Volver

Review by Matt Bochenski @MattLWLies

Directed by

Pedro Almodóvar

Starring

Carmen Maura Lola Dueñas Penelope Cruz

Anticipation.

A festival favourite from an art-house giant.

Enjoyment.

By turns shocking, serene, darkly funny and ruthlessly true. An all-too-rare cocktail of cinematic know-how and genuinely touching human drama.

In Retrospect.

There’s so much to drink in, but you worry that Almodóvar isn’t the man to excite the masses.

An all-too-rare cocktail of cinematic know-how and genuinely touching human drama.

“This is a man’s world,” he sings, but James Brown didn’t sweep the dust from his own gravestone. “This is a man’s man’s man’s world,” he sings, but James Brown didn’t hear the howling of the East Wind that drives people insane. “This is a man’s world,” he sings, but James Brown knows it wouldn’t mean nothing, nothing, not one little thing without a woman or a girl.

Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver is a woman’s world to the quick. They cook and cluck and kiss and, as the occasion demands, they kill. It means ‘coming back’ in English. It means coming back to La Mancha, to comedy, to religion, relationships and sex. It means coming back to Carmen Maura after 17 years lost in the bitterness. It means coming back, so how is Volver so fresh, so inventive, so utterly alive with the joys of cinema?

In Madrid, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) lives with her young daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her husband, Paco, in a tiny apartment. She works two jobs, menial ones, her hair teased into a bombshell of floor-scrubbing chic, and it soon becomes clear that she’s the matriarch of a broken family. Her husband, Paco, slumps on a sofa drinking beer, grabbing sly eyefuls of his teenage daughter. In the bedroom he’s all clumsy come-ons, happy to crack one off while his wife cries herself to sleep.

Raimunda’s sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), runs an illegal salon from the flat where she lives alone, abandoned by her husband two years before. Here the local women gather to bitch about soap operas and receive monstrously outré hair-dos. She is older than Raimunda, but timid – a forlorn figure who misses her parents, killed in a fire in La Mancha sparked by the gusts of that East Wind.

Where Madrid is a city without character, its faceless sprawl and dusty car parks glimpsed through the windows of drab houses, La Mancha is an icon of deep Spain. In the capital, trash TV creates a modern mythology of better living, but in the countryside old ghosts still walk the streets. Though it has a toe dipped in the twenty-first century (Cervantes’ windmills are sleek new turbines) the character of the place is little changed in 400 years.

This is the land of the dead, where women tend their gravestones like a doorstep and death is a threshold kept as spotless as any other. Why not, in a town where the final frontier swings back and forth like a saloon door?

In La Mancha, their Aunt Paula has died. At the funeral, where the whole village has gathered (a coven of black-clad battle axes flapping fans and fat dry lips at Sole), there are rumours that their mother, Irene, reappeared to Paula as a ghost to help her through the last few months of her life. A neighbour, Agustina, has heard her voice.

Sole will be visited by this spirit – a bump in the night from the inside of her boot – who has unfinished business to set straight, but Raimunda has other concerns: her husband has made a mess of the kitchen and there’s serious mopping to be done. There’s nothing in the good wife’s handbook about removing bloodstains from the floor. A knife in the chest isn’t your average family crisis, but attempting to rape your daughter isn’t the average display of fatherly affection.

Volver is a film cut like glass. It refracts the gaze of the cinema screen, sending it spinning across genres like shafts of crisscrossing light. It’s as canny a movie as you’ll ever see, a film that chatters in your ear with craftiness, but it’s so beautifully made, so delicately poised between art and artfulness that it achieves a naturalness – a grace that gives its zigzagging emotional cadences an easy rhythm.

That the film slips so dizzyingly from comedy to farce to tragedy, often in the same scene (Paco’s death is a mini masterclass of dexterous genre hopping that twists and turns about the edge of a knife) is due to the performances. Almodóvar has said that he brandishes actors like weapons; well if that’s so, Penélope Cruz is his nuclear button. If anything, Volver is Cruz’s bitter rebuke to Hollywood – to Woman on Top and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, to the whole TomKat, A list, Brangelina bollocks of it all.

Raimunda has a sultry, kitchen sink sexuality that strains the fabric of the screen just as her breasts billow dangerously over the edges of those plunging necklines. Cruz is the proud possessor of massive tits, and Almodóvar is fascinated by them. Twice other characters comment on them, while the director stares goggle-eyed overhead as she washes up, gold chains lost in an abyssal cleavage. But in classic Almodóvar style there’s a warning note. He returns to this shot as Raimunda scrubs the blood from the knife that killed her husband, lingering on the transgressive proximity between eroticism and domestic rituals.

It’s the small details that make her – the ragged handkerchief whipped from her bra, or the fact that she drives her older sister’s car. She’s a towering, terrifying monument to femininity, an effortless multitasker who shops and cooks and digs unmarked graves while breaking only the most serene of sweats. She’s Commander-in-Chief of the tribe of women, press-ganging the neighbourhood into a restaurant scheme in one of those brilliantly false movie moments that Almodóvar excels at.

But that’s not the whole story, either. As the films builds, a subtle shift takes place, and what seemed sexy and modern as Raimunda strutted down the street suddenly looks trashy and narcissistic. Who does she think she is with her strappy sandals and emotional steamrolling? What hypocrisy to say, “Don’t complicate other people’s lives,” to Agustina, after paying a hooker to help her bury her husband.

What selfishness when Agustina is dying of cancer, to refuse her last wish – to find Irene’s ghost and ask after Agustina’s own mother who disappeared the same day as that fatal fire. What arrogance to deny it when she hears of the affair that Agustina’s mother and her own father were conducting. “My mother wouldn’t allow it,” is all she’ll snap.

Raimunda is forgiven in a jackhammer final act, a reunion with Irene anchored by an exquisitely dark emotional pay off. It’s a sinister hint of the cycles of violence and transgression at the root of village life, and it’s also one more damning indictment of the men who have ruined these women’s lives.

The men of La Mancha are almost entirely absent – sour memories and whispered secrets the only trace of their passing. In a rare intrusion, they stare out of the screen like a herd of ostriches, or a gaggle of schoolboys caught in some guilty act. At least Paco is distinguished by a name, though he’s hardly a flag carrier for the brotherhood. And yet… Before Paula is molested she visits Agustina with her aunt and mother. She sits apart from them, but the scene is deep staged so she stays in focus, legs slung lazily over a chair; cavalier, innocent, provocative.

If you wondered about her then, if you carelessly imagined, should you see yourself in Paco’s lip-smacking look? When he masturbates next to his wife and a single tear rolls down her cheek, is there a sense of implication about it? Because it feels like a finger pointing out of the screen – useless, horny, drunken layabouts. Maybe fratricide is the best thing that ever happened to a family; after all, women are clearly better off without us.

If there’s an ambivalence to the film’s thematic focus, what’s not in doubt is that Volver is a prodigiously well-made movie, though not always in the ways you’d expect. Almodóvar is an urbanite by habit, tilting at the absurdities of Spanish society. But in Volver his outrageousness is tempered by introspection.

In returning to La Mancha, the town where his own mother lived and died, it’s as if the arch provocateur has rediscovered something of his own Quixotic sensibility. “Through this film,” he said, “I have gone through a mourning period that I needed. I have said goodbye to something which I had not yet said goodbye, and needed to.”

Pick apart the farce, the camp, and the dirty jokes and what’s left is a sense of quiet heartbreak. Volver is flamboyantly conceived – full of visual cunning and conceits – but it’s filmed with sincerity, at times a confessional simplicity that’s both poignant and elegant. It’s not that Almodóvar is growing up or calming down, worryingly for the rest of the Euro art house pack, it just seems like he’s getting better.

Published 24 Aug 2006

Tags: Pedro Almodóvar

Anticipation.

A festival favourite from an art-house giant.

Enjoyment.

By turns shocking, serene, darkly funny and ruthlessly true. An all-too-rare cocktail of cinematic know-how and genuinely touching human drama.

In Retrospect.

There’s so much to drink in, but you worry that Almodóvar isn’t the man to excite the masses.

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