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Pedro Party: What Have I Done To Deserve This? & Volver

It's a Pedro Party. We're celebrating Almodóvar each day as we count down to Cannes 2017. Here's Daniel Crooke.

Women hold the universe together according to the peacock-feathered films of Pedro Almodóvar, and never more earthily or elegant than in his mirrored portraits of multitasking matriarchs putting out the fires of the men around them: 1984’s What Have I Done To Deserve This? and 2006’s Volver. Both domestic dramas with a hint of the supernatural, they showcase a pair of imperfect pragmatists – respectively, Gloria (Carmen Maura) and Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) – caught in the crucible of their everyday lives with no signs of slowing down, spinning an interminable amount of plates only to wash them straight after so they can serve their families dinner on time. While their inattentive lazybones husbands bark orders from the couch and fail to see the strength beyond their busts – no matter, as they’ll soon both be dead– Gloria and Raimunda are the breadwinners, juggling odd jobs and managing the affairs of family and friends to simply keep the lights on.

Strikingly feminist with an emphasis on the superhuman virtues of intergenerational sisterhood, What Have I Done To Deserve This? and Volver display two working women hustling on the verge with no time for a nervous breakdown...

Despite their household settings – and Almodóvar’s instantly iconic leer down Cruz’s top while she sponges a knife – these women are less kitchen sink than carbon sink: they absorb the joy, sorrow, and secrets of all who surround them. Living amongst daughters, sisters, mothers-in-law, aunts, neighbors – and, yes, sons and husbands – Almodóvar positions them as the pillars of their communities, the load-bearing wall that keeps the roof over everyone’s heads. Their senses coalesce around a shared history, designed to bind the stories of those around them with empathy and action. Which is not to say that he deprives them of agency by defining their characters against a laundry list of other people’s problems, rather, that they possess an indefatigable individuality that makes them uniquely capable of solving them. More than just mothers, they are the keepers of time.

The speed at which they maintain their households differs in each film as a narrative device. For starters, What Have I Done To Deserve This? deploys breathless farce to underline the nonstop nature of Gloria’s domestic life. She slaves over her cabbie-cum-handwriting forger husband, Antonio, eccentric fizzy water-swigging mother-in-law (the incomparable Chus Lampreave), and two adolescent sons in and around their cramped apartment; shuffles between karate studios and Madrid homes to cobble together an income as a cleaning lady; and pops No-Doze pills to take the edge off when she’s not getting her best friend Cristal, the sex worker next door, out of work-related jams. Almodóvar cuts all the slack from the proceedings, each whip of a plot turn snapping like a rubber band.

Volver, by contrast, employs a far breezier pace when doling out its dilemmas, taking its time to strategically overwhelm your emotions with carefully placed pieces of drama. At home, also in Madrid, Raimunda raises her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) as a close confidante and companion while deflecting the gaze of her husband Paco, a lascivious slab of sloth who sits around swilling beers instead of holding down a job; she also cares for her nervy sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) who runs an illegal hair salon out of her home, elderly aunt Paula (thankfully, Lampreave again) in dementia’s decline, and lonely family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) who still lives in their childhood village. When daughter Paula accidentally murders Paco with a kitchen knife after he attempts to molest her, claiming he's not her biological father, Raimunda jumps into action to secretly dispose of the body. As if that weren't enough, superstitious villagers are reporting sightings around town of a ghost, Raimunda and Sole’s deceased mother Irene (Maura, now a generation above her character in What Have I Done...) who has returned from the afterlife to sort out some unfinished business of her own. Suffice to say, Gloria and Raimunda have a lot going on. And for better or worse, they’re the cash-strapped fulcrums of all this drama.

When the owner of the restaurant next door unexpectedly drops in on Raimunda (who's feverishly soaking up Paco’s blood with paper towels in the next room) he points out the suspicious drops of red along her neck. “Women’s troubles,” she snaps before quickly changing the subject. While this sentiment surely echoes in Gloria informing her son that “sometimes a father is no solution” after she’s killed her husband with a hambone, its core meaning reverberates even stronger when she declares: “I don’t want anybody’s help! I’ll do it on my own!” The women’s troubles of Volver and What Have I Done To Deserve This? are not solely defined by the tending and eventual offing of an incompetent husband but by their duty – elective or assigned – to single-handedly keep their community’s ships afloat. These are industrious, savvy women who know how to make a buck. Between the death of her aunt and husband, Raimunda begins surreptitiously running her neighbor’s restaurant after the owner leaves town, captivating a local film crew with her culinary masterstrokes while raking in cash and raising morale. As a favor to Cristal, Gloria moonlights as a passive observer for one of her more sexually exhibitionist clients, getting paid to sit lifelessly in a chair while he bangs out his insecurities. The image of a bored Carmen Maura twiddling her thumbs on a phallic curling iron while Cristal fakes an orgasm beneath this fragile male ego brilliantly illustrates the tedium and mind-out-of-body dislocation of not just bad sex, but living under the weight of expectations that men hoist upon you.

While money serves as the principle driving force for mobility in each film, as well as the primary objective for these women to get up every day, compassion for their sisters’ common struggles uplifts their livelihoods to greater heights. Raimunda instinctively says hello to so many strangers throughout the course of Volver that when one woman finally doesn't return the favor, it's laughable. While they share no blood - let alone the same floor of their apartment building - Gloria takes an adoptive role with the telekenetic young girl upstairs to lessen the blows of her abusive mother. These relationships imbue vivid color into otherwise harsh realities. And when you talk about color in an Almodóvar film, it rains by the bucket. But what sets What Have I Done To Deserve This? and Volver apart from Almodóvar’s more fantastical films is that they each reside in a milieu that hugs far tighter to real life, occupied by everyday people with ordinary lives. Yet both films but especially Volver pulse with the rich warmth of humanity at its most generous. Here, there are no mad scientists, matadors, or sex-crazed screenwriters nor glamorous actresses of stage and screen. No villa-decked manses, luxurious penthouses, or roaring parties in the sky. This presents Pedro with a challenge: how to best to ground his flamboyant aesthetic in the humdrum spaces of overworked women.

The answer, of course, is to illuminate the integrity of these women’s lives by exaggerating their environments with carefully placed flair while never manicuring their harder edges. What Have I Done To Deserve This? is the closest thing Almodóvar has ever done to neorealism – both in form and content – but he finds areas within Gloria’s lower class, overstuffed apartment to highlight with visual beauty. The wallpaper in her kitchen gives him an opportunity to play with a loud pattern while Cristal’s apartment is decked in blue neon lights and pink bulbs to lend a sensual atmosphere for her clients, allowing his trademark washes of fluorescent color to coat a location in a truthful manner. Likewise, he places his camera inside Gloria’s oven so that when she opens the door, our eyes are treated to the verdant green walls behind her matched by the brilliant green sweater she’s wearing.

While Volver has a far more polished look (and is undoubtedly the more sophisticated work) Almodóvar subtly manipulates his environments with carefully placed pops of color, most prominently via distinctly characterized costume choices or props that feel within the fabric of the story rather than frivolous accouterment; a pink sponge, a spring of green mint, a bloody knife, a vibrant floral printed dress. He elevates pedestrian surroundings into jaw-dropping frameworks; a graffiti mural becomes an intense reflection of a mother-daughter reunion, a row of incandescently lit mojitos becomes liquid magic. Additionally, he also infuses genre tones of mystery, noir, and melodrama into the style, placing the story in a grander, more sweeping context. When Gloria’s mother-in-law helps her son with his homework, determining whether a classic poet belongs to the romantics or the realists, Almodóvar asks why not be both?

Providing a feast for the eyes is just one way in which Almodóvar foregrounds the senses in his filmmaking. In these two films, sense memories buoy our lead actresses as conduits between the past, present, and future. Playfully, smell acts as a time traveling device in both films. Antonio’s foot odor sends his mother spiraling into yesteryear, reminiscing on his childhood, while the familiar aroma of Irene’s farts moves Raimunda to tears as the memories of her supposedly deceased mother overwhelm her heart by way of her nostrils. Little does she know, Irene rests not in peace but in pieces, cracking up while hiding under the guest bed. Taste becomes transcendent with mouth-watering ecstasy thanks to Almodóvar’s visual emphasis on its texture and tone. Gloria spends countless hours in the kitchen carving up the hambone for meals, and then later boiling it into soup to dispose of the murder weapon. Additionally, old family recipes keep the spirits of our ancestors alive; Irene’s homemade confections fill Raimunda and Sole with glee, connecting them with their mother in a sweet, sugary communion. The dead live among us, returning more transparently than we may ever imagine. Almodóvar continues this theme in the powerful finale of The Skin I Live In, a dead son reappearing to their mother and sister in new form.

A song, though, builds the ultimate bridge between the years. In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Raimunda performs a rendition of the title track “Volver” to her guests on the restaurant’s outdoor patio. We learn that this song, about the impermanence of time and the spiritual connections that define us from across its reach, was passed down to her from Irene who, unbeknownst to Raimunda, watches her daughter sing while hiding in the back of Sole’s parked car. Not only does this scene crystallize Raimunda and Irene’s fractured relationship from beyond the grave, it serves as a metatextual passing of the torch between Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz as the guardians of Almodóvar’s emotional galaxy. Throughout both films, he matches them in a series of worshipping overhead shots but this is the moment when it all comes together. Suspended in each other’s gaze while oblivious to their mutual presence, Almodóvar alternates between tear-struck close-ups of both actresses while Cruz belts for her life and, in the process, creates an emotional exchange from across time, a regeneration of the strong female lead. Maura, now in the grandmotherly role, and Cruz mind-meld in this earth-trembling moment to become a single being that encompasses lifetimes of trials and tribulations. More directly to the text, it amplifies the heartbeat in both films of a mother’s fierce love and protection for her children and demonstrates how it can stretch beyond dimensions. The wacky deadpan and drolly physical performance of international treasure Chus Lampreave in both films, playing elder stateswoman of her respective families, is the all the spice need you to finish it off; when Paula dies, Irene becomes the grand matriarch which will eventually pass to Raimunda and Sole. And more frivolously, this Maura-Cruz regeneration finalizes in Broken Embraces when Cruz’s character reenacts Maura’s hysterical frenzy, beat-for-beat, in a fictionalized filmed remake of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

In What Have I Done To Deserve This? and Volver, our heroines may take the lead but it still takes a village of women to keep a community alive. Almodóvar can’t help but exude curiosity about every one that we meet; each character could easily spin off into her own standalone film and we’d eat it up with eager eyes. Gloria and Raimunda hold judgment for those around them who deserve it, but not with moral arbitration; Gloria’s tight with Cristal while Raimunda treats the neighborhood prostitute with the same level of respect she would anyone else. In addition to being her friend, she gainfully employs her (and pays her standard rate) to help rent a U-haul and bury Paco’s body and – more cheerfully – bartend at the restaurant she’s taken over, along with other women in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the little girl living above Gloria’s apartment possesses telekinetic powers that seem to be the result of abuse (again, women under duress have superpowers) and she helps Gloria psychically wallpaper her apartment in no time. Emotionally, the women in both films lean on one another to fuel their desires, their courage, their agency. To refuel their reserves to meet the challenges that men lay before them every waking day of their lives. Aided by beautiful group shots of women in action and an especially divine shot in Volver of a bus unloading onto a busy street in the refracted gaze of a plastic public transport stop, community is the heart of any society – building blocks of the world at-large – and women are the ones who keep it together.

The last shots of What Have I Done To Deserve This? are a series of fades and zooms away from Gloria’s apartment window, slowly revealing a building full of them, indistinguishable, and then a highway full of cars rushing to their destinations. The first shot of Volver tracks down a cemetery plot teeming with the endless headstones of ancestors, marking the codas of their beavering lives, and the living, breathing women who choose to spend the afternoon scrubbing their burial sites out of respect, ending on Raimunda. What these shots seem to suggest in tandem is that Gloria and Raimunda may be the never-resting nuclei of their own cell but they’re only one piece of a greater organism. These are stories of the everywoman; remarkable but never working alone.

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Reader Comments (5)

How is it possible that Almodovar hasn't made a film called "Women's Troubles"?? Brilliant piece - so many good observations that get at the heart of Almodovar's body of work, re: "women under duress have superpowers", "The dead live among us, returning more transparently than we may ever imagine". Love it.

May 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRay Koval

I had very little Almodovar experience before Volver, and it's still one of my favorite foreign films ever. I dragged my girlfriend at-the-time to it and she ended up loving it. It's one of my greatest please-come-to-this-with-me-I-promise-you'll-love-it movies.

May 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

"What have I done to deserve this?" is an all-time must-see. Period. And even better on all levels, than "Volver", which is saying a lot.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

@Jesus Alonso @Ben Do you think that Volver and What Have I Done To Deserve This?, respectively, are his best film? I might have to go with Habla Con Ella

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRay Koval

I posted my Almodovar rank (which barely switches positions) in other post, but I'll try to repeat it...

1. Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown *****
2. Talk to Her *****
3. What have I done to deserve this? *****
4. The Skin I live in *****
5. Law of desire **** 1/2
6. All about my mother **** 1/2
7. Volver ****
8. Julieta ****
9. Tie me up! Tie me Down! ****
10. Bad Education *** 1/2
11. Matador *** 1/2
12. Broken Embraces *** 1/2
13. Dark Habits *** 1/2
14. I'm so excited! ***
15. High Heels ***
16. Live Flesh ***
17. Kika ** 1/2
18. Pepi, Lucy, Boom **
19. The Flower of my Secret * 1/2
20. Labyrinth of Passion *

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

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