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.
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
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
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
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