Women on the Verge of a Movie
I’m not supposed to say this, as a woman, as a film critic, and particularly as a woman film critic, but I’m not a fan of Pedro Almodóvar. The general consensus seems to be that he is a master craftsman who spins wild and uncommon fantasies out of hidden desires and that he has a deep appreciation for and unique understanding of the secret lives of women… but I don’t see it. Almodóvar is, according to many smart film lovers, intensely passionate and make movies that are steeped in powerful emotion… but I don’t see it.
And so it is with his latest, Volver, in which I do see, yes, how Almodóvar is invoking both grand old Hollywood melodramas like Mildred Pierce and grand old crime comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace. But nothing about what he does with this cinematic playfulness thrills me or even seems intellectually intriguing. And I do see, yes, that he is whipping up metaphors here and themes there about all the many kind of messes the world can produce and how it’s women who always get stuck cleaning them up. But he doesn’t make me feel anything about those women, about those messes, or about his supposed deep insight into the injustice of women’s lousy lot in life. If anything, he seems to think there’s something redemptive in this lousy lot in life, and something extraordinary in his noticing of it. You half expect him to defend his outlook, these pitying glances overlying a snap approval of the status quo, by saying, “Well, some of my best friends are women.”
Maybe it’s a cultural thing.
In case your Spanish is as poor as mine, here’s what volver means: “return,” “to turn,” or “to revert.” It took me a while to figure out what that was supposed to refer to, and then I realized that was because what plays like a sidetrack off the main story is perhaps intended to be main throughline of the film. I hate to put such bourgeoise pressure on an artist like Almodóvar as to demand a plot that is somewhat more cohesive than what he’s got here, but I’ll do it anyway. Volver starts out heading in one direction — Penelope Cruz as a mother to a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) who goes to extreme lengths to protect her child when disaster strikes, and then Cruz steals a restaurant — and then decides it would prefer to wend toward another, following another mother (Carmen Maura) as she returns from the dead in order to deal with some issues with her daughters (Cruz and Lola Dueñas) that were left unresolved in her life.
That’s right: I said “returns from the dead.” And I also said “steals a restaurant.” Almodóvar, who wrote the script as well as directed, tries to walk a fine line between fantasy and horror and drama and melodrama, but it’s too fine a line — it’s confused. It’s one thing, and a fine one, to subvert genre and try to keep an audience on its toes, but there’s walking a tightrope, and then there’s drunken stumbling: the former is a bravura performance, and the latter is sad or pathetic or actively annoying. Maybe that’s supposed to be a metaphor, too, for the ups and downs of a woman’s life. But I don’t see it. And some of my best friends are women, too.
I don’t want to suggest that Volver should be written off as a total loss. There are indeed moments of tenderness and warmth that are beautifully realized, and there are indeed moments of black comedy that are wickedly razor sharp. It’s just that they don’t play nicely together. And Penelope Cruz (Sahara, Noel) has never been better than she is here — comparisons are buzzing around likening her to Sophia Loren, and that’s a totally accurate assessment: she exudes a wonderful combination of lightness and strength, touching on the comic with as sure a spirit as she handles the drama. She’s as gorgeous a robust inner talent as she is strikingly physically beautiful.
But that’s not enough to make Volver a must-see. Almost. But not quite.