All About My Mother

10/02/2023

          The miracle of Pedro Almodovar’s films rests on their manifold sexuality, and their constantly troublesome subject matter,  (which incorporates rape, matricide, somnophilia, onanism and obviously murder), without appearing radical works. He has won American Oscars and Spanish Goyas, and makes the sort of films even a grandmother might love. Yet there remains in Almodovar’s work a subversive aspect we shouldn’t ignore or underestimate.

There is a scene in All About My Mother where the best friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), of leading character Manuela (Cecilia Roth), tells the audience how she came by her body. She is a transsexual and lists the price of her almond eyes, her boobs and her nose. She says that some might find these changes unnatural but for her they are natural, defining nature as the desire for the type of body she wished to have and that she can now possess. She says you “can't be stingy with these things…It costs a lot to be authentic.” The scene comes after the show in Barcelona that should have taken place (a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire) has been cancelled when the person playing Stella has disappeared — the actress is a heroin addict more interested in the drugs over the theatrical adrenaline buzz. The transsexual is no actress but she is a fine performer as she keeps the audience engaged while reporting her life story.

All About My Mother was made in 1999 though it chimes even more pertinently with 2022. How many people are now having plastic surgery to transform at least their looks, if not their gender and their sexuality? But Almodovar has for many years been interested in sex, gender, one’s body and one’s social arrangements being a fluid thing, seeing in what others might regard as perversity just another possible configuration. No doubt there are scenes in his work which will look better than others; how well would a moment in Matador where a stalker turns irritating rapist appear now, while isn’t there an enormous problem with a male nurse sexually molesting a young woman in a coma in Talk to Her? Yet this might say more about the peculiar prudishness of the times and the contrary nature of sexual politics, but Almodovar has never been one for the complexity of contradiction; he has been drawn much more consistently to utopian melodrama. Vital to this rests on the capacity for rearrangement, whether that takes place over the things people will change when it comes to their bodies, or the social circumstances that can be pragmatically altered when needs must.

To understand how this works, we can quickly run through the film’s plot. Manuela is the Madrid mother of a seventeen-year-old son, a doting single mum who witnesses the boy run over after he chases for an autograph from the very actresses who star in A Streetcar Named Desire later in Barcelona. Recovering from the loss, Manuela moves to Barcelona, where she reacquaints herself with her transsexual friend, befriends a saintly young bourgeois woman Rosa (Penelope Cruz) who turns out to be pregnant having had an affair with none other than Manuela's former lover who was the father of her own child (and is now transexual), gets a job working as an assistant to Huma (Maria Paredes) in the Barcelona production of the play, and discovers that Rosa is HIV. Rosa moves into her apartment, dies and, at the funeral, the father turns up and becomes a briefly loving father to the child, as he was not to Manuela’s, and now Manuela all but adopts Rosa’s child as her own. 

There is as always a lot of coincidence in Almodovar’s stories, but a lot of contingency too — which of course in many ways go together. A strongly plotted screenplay relies on necessity, not coincidence and contingency, as each event follows from the previous one. A rich man loses his wife and after a year he goes on a holiday where he meets another woman, who is aware of his wealth and seeks to marry him with the idea that she and her poor lover will slowly poison the rich widower and get the money. However obvious this plot happens to be (and can cover many a noir), it is causally strong and motivationally clear. The husband is looking to escape his grief; the new wife is seeking her fortune. Almodovar however seeks the densely plotted within the coincidental all the better to say life isn’t about causality and motivation, but contingency and spontaneity. The homosexual and transexual dimensions aren’t sexually polemical aspects of his work — as though his purpose is to make films for a gay audience. It is more that he sees fluidity as a human given constrained by conservative cultural forces. 

      These forces Almodovar grew up with; born in 1955, his adolescent years would have been spent under Franco’s dictatorship, but Almodovar was vital to the Movida movement, a post-Franco burst of freedom in the arts that insisted on slackening the tight censorship of the dictatorship years. If Franco was about motivational conservatism, a cause and effect that insisted on the importance of family and the church, and that if people worked hard, and observed religious faith, they would have a good life, Almodovar instead insists better to assume that families are contingent things and that faith lies more in coincidence than intention. 

But what are we to make of Agrado’s speech, which suggests a very high degree of intentionality indeed? Nevertheless, she offers it as a paradoxical provocation, a sort of inverted sermon which makes clear that we don’t have to rely on God’s agency to be the person we are, but we can throughout our lives decide what we want to be as technology allows us to trans-form, to shapeshift into the ego ideal we seek. Some might balk at Agrado’s continuing relationship with the surgeon’s knife but Almodovar seems to be saying through Agrado that this is no more than an option. The priest in the pulpit isn’t offering life choices but religious commandments: thought shalt not rather than thou shalt. That was Franco’s world; it is not Almodovar’s. 

Thus whether one wishes to change one’s body, even one’s gender, this is part of a world that is constantly in a state of flux. What Almodovar’s plots want to show is that fluctuating fortune, a world where a chance meeting can transform one’s life and an abrupt misfortune can lead to new forms of happiness. If Manuela hadn’t lost her son she wouldn’t have returned to Barcelona and rekindled her friendship with Agrado, become close to Huma and become close enough to Rosa that she can be the mother of her child when she passes away. If one were to think carefully about All About My Mother, the film can seem flimsily formed, with a grieving mum capable of new friendships and reinvigorating old ones so soon after her son’s death. However, Almodovar’s purpose isn’t to offer psychological plausibility nor character depth. It is to suggest, if people can live closer to the surface of the world, they will be able to live more easily with its catastrophes. Almodovar’s ostensibly weak plotting contains within it a philosophy, just as his interest in gender and sexuality is more broadly an interest in transitory states. This makes his work both oddly profound and thoroughly superficial, and often contained by a tone that we might call melancholy facetiousness.  

It is a world where there isn’t a lot of difference between the colour of one’s walls and the losses in one’s life, in the shade of one’s mind and the hue of one’s clothing - as if one can perk up by dressing up. When Agrado visits Manuela in her new Barcelona apartment, she comments on the dullness of the wallpaper and we know that a return to health will rest partly on seeing those walls covered with an Almodovarian visual optimism, or accepting the decor as it is livened up by the company occupying it. The flat remains a clash of colours, with the sofa a swirl of flowers and the sitting room walls blocks of hallucinatory circles that suggests a flat from the early eighties. But it is in Agrado’s kitchen (as so often in the kitchens in Almodovar’s films) where tranquillity resides. If Almodovar is justly famous for his colours schemes, it resides not in a colour-coded symbolism that we find in anybody from Douglas Sirk to Todd Haynes, from Nicholas Ray to Darren Aronofsky, but a colour-induced optimism that proposes a bold colour scheme indicates a healthy mind. If he and his frequent production designer Antxon Gomes resist the clearly symbolic this is part of the director’s deliberate superficiality, seeing in colour delight rather than meaning. 

          Partly what makes Almodovar a modern filmmaker is this interest in surfaces, in seeing mise en scene as an optional world: one in which the characters are choosing their interior design rather than one imposed upon them even if, in All About My Mother, Manuela chooses a flat where she accepts the interiors as they are, even if we sense too for Almodovar this is exactly the space she would be living in recovering from her son’s loss. It manages to convey Almodovar’s preoccupation with the dauntless and often garish, while also reflecting a despondency that indicates Manuela would leave it as it is. Speaking of a recent Almodovar film Parallel Mothers, Dave Calhoun says “[central character] Janus’s apartment in the film is like an artwork itself — the design, the objects, the colours.” (Time Out) Yet for all the eschewal of naturalism that Almodovar insists upon, the director says that quite often in his films he uses his own things, including his most recent acquisitions. “The furniture was mine, The paintings were mine. When I buy something, besides the fact I like it, I know that it will find a place in one of my movies…I always represent life, but it’s also a kind of artifice. But even with this artifice, I try to reflect the characters.” (Time Out)   

If what Almodovar’s work proposes is change, then the exuberance of mise en scene is part of this transformation. When he says “I’m not a naturalistic filmmaker like Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers” he might be talking about a difference of style but he is also perhaps invoking the Zola-esque sense of the term: Naturalism as pre-determination, where the plot is both tight and despairing. Often Almodovar in this sense as well as stylistically is the opposite of a naturalist. He is a director whose films insist on inevitability giving way to contingency, which is partly why we gave a brief account of All About My Mother’s plot. We could do the same to numerous other Almodovar films and show how absurdly unlikely the unfolding events are. But rather than seeing this as Aristotelian ineptitude, we can see in it the opposite of fatalistic narrative. “All my movies are political — for example, the sense of freedom in my movies. “ (Time Out

             Yet this freedom is where the transformative meets the dramatic, where the liberation of self demands the weakest of plots if we see storytelling as stemming from an incident that unravels the rest of the proceedings, in Aristotle’s notion that the story must be a unified construct of necessary and probable actions. In All About My Mother, the play happens to move to Barcelona, Agrado happens to be in the park (Manuela is looking for the father of her son), and happens to befriend Rosa. There are many films where happenstance has little to do with anything (and naturalist films would be amongst them). We needn’t see, though, these coincidences in Almodovar’s work as a failure but as a certain type of success, an adoption of crude melodrama for the transformative ends Almodovar seeks. 

               Near the beginning of the film we see Manuela in an instructive video where she plays a woman allowing a loved one’s organs to be transplanted. Not long afterwards she will be that woman after her son’s death and she gives his organs to science. It is perhaps the ultimate transformation — the transplantation of organs from one body to another. In the film Agrado chooses the body she will live in; Manuela’s son will live, partially, in the body of someone else. Almodovar doesn’t make much of this; it is all part of the trans-forming that makes him a director of the millennium, someone who may not have the radical form of a Haneke, a Denis or a Tarr, but who has captured the times we are living through as well as any modern filmmaker.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

All About My Mother

The miracle of Pedro Almodovar's films rests on their manifold sexuality, and their constantly troublesome subject matter, (which incorporates rape, matricide, somnophilia, onanism and obviously murder), without appearing radical works. He has won American Oscars and Spanish Goyas, and makes the sort of films even a grandmother might love. Yet there remains in Almodovar's work a subversive aspect we shouldn't ignore or underestimate.

There is a scene in All About My Mother where the best friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), of leading character Manuela (Cecilia Roth), tells the audience how she came by her body. She is a transsexual and lists the price of her almond eyes, her boobs and her nose. She says that some might find these changes unnatural but for her they are natural, defining nature as the desire for the type of body she wished to have and that she can now possess. She says you "can't be stingy with these things...It costs a lot to be authentic." The scene comes after the show in Barcelona that should have taken place (a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire) has been cancelled when the person playing Stella has disappeared the actress is a heroin addict more interested in the drugs over the theatrical adrenaline buzz. The transsexual is no actress but she is a fine performer as she keeps the audience engaged while reporting her life story.

All About My Mother was made in 1999 though it chimes even more pertinently with 2022. How many people are now having plastic surgery to transform at least their looks, if not their gender and their sexuality? But Almodovar has for many years been interested in sex, gender, one's body and one's social arrangements being a fluid thing, seeing in what others might regard as perversity just another possible configuration. No doubt there are scenes in his work which will look better than others; how well would a moment in Matador where a stalker turns irritating rapist appear now, while isn't there an enormous problem with a male nurse sexually molesting a young woman in a coma in Talk to Her? Yet this might say more about the peculiar prudishness of the times and the contrary nature of sexual politics, but Almodovar has never been one for the complexity of contradiction; he has been drawn much more consistently to utopian melodrama. Vital to this rests on the capacity for rearrangement, whether that takes place over the things people will change when it comes to their bodies, or the social circumstances that can be pragmatically altered when needs must.

To understand how this works, we can quickly run through the film's plot. Manuela is the Madrid mother of a seventeen-year-old son, a doting single mum who witnesses the boy run over after he chases for an autograph from the very actresses who star in A Streetcar Named Desire later in Barcelona. Recovering from the loss, Manuela moves to Barcelona, where she reacquaints herself with her transsexual friend, befriends a saintly young bourgeois woman Rosa (Penelope Cruz) who turns out to be pregnant having had an affair with none other than Manuela's former lover who was the father of her own child (and is now transexual), gets a job working as an assistant to Huma (Maria Paredes) in the Barcelona production of the play, and discovers that Rosa is HIV. Rosa moves into her apartment, dies and, at the funeral, the father turns up and becomes a briefly loving father to the child, as he was not to Manuela's, and now Manuela all but adopts Rosa's child as her own.

There is as always a lot of coincidence in Almodovar's stories, but a lot of contingency too which of course in many ways go together. A strongly plotted screenplay relies on necessity, not coincidence and contingency, as each event follows from the previous one. A rich man loses his wife and after a year he goes on a holiday where he meets another woman, who is aware of his wealth and seeks to marry him with the idea that she and her poor lover will slowly poison the rich widower and get the money. However obvious this plot happens to be (and can cover many a noir), it is causally strong and motivationally clear. The husband is looking to escape his grief; the new wife is seeking her fortune. Almodovar however seeks the densely plotted within the coincidental all the better to say life isn't about causality and motivation, but contingency and spontaneity. The homosexual and transexual dimensions aren't sexually polemical aspects of his work as though his purpose is to make films for a gay audience. It is more that he sees fluidity as a human given constrained by conservative cultural forces.

These forces Almodovar grew up with; born in 1955, his adolescent years would have been spent under Franco's dictatorship, but Almodovar was vital to the Movida movement, a post-Franco burst of freedom in the arts that insisted on slackening the tight censorship of the dictatorship years. If Franco was about motivational conservatism, a cause and effect that insisted on the importance of family and the church, and that if people worked hard, and observed religious faith, they would have a good life, Almodovar instead insists better to assume that families are contingent things and that faith lies more in coincidence than intention.

But what are we to make of Agrado's speech, which suggests a very high degree of intentionality indeed? Nevertheless, she offers it as a paradoxical provocation, a sort of inverted sermon which makes clear that we don't have to rely on God's agency to be the person we are, but we can throughout our lives decide what we want to be as technology allows us to trans-form, to shapeshift into the ego ideal we seek. Some might balk at Agrado's continuing relationship with the surgeon's knife but Almodovar seems to be saying through Agrado that this is no more than an option. The priest in the pulpit isn't offering life choices but religious commandments: thought shalt not rather than thou shalt. That was Franco's world; it is not Almodovar's.

Thus whether one wishes to change one's body, even one's gender, this is part of a world that is constantly in a state of flux. What Almodovar's plots want to show is that fluctuating fortune, a world where a chance meeting can transform one's life and an abrupt misfortune can lead to new forms of happiness. If Manuela hadn't lost her son she wouldn't have returned to Barcelona and rekindled her friendship with Agrado, become close to Huma and become close enough to Rosa that she can be the mother of her child when she passes away. If one were to think carefully about All About My Mother, the film can seem flimsily formed, with a grieving mum capable of new friendships and reinvigorating old ones so soon after her son's death. However, Almodovar's purpose isn't to offer psychological plausibility nor character depth. It is to suggest, if people can live closer to the surface of the world, they will be able to live more easily with its catastrophes. Almodovar's ostensibly weak plotting contains within it a philosophy, just as his interest in gender and sexuality is more broadly an interest in transitory states. This makes his work both oddly profound and thoroughly superficial, and often contained by a tone that we might call melancholy facetiousness.

It is a world where there isn't a lot of difference between the colour of one's walls and the losses in one's life, in the shade of one's mind and the hue of one's clothing - as if one can perk up by dressing up. When Agrado visits Manuela in her new Barcelona apartment, she comments on the dullness of the wallpaper and we know that a return to health will rest partly on seeing those walls covered with an Almodovarian visual optimism, or accepting the decor as it is livened up by the company occupying it. The flat remains a clash of colours, with the sofa a swirl of flowers and the sitting room walls blocks of hallucinatory circles that suggests a flat from the early eighties. But it is in Agrado's kitchen (as so often in the kitchens in Almodovar's films) where tranquillity resides. If Almodovar is justly famous for his colours schemes, it resides not in a colour-coded symbolism that we find in anybody from Douglas Sirk to Todd Haynes, from Nicholas Ray to Darren Aronofsky, but a colour-induced optimism that proposes a bold colour scheme indicates a healthy mind. If he and his frequent production designer Antxon Gomes resist the clearly symbolic this is part of the director's deliberate superficiality, seeing in colour delight rather than meaning.

Partly what makes Almodovar a modern filmmaker is this interest in surfaces, in seeing mise en scene as an optional world: one in which the characters are choosing their interior design rather than one imposed upon them even if, in All About My Mother, Manuela chooses a flat where she accepts the interiors as they are, even if we sense too for Almodovar this is exactly the space she would be living in recovering from her son's loss. It manages to convey Almodovar's preoccupation with the dauntless and often garish, while also reflecting a despondency that indicates Manuela would leave it as it is. Speaking of a recent Almodovar film Parallel Mothers, Dave Calhoun says "[central character] Janus's apartment in the film is like an artwork itself the design, the objects, the colours." (Time Out) Yet for all the eschewal of naturalism that Almodovar insists upon, the director says that quite often in his films he uses his own things, including his most recent acquisitions. "The furniture was mine, The paintings were mine. When I buy something, besides the fact I like it, I know that it will find a place in one of my movies...I always represent life, but it's also a kind of artifice. But even with this artifice, I try to reflect the characters." (Time Out)

If what Almodovar's work proposes is change, then the exuberance of mise en scene is part of this transformation. When he says "I'm not a naturalistic filmmaker like Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers" he might be talking about a difference of style but he is also perhaps invoking the Zola-esque sense of the term: Naturalism as pre-determination, where the plot is both tight and despairing. Often Almodovar in this sense as well as stylistically is the opposite of a naturalist. He is a director whose films insist on inevitability giving way to contingency, which is partly why we gave a brief account of All About My Mother's plot. We could do the same to numerous other Almodovar films and show how absurdly unlikely the unfolding events are. But rather than seeing this as Aristotelian ineptitude, we can see in it the opposite of fatalistic narrative. "All my movies are political for example, the sense of freedom in my movies. " (Time Out)

Yet this freedom is where the transformative meets the dramatic, where the liberation of self demands the weakest of plots if we see storytelling as stemming from an incident that unravels the rest of the proceedings, in Aristotle's notion that the story must be a unified construct of necessary and probable actions. In All About My Mother, the play happens to move to Barcelona, Agrado happens to be in the park (Manuela is looking for the father of her son), and happens to befriend Rosa. There are many films where happenstance has little to do with anything (and naturalist films would be amongst them). We needn't see, though, these coincidences in Almodovar's work as a failure but as a certain type of success, an adoption of crude melodrama for the transformative ends Almodovar seeks.

Near the beginning of the film we see Manuela in an instructive video where she plays a woman allowing a loved one's organs to be transplanted. Not long afterwards she will be that woman after her son's death and she gives his organs to science. It is perhaps the ultimate transformation the transplantation of organs from one body to another. In the film Agrado chooses the body she will live in; Manuela's son will live, partially, in the body of someone else. Almodovar doesn't make much of this; it is all part of the trans-forming that makes him a director of the millennium, someone who may not have the radical form of a Haneke, a Denis or a Tarr, but who has captured the times we are living through as well as any modern filmmaker.


© Tony McKibbin