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Almodóvar's Fluid Identities
By Michael Guillén
November 3, 2006 - 1:06 PM PST

Almodóvar's are not so much about sexual orientation as they are about purposeful sexual disorientation.

Even though Pedro Almodóvar has never really gone away, there is a recent sense that he has returned, that he is making some sort of comeback. Much of this has to do with the publicity strategy surrounding his most recent film, Volver (2006), whose penultimate theme is that of returning. Now opening in a few cities and slated for a wider release in mid-November, Volver has been anticipated by Viva Pedro!, the aegis for the Sony Classics program of eight of Almodóvar's previous films - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Flower of My Secret (1995), Live Flesh (1996), Law of Desire (1987), Matador (1986) and Bad Education (2004) - all of which have helped to contextualize his most current project, Volver - both temporally (though not necessarily chronologically) and thematically. Most have weathered quite nicely and a few have even "ripened into darkness," as Matt Prigge might say.

For Almodóvar, Volver has been as much a return to form as to former concerns and, fortunately, the process has been fruitful and not one of diminishing returns. The same can be said of revisiting his films in the Viva Pedro! retrospective, which has afforded the opportunity to explore how Almodóvar has fetishized the gendered body and glamorized gender variance, all in the name of Spain.

Not only does Almodóvar question what it means to be Spanish in the period following Generalissimo Franco's repressive regime; he questions what it means to be a "man," a "woman," a "straight," a "queer," a "mother," a "father," a "victim," an "oppressor," all those identities which in their dazzlingly expressive fluidity lean toward or away from each other in various combinations throughout his work. It's challenging enough to keep up with the twists in Almodóvar's tales, let alone his malleable subjectivities. His films are not so much about sexual orientation as they are about purposeful sexual disorientation. But at all times - because of their questioning - they are about Spain's experiment with democracy and modernity.

But as consistently as Almodóvar has subverted identities, perhaps in creative and imaginative response to La Movida's rallying cry, intentionally titillating, shocking with candor, outraging with resignifications, he appears in his later years to be calming down - and again, returning to origins.

Almodóvar has stated that Volver incorporates several kinds of "coming back." He has come back, a bit more, to comedy. He has come back to the female world, to La Mancha, to working with Carmen Maura after 17 years, and to "maternity as the origin of film and fiction." Which is to say he has come back to his mother. "Coming back to La Mancha is always to come back to the maternal breast."

Like so many others, Almodóvar fled from his rural upbringing in La Mancha to seek prosperity in the city, where he became an "inveterate urbanite." In Volver, Almodóvar visually cites the windmills usually associated with Cervantes and La Mancha's most famous quixotic protagonist. What Almodóvar describes as the "positive part of Deep Spain" is the archetypal wisdom of village widows whose age-old perseverance has survived fascist tyranny as much as the death of husbands and sons. In the strength of their generations-old tenacity lies the true partner to modernity's rebellious imagination.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown catapulted Almodóvar onto the international scene and is an understandable choice for the opening film in the retrospective because it is most likely the Almodóvar film most Westerners experienced first. Women on the Verge was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and won that category from the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review. The film was probably also the first chance most Westerners had to appreciate Maura, who, as the compassionate and resilient Pepa, won the Goya, the Ciak, the Fotogramas de Plata and the European Film Award for Best Actress. Looking back at this frantically paced farce now, I am admittedly not as enamored with it as I was then, though I remain respectful of Maura's stunning legs and her dexterity in a mini-suit and heels. Almodóvar has fetishized Pepa's femininity to emphasize that she is keeping it all together even as it is all falling apart around her. Most women could not be this beautiful and on the verge of the titular nervous breakdown at the same time. Julieta Serrano, as the deranged Lucía, is hilarious in her fierce drag-like makeup, and - in retrospect - I am impressed with the prescient political subplot of Shiite terrorism and the belated writing credit to Jean Cocteau, whose play La Voix humaine served as inspiration. Though as a self-identified gay male Almodóvar does not consider himself a gay director per se, this is one of many intertextual references that ensures this film's inclusion in the queer canon.

Maura and Almodóvar had nurtured their collaboration on several other projects before Women on the Verge and - unbeknownst to most audiences at the time - their collaboration curdled even as the film succeeded. Women on the Verge initiated a 17-year creative separation between the two. Fortunately, Viva Pedro! includes one of their best earlier ventures, Law of Desire, certainly one of Maura's most iconic performances as Tina, the male-to-female transsexual, the willing victim to her father's incestuous lust. Maura recalls that, at the time, she wanted Almodóvar to introduce her to transsexuals to research her part but Almodóvar told her that wouldn't do any good; the best thing would be for her to buff up and broaden her shoulders and thicken her neck, which she did for the role. In Tina we have a splendid example of the gender blending for which Almodóvar has become famous. We have a woman playing a man who has become a woman. Tino has become Tina to satisfy her father who - after the sex change - abandons her, leaving her unable to fall in love with another man. On top of that subversion of identity is the father who refuses to be a father and wants instead to be a husband/lover to his transsexual son. Let alone that Tina likewise becomes the surrogate mother to an abandoned ten-year-old girl. And the coup de grâce? The thrillingly youthful and beautiful Antonio Banderas, a then-not-well-known straight actor, plays gay bottom Antonio. The scene where he lifts his legs to let Tina's brother Pablo mount him is sexy beyond words and - as I described earlier - truly glamorized gender variance, perhaps even moreso now that Banderas has achieved his virile, international stature. In comparison with his early work with Almodóvar, his gay portrayal in Philadelphia seems downright tame and anemic.

One noticeable omission from the Viva Pedro! series is Almodóvar's fourth feature, What Have I Done To Deserve This?, whose surrealistic naturalism - one might say hyperrealism - most approximates the atmosphere of Volver. As Almodóvar himself has pointed out, Volver's Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) "belongs to the same stock as Carmen Maura's character in What Have I Done To Deserve This?, a force of nature that isn't daunted by anything." Further, the female universe in both films benefits from the enforced absence of men, particularly husbands.

Regarding his highly anticipated reunion with Maura in Volver, Almodóvar has written, "Once again, I felt that sacred complicity with Carmen, that marvelous feeling of being in front of an instrument that was perfectly tuned for my hands.... From Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to the monologue in Volver, Carmen hasn't changed as an actress, and it was wonderful to discover that. She hasn't learned anything because she knew it already, but keeping that fire intact over two decades is an admirable, difficult task that can't be said of all the actors with whom I've worked."

All About My Mother, which I consider to be Almodóvar's irrefutable masterpiece, scored Best Director for Almodóvar at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review. All About My Mother is not only the distillation of Almodóvar's gender-juggling with queer citation to the women melodramas of Douglas Sirk, but the film's text?as indicated by Steven Marsh in his profile for Senses of Cinema - is "structured around a set of other texts produced by a globalized community of gay writers: Federico García Lorca, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams."

We return to familial concerns: A woman, Manuela (Cecilia Roth) who, as a mother with a secret, voluntarily shoulders the burden of being both parents (like Raimunda in Volver) and a father who unknowingly abandons his role, in this instance to become a woman named Lola (Toni Cantó). Once again Almodóvar casts a woman (Antonia San Juan) to play a male-to-female transsexual, Agrado, who, in one of the most stunningly frank monologues ever written, entertains an audience expecting a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire with an impromptu inventory of every part of her body that has been surgically altered. She offers the radical conclusion: "You are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being." As Steve Marsh has skillfully synopsized, identity in Almodóvar's work is principally subverted through the human body. Sex changes, especially, make the body the agent of flexibility and change, proposing the body as a site of imitation with the possibility that mimicry is more real than that which it seeks to imitate. Chalk up another one to those who believe gender is performance, not a biological imperative.

I am undoubtedly in the loud minority when I opine that Talk to Her is one of Almodóvar's least successful projects. Mileage varies, of course. Talk to Her won Almodóvar an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (in lieu of Best Director), though the LA Film Critics awarded him Best Director, Time named Talk to Her Best Picture of the Year, and it won Best Foreign Film at both the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review. Notwithstanding, the film seemed unbelievable to me, and to a certain extent unacceptable, though I can appreciate, as Ella Taylor has suggested in her LA Weekly review, that Almodóvar's subversive edge is honed in the film's last half hour, "which suggests that only a gay man knows how to love a woman, while implicating that same nurturing man in the rape of a comatose young woman."

Though I'm usually willing to flow with the fluid identities prevalent in Almodóvar's oeuvre, Talk to Her is one of those instances in which Almodóvar's refusal to cater to anything fixed seems argumentative for argument's sake. Talk to Her helps me understand why certain militant gay activists object to Almodóvar's portrayals of ambiguous sexuality. Sure, gender is something that can be performed but shouldn't that performance be a genuine self-enactment? Otherwise, it risks collapsing into capricious theatricality and opportunistic artifice. If Almodóvar's characters are never exclusively heterosexual or homosexual, and instead are identifiable only by the performances they choose at any particular moment, then how can identity ever be a site of responsibility and integrity? Of all of Almodóvar's brave explorations, Talk to Her strikes me as his most flippant and irresponsible.

Integrity - at least authorial integrity - is the presiding meditation of Flower of My Secret and Bad Education. As Carla Marcantonio observes in her Senses of Cinema essay on Flower of My Secret, the "motif of the ghost-writer provides the pivotal entry point for Almodóvar's ongoing investigation into the doubling of identity." She terms the appropriation of a voice as a kind of literary transvestism.

Instead of the body being the site where identities are exchanged or transferred, it's the authorial persona that becomes the transvestized identity. In Flower of My Secret, Marisa Paredes plays Leo Maciás, a woman who writes popular romantic novels under the pseudonym of Amanda Gris, but who despises the work and wants to write something more authentic and dark. On the other hand, her male friend Angel (Juan Echanove) longs to write romantic novels himself and so the transference of the pseudonym becomes a convenient solution to Leo's dilemma and Angel's desire. This is reminiscent of Almodóvar's known facility with actresses to express his own ideas and feelings; a contrasexual strategy accommodating self-expression confined by restrictive gender ascriptions. There was an earlier suggestion of this "literary transvestism" in Law of Desire where Pablo writes letters to Antonio under the guise of Laura D.

In Bad Education, the appropriation of authorial identity is converted from a gendered comedy of errors and airs into a complicated murder mystery worthy of Hitchcock. In fact, one critic at Cannes quipped that Bad Education put the cock back into Hitchcock. Proving he can accomplish his themes as capably with an ensemble of male actors, Bad Education comes across as entertainingly intellectual. Its intertextuality is exquisite, with the scene of the page of script transforming into the front of the movie theater encapsulating the equivalence between celluloid and its written treatment as skillfully as François Truffaut's images of the life of Antoine Doinel leaping from the pages of a book in Love on the Run.

As has become evident, each of Almodóvar's movies can be mined for their lapidary themes. If the current overarching theme of returning is a suggestion that his work should be viewed again and again, I can only concur. For as apparent as his themes have become, each film yields delightful and insightful permutations enrichened by repeated viewings. Foreshadowings that move the story along become more than narrative devices; they accent and highlight most strongly in retrospect and are eloquent beyond measure when reconsidered within context (Raimunda's pained eyes when her daughter breaks the news of what Paco has done fix their gaze upon the horrific grief of patterns repeating themselves).

The question of identity melds with the temporary fluid answers Almodóvar provides in his films, much like the bodies of Victor and Elena in Live Flesh, which in their beautiful passion become nearly indistinguishable and interchangeable. Then again, perhaps that is what Almodóvar is trying to tell us: that gendered distinctions bar us from a direct apprehension of the divine unity within all of us and between all of us.

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Almodóvar's are not so much about sexual orientation as they are about purposeful sexual disorientation.

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Michael Guillén
A film critic and journalist whose interests include Mayan culture and Jungian psychology, Michael Guillén blogs at The Evening Class. He is a contributing writer to Entertainment Today, the Canadian film site Twitch and the Austrian magazine Ray.

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