Saturday, September 09, 2006

Volver - Opening

“Volver” is a major disappointment for those of us who love one Almodovar but have always had a hard time swallowing the other.

It starts promisingly enough with a long tracking shot of a legion of working-class women maintaining the graves in the village cemetery, battling against the elements to keep the headstones clean (see above).

The sense that this is fundamentally women’s work, that women, eternally linked in the great matrilineal chain of being are the custodians of life who shepherd us into and out of the world and guard over the memory of those who have passed on is maintained throughout. Indeed, men are largely an irrelevance, “pests” to varying degrees, either incestuous fathers, aspiring-rapist stepfathers, or peripheral letches, useful (the restaurant owner/ the young film-maker) only when they withdraw (or are disposed of) and open up a space for women to explore their inter/independence in, and who should properly be kept at arm’s length. The real business of existence, business of any depth, the eternal business of birth, death and the provision of solace for those in transit between the two is down to women, all of whom must protect each other from men. The mother’s abiding shame, for example, is that she has not noticed that her husband is abusing her daughter, not that she later murders him. There’s a moment too when Cruz answers the door while cleaning up the blood from her own murdered husband (killed by her daughter) and has some blood on her neck. “Did you cut yourself?” the neighbour asks. “Women’s trouble,” Cruz responds. A resonant pun in this context.

In the film’s most condensed, most powerful sequence, the wake of Aunt. Paula, at which “all the village” is present, the distinction between the two separate domains, the two orders of being, male and female, is made explicit. Sole, one of the two sisters (Cruz is the other) startled by her mother’s “ghost” rushes into a neighbour’s house and partially intrudes on the male party, almost breaking through the curtain which separates the male and female worlds, and is presented with a series of graven, mute, suspicious and threatening faces staring back at her. This is the curtain on which the camera holds in the final shot as the film fades, as the mother goes up to minister to her dying neighbour, (dying in the bed in which she was born, in which generations of women have been born and died, the bed in which the body was lain out for the wake,) as if to say, this is the world in which this film has taken place, a distinct world, this side of the barrier.
This moment, of partially breaking through into the static, incomprehending male domain is immediately followed by an equally chilling moment, shot from above in which the village women, all clad in black, keeping vigil during the wake, mob Sole to offer condolences, jostling to kiss her, almost overwhelming her in order to touch the sister made sacred through her grief.

The gulf between men and women is absolute, we’re eternally in different rooms, and whereas the men in “Hable con Ella” still haven’t realised this, that the essence of the other is always unknowable, that the loved one is merely a mannequin animated by the lovers desire, a blankness, a void (etc...), women are wiser and seek fulfilment in the company of other women, in their shared condition.

The film draws back from pushing on to the kind of metaphysical/poetic depths and practices promised by both “Hable con Ella” and “La Mala Educacion”, however (and therefore feels rather trite and traditional). It’s heavily, ponderously plot-driven. The central conceit, the return of the dead mother who isn’t really dead, who comes back not just to unburden her own and everyone else’s hearts of the secrets they’ve carried and to redeem herself by ministering to the dying daughter of the mother she has also murdered, is simply clunky and the narrative suffers from Almodovar’s usual desire to round everything off too neatly, a desire he’d seemed to (partially) overcome with his last two films, both of which, tellingly, had male protagonists. In both “Todo Sobre Mi Madre” and “Volver” the women are offered the possibility of closure whereas in “Hable Con Ella” and “La Mala Educacion” no full closure of the plot and what sets the plot in motion, male desire, is attainable, men will continue beating themselves or being beaten against the rocks, whereas for women, whose true focus of need and desire is the mother, the sister, the aunt, the child, for elemental, circadian women such a coming-full-circle, is attainable.

That’s the more generous, thematic, interpretation of the film’s shortcomings, however. It’s noticeable that Almodovar has never really escaped from the constrictions of farce/melodrama, and whereas “Hable con Ella”, and “La Mala Educacion” managed to twist his limitations as a dramatist into fantastic new shapes by accentuating his strengths, as a stylist and a negotiator of intricately entangled plotlines, “Volver”, for all its colour, pace and immaculate framing is a return (does the title portend something more ominous for his future direction after the relative commercial/ critical failure of his last two films?) to a “feel good” Almodovar. Sisterly solidarity, wacky characters and lots of local touches. Solidarity is not within itself a subject to be avoided, but here (as elsewhere) Almodovar fails to get to grips with the really promising elements of his subject, the ways in which female forms of organization and interdependence are made manifest and how they might stand in distinction to men’s. Fine, no-one comes to Almodovar for politics, but the film is too busy for any really telling presentation of its promising themes, having set itself those several tricky plotlines to resolve and which, in an awkwardly expository and mawkish final ten minutes, it frantically stitches together.

One of the main reasons I was looking forward to the movie was for the version of the great Tango “ Volver” from which the film takes its title, here given a flamenco re-work, a rather truncated version of which Cruz sings in a bar. The song itself is hugely poetic, mournful, hopeful, wise, and should be declaimed slowly and with a certain amount of gravity and distance, allowing the force of the lyrics to carry the emotional charge. This version goes at it like a bull in a china shop, and worse still is grafted onto the film as a rather contrived way of linking mother and daughter and providing a few cheap tears. Its use, and the over-egged version of the song itself exemplify much of what’s wrong with “Volver” as a movie, Almodovar needs to slow down, ease off on the incident and follow his instincts toward the forms of pure cinema that “Hable con Ella” promised, and his performance here puts me in mind of nothing so much as Emerson’s maxim that, “in skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.”

No comments: