself and the family. Kai, Bianca and a boy whose name I forget really spoke with maturity and meaningfully.

If you want to contact me direct, email me at pmartin1960 at hotmail dot com.

Paul Martin said...

The other person was Nicholas.

Hugo said...

My condolences about your son. I lost a brother in the recent past and things have not been and will never be the same. I hope whatever you are doing is helping you cope with the grief. I must say I disagree with your review but the faults you pointed out are precise, and precisely the sentiments of many people around me, although the difference being that I celebrate those aspects as part of his form. But I will get into that another time.

In the meanwhile, bon courage as the French would say. And thank you for reading my site. I wish you closure and support.

Paul Martin said...

Hugo, it was kinda weird. My son passed away on Thursday 14th. I hadn't seen a film in 8 days, the longest stretch all year (I see 3-5 films a week usually). Well, until last night it was 16 days. Yesterday was the low point when I picked up my sons ashes from the crematorium. I fell into a depression I hadn't experienced for around 15 years. Fortunately it was brief.

I bumped into someone I knew and started talking about films, and it lifted me right out the doldrums. Then I bumped into someone else who invited me and my partner to a film. It was pretty ordinary, The Valet, but it was good to get out and occupy the mind. Saw another ordinary film today, La Maison de Nina. And tomorrow we're seeing Casino Royale. Yeah, I know, yet another ordinary film, but under the circumstances, it serves a purpose.

I understand your disagreeing with my review. I felt like I was putting myself on the line for my critique of Volver, because it seems to be universally lauded. I mean, it won the bloody Palme d'Or, which I consider the highest possible accolade. And best actress for the ensemble cast of women.

I consider past winners like L'enfant (The Child) and Elephant worthy winners, and great favourites of mine. Volver, in contrast, is worthy of best foreign film Oscar, as the Academy typically rewards mediocrity. While the technical aspects of Volver are sublime, the writing is poor and the acting perhaps slightly better than mediocre.

For me, cinema is an art form whose strength is its capacity to project the artists' (primarily the director's) sense of humanity. The French, in particular, seem to be good at this. Like Ozon's Time to Leave or Cantet's Time Out. Or my favourite film of this year, Australian director Alkinos Tsilimidos' Em 4 Jay (watch out for this one!).

For me, Volver only works superficially on an entertainment level, like a Hollywood film. It fails on any other deeper level. The characterisations depict aspects of social issues that I have thought long and deeply over for the last decade or more. I think Almodovar may have some serious unresolved issues with heterosexual males.

Finally, sorry to hear about your brother, and thanks for your wishes.

Paul Martin said...

I have just rented Almodovar's All About My Mother. For me, it confirms my perceptions gleaned from Volver. I think Almodovar has serious issues with heterosexual males. Transexuals, transvestites and homosexuals are fine. All others are disgusting monsters.

If Almodovar's films were set in California with American actors, he would not get the accolades he does. I'm sure his films would be rubbished as soap opera with little plausibility.

I am, however, going to see more of his work.

Paul Martin said...

This post has also been published at Sarsparilla. There's been some interesting comments there.

LenKa said...

Oh, God, Paul... I'm shocked... May imagine how should you feel about Juliette Bichone's heroine in "Paris, je t'aime"...
I sympathize with you, from the very bottom of my heart...

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your words, Lenka. While I may relate Binoche's role in Paris je t'aime to my situation, I don't know if my situation affected my appreciation of that segment of the film. I connect that segment more with Three Colours: Blue.

Anonymous said...

hi i was wondering if any of you, would be so kind as to email me your opinions of almodovars work in relation to the worldwide cinema? it would be extremely useful as i am currently doing a project on it.
my email is natalie.triay@hurtwood.net

Paul Martin said...

I've been reading quite a bit about Almodóvar and watched all his films at least once since I saw Volver. I'm planning to write quite a long article about the very subject you requested, but haven't started yet, and no idea when I will find the time. I will try to briefly capture a few thoughts I have.

Sometimes I think Almodóvar and his films are over-rated, but then I wonder whether I have a right to make that judgement. He is certainly a serious artist with a distinct style of his own, a film-maker who has created a niche for himself with various levels of success. Interestingly, he is the star of his films rather than his actors. He gets most of the adoration. There are aspects of his films that I think are absolutely fantastic:
- Use of colour
- Over-the-top hyper-style
- Cross-referencing pop culture
- Ambiguous morality
- Ambiguous sexuality
- Unconventional narratives and characters

In spite of this, and despite my liking every Almodóvar film, I find they are all highly flawed. He always makes good films, but none of them are truly great. There are a number of reasons for this:
- His crossing of genres, while interesting and original, undermines the thrust of his films
- In particular, his use of melodrama reduces the dramatic impact of his films
- His films lack verisimilitude, reducing the ability to emotionally and intellectually engage with them
- Most importantly for me, his films lack a balanced sense of humanity. There almost seems to be a vile hatred of mainstream heterosexual men that permeates virtually every film he has made.

What about you, Natalie, what do you think?

Cibbuano said...

I loved this film when I saw it in the theatre, for all the reasons you mentioned: great colours, fantastic female characters, humour.

It is misandrist, but it's such a celebration of the sisterhood of women, that it's easy to forgive, similar to the scores of buddy movies that tread the deep waters of misogyny.

An interview asked Almodovar why he focused so much on Cruz's breasts.

"I may be gay," he replied, "but I looove breasts..."

Paul Martin said...

Cibbuano, as a general rule, I don't like buddy films either.

Lynden Barber said...

Paul, I have just read this post for the first time and I am absolutely stunned at the way you have so eloquently summed up this film and much of Almodovar's work in general.

There's a massive cult around Almodovar that rarely ever gets beyond shallow proclamations of his supposedly self-evident genius. You on the other have dug beneath the film's skin with such analytical insight that you make the yea-sayers look like little more than fan worshippers.

Like you, I think there are aspects of his work that is deserving praise. I also enjoyed some of the earlier work, especially the comedies.

But one of the problems with much of his work over the past few years has been that it takes essentially comedic plots and insists on playing them straight.

I think the Almodovar cult has a lot to do with the post-modern sensibility, whereby the greatest crime any artist can commit is to be sincere.

Almodovar constantly proclaims his deep sincerity yet his dramatic films constantly ask us not to take them entirely seriously - rather like the Coen brothers. Much of their best work is also often in an openly comic vein, while their dramas are contained within invisible quotation marks that ask us not take them at fadce value.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your kind words, Lynden. It's been a while since I've had the time to put into a review like I did for Volver and, of course, it's been a while since I commented on this post. Since seeing Volver, I have watched or re-watched all 16 of his films and read a couple of books on him. I don't have the titles near me, but one discussed his work in a cultural context, in terms of what was happening in Spain at the time. The other was Almodóvar on Almodóvar.

Both the watching of his full ouvre and reading the books pretty much confirmed my original observations, and I think I could discuss some of the above points in more detail now.

For the last three years, I've also been watching the retrospective films programmed by Almodóvar at La Mirada film festival. These give fascinating insights into his inspiration and influences. Some of them I love, some I dislike (for the same things I dislike about Almodóvar's work).

While I'm not overly impressed with Almodóvar as a film-maker, I find both his strengths and flaws make for fascinating discussion. He's the director with whose work I have the strongest love-hate relationship.

As I've said many times, I think Almodóvar is a good film-maker, but not a great one. He has yet to make a truly great film, though most of them are entertaining. I think he's a good director but a lousy writer. His three best films are the only ones where he has collaborated with other writers. They are: Matador, Live Flesh and (to a lesser extent) Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!In each of these, the character development is more complex than his others. Almodóvar doesn't seem to have much ability to write anything other than simple one-dimensional characters and stereotypes.

Almodóvar has stated that he doesn't believe in psychology (or something to that effect), and it shows in his work. His characters don't behave as we'd expect. I think this is an effect of his partying days, post-Franco, which Spain is still suffering a hangover from.

I like that comment about post-modern sensibility. I don't know if that is true of Almodóvar, but it sounds like it could be.