Celebrating the complexity of motherhood with Almodóvar and Gyllenhaal

Parallel Mothers and The Lost Daughter operate as engaging texts on the contradictions and complications of being a mother.


Anne-Sofie Lindgaard

In Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, two expectant single mothers meet in a maternity ward, unaware of how their lives will soon intertwine. Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a first-time middle-aged mother thrilled at the prospect of having a child. Opposite is Ana (Milena Smit) an adolescent petrified by her unplanned pregnancy. Janis and Ana’s newborns are briefly separated from them in the hospital, but when Janis takes her baby home, events conspire to plant a seed of doubt in her mind. A DNA test reunites the two mothers and re-establishes their blossoming friendship.

The film connects the story of motherly solidarity between Janis and Ana with an even bigger picture as Janis participates in an investigation of unmarked mass graves from the Spanish Civil War. With historical precedent looming in the background, Parallel Mothers becomes a story of contemporary mothers and mothers of the past, honouring the generational suffering of the ones left behind; the women impacted by the dark history of their country.

Underscored by Janis cooking dinner while wearing a ‘The Future Is Female’ t-shirt, it is crystal clear that Almodóvar wishes to portray modern motherhood through its main character. Janis might be in the kitchen, but Almodóvar does not believe she belongs in the kitchen. Quite the opposite, Almodóvar undoubtedly applies this stereotype to enhance his desire to challenge the expectations of a maternal figure, as Janis and Ana defy these maternal stereotypes in multiple ways throughout the film, whether it be the fact they are both raising their daughters as single mothers or that Janis still prioritises her career as a photographer.

The complexity of motherhood is similarly explored in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature debut The Lost Daughter, adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, where motherly disconnection is at the centre of a story that tears apart the idealism surrounding maternal instincts.

When Leda (Olivia Colman) holidays on a Greek island, her peace is disrupted by a noisy family staying on the same beach. Leda befriends a young mother within the group, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and as she watches her struggle with the symbiotic yet suffocating relationship Nina has with her daughter Elena, it stirs uncomfortable memories of Leda’s past. Through a series of flashbacks, The Lost Daughter breaks some of the sacred taboos of motherhood as we see how the younger Leda (Jessie Buckley) struggled to cope with the demands of childrearing and eventually left her young daughters, putting her needs and ambitions before theirs to pursue a career as an academic.

The subject of postnatal depression is also briefly alluded to, most obviously when Nina expresses that she might “have depression, or something”. This allows Leda to consider her own conflict with the constant guilt complex of living up to the endless responsibilities of being a mother as she relives past memories. The feeling of guilt slowly takes up most of Leda’s remembrance of her role as a mother, which makes the film ever so anxiety-provoking to watch.

The guilt begins in her memories of being a young mother not able to provide the childcare expected of her, but continues in the memory of leaving her daughters, and crystallises when Leda admits to Nina that leaving “felt amazing”. Gyllenhaal dares to bring up stigmatised and delicate aspects of motherhood, leaving a nuanced portrayal that challenges its viewers as she confronts us with the darker sides of maternity.

Beyond motherhood, both films raise the question of female desire after pregnancy and desirability as a parent. In Parallel Mothers, Janis and Ana initiate a romantic relationship exploring their own sexual desires. Not only adds this a layer of queer exploration to these female characters’ sexual lives, Almodóvar also uses their sexuality and desire as a tool to celebrate and empower Ana and Janis as the desirable women and mothers they are. By defying the idea of maternity eliminating the sexual capacity and perception of women, Almodóvar thereby uses female sexuality to craft motherly figures that are nuanced, desirable and non-conforming to archaic stereotypes of mothers.

In The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal uses sexual affairs in both Leda and Nina’s life to explore the expectations of a mother and wife. Through flashbacks, Leda relives her past affair with a fellow professor, while leaving her daughters behind solely in the care of their father. Nina, on the contrary, finds herself exploring an affair with the young beach bar assistant Will (Paul Mescal), which Leda unwillingly becomes entangled in.

The exploration into both Leda and Nina’s sexual relationships allows Gyllenhaal to play on the viewers’ expectations of a maternal figure and subvert these expectations to make the characters seem uncomfortably unsympathetic. The affairs in both women’s lives invite the viewer to study their own reactions, and how it’s often perceived as an act of selfishness when mothers prioritise their wellbeing – sexually as well as mentally – balancing the needs of their children with their own. It feels shocking in contemporary cinema to witness a mother who is not patient, composed or nurturing.

Similarly, in Parallel Mothers Almodóvar presents Ana’s mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) in an almost villainous manner, as she prioritises her career as an actress instead of offering support for her young daughter Ana as she enters motherhood on her own and clearly in need of guidance. Ana finds that guidance in Janis, allowing Parallel Mothers to grapple with the idea of ‘a bad mother’ and ‘a good mother’ in contrasting these different attitudes to motherhood.

Both films play on our fixed expectations of what makes a mother, and how women who reject ideas of this are ostracised by society. “I’m an unnatural mother”, Leda claims in The Lost Daughter, but what makes a mother natural or unnatural? Parallel Mothers and The Lost Daughter both work as an exploration into the ‘guilt complex’ of motherhood and the judgement mothers often face from outside perspectives.

Despite the difference in tone and style between Parallel Mothers and The Lost Daughter, these films come together to celebrate mothers while lifting the lid on less glamorous and discussed aspects of this experience. In bringing these matters to the screen, perhaps more mothers grappling with the highs and lows of childrearing might feel their experience is seen and understood.

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Published 27 Mar 2022

Tags: Maggie Gyllenhaal Parallel Mothers Pedro Almodóvar Penélope Cruz The Lost Daughter

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