on 27 January 2016
All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999) is Pedro Almodóvar’s most successful film. Indeed it is Spain’s most successful film ever full stop, end of story. It has made more money and won more awards than any other Spanish film, eclipsing Almodóvar’s own box office blockbuster Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and even the best of Luis Buñuel (usually asserted as being Viridiana, Belle du Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – actually only Viridiana part qualifies, the Spanish director making the bulk of his films in Mexico and France). This seems bizarre when we consider how narrow the film’s appeal would appear. The film features an all-woman cast with only two token roles given to men, one an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s and the other a gay actor playing (and mocking) the macho Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. As well as seeming to insult men, the film plays loud and lush with its fore-fronting of gender-bending – homosexuality, heterosexuality and trans-sexuality all jostle together in an emancipated state very honest to Almodóvar’s own worldview, but hardly grist for the usual commercial mill. The fact that such a ‘pink’ film caught on with audiences and critics alike is a wonderful indication that there is an audience out there for films other than the usual diet of testosterone-inflected Hollyweird sex ‘n’ violence. All About My Mother is essentially a highly accomplished melodrama which celebrates the ability of people to recover from loss and achieve happiness through being who they dream themselves to be. A fundamentally positive statement from Almodóvar, it is deeply encouraging that audiences worldwide seem to agree with him.
All of the above said though, I must confess to not initially responding to this film. It was only after several viewings that I could finally grasp what Almodóvar is really getting at here. I now see it is one of his greatest works alongside Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004) even if instinct impels me even more towards acclaiming Live Flesh (1998) and Volver (2006) as being the most special of all. I also wouldn’t want to be without the first three El Deseo films – The Law of Desire (1987), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989).
The one perennial Almodóvar motif is melodrama and as per usual, in All About My Mother this provides the most obvious level on which we can read the film. In Live Flesh the motor for the melodrama was sex, but here it is the loss of a loved one. The story centers on Manuela (the stunning Cecilia Roth seizing with gusto surely the role of her lifetime), an Argentine-born single mother nurse working in the transplant unit of a Madrid hospital whose son Esteban (Eloy Azorín) is run over by a car and killed on his 17th birthday while chasing after an autograph from the famous actress Huma Rojo (the equally stunning Marisa Paredes) whom he and his mother have just seen acting Blanche on stage in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. In a way the film is a study of mourning, but this is no A Single Man. Manuela is admirably practical and deals with her grief by at first following Esteban’s heart which is given fresh use in another body thanks to heart transplant surgery, and then by journeying from Madrid to her old stomping ground Barcelona to search out Esteban’s father and tell him the sad news. The tone of the film shifts completely (one of the things I initially had problems with) as we find out why Manuela didn’t tell her son about his father before he died. Turns out the man (also called Esteban but now called ‘Lola’ and played by Toni Cantó) is a pre-operative transsexual prostitute and Manuela scours the streets and old haunts she used to know so well in her search for him. The tone shifts completely from tragedy to comedy when she meets her old friend Agrado (an ‘agreeably’ hilarious show-stopping turn by Antonia San Juan), another transsexual who (to borrow the film’s language) got her tits the same time as Lola, but who has retained her penis so she can still work the streets. Through Agrado Manuela meets Rosa (Penélope Cruz in her second outing with Almodóvar), a nurse working in a center for beaten up prostitutes and drug addicts who has problems of her own. We also meet Huma Rojo again whose streetcar has arrived in Barcelona replete with her lesbian heroin addict lover Nina (Candela Peña) playing Stella to her Blanche. The way these characters spin around each other with all their problems expertly conveyed through a wonderful Almodóvar script and peerless performances is managed to perfection by a director who out-Sirks Douglas Sirk himself with the sheer grasp of his craft.
The film consists of a series of fabulously controlled confrontation scenes between the various characters in different combinations – Manuela and her son bonding over dinner and a film (All About Eve) where we grasp their loving relationship within a matter of seconds; Manuela patching up Agrado after rescuing her from a fight (“I look like Elephant Man! …How am I going to suck?”); Manuela explaining why she knows the part of Stella so well and the circumstances of her son’s death to a stunned Huma in her dressing room; all four key ladies bonding in Manuela’s flat including Rosa giving Huma the exact lowdown on what Manuela thinks of her followed by Agrado’s hilarious reaction to the prospect of ‘being dumped’ on Huma and then her account of being a truck driver before she got her tits (“How fascinating,” says Huma); the intimate conversations between Rosa and Manuela at the hospital and then later a wonderfully played (especially by Cruz) farewell to her father and dog. The film resembles a series of brightly polished pearls on a necklace with the finely nuanced scenes leading naturally into each other all commented on and enriched by texts other than this one, not just Williams and Manckiewicz, but Capote and Lorca as well. By the time we reach the film’s incredibly intense concluding scenes we feel we have experienced a lifetime of emotion as we watch Manuela drag herself back to life from the gutter of loss to the stars of re-birth, the connecting thread through all the encounters of the film being a paean to motherhood – she becomes the rock of emotional stability which stabilizes all the lost souls scrabbling for air around her. The title says it all really, especially when we know Almodóvar lost his own mother just prior to writing his script so that the film is on a deeper level, a heartfelt very personal requiem. The loss depicted in Manuela is actually his own. And what must Cecilia Roth (an actress who has been with Almodóvar since his first film Pepi, Luci, Bom) have felt knowing she was playing her director’s recently deceased mother? The melodrama must have flowed as tearfully off the screen as it does on it.
So why couldn’t I get most of this on first view? At the time I was relatively new to Almodóvar. I was impressed by the well-acted melodrama and the ripe mise-en-scène. I found the opening Madrid section convincing in its portrayal of a beautiful mother-son relationship so rudely terminated. However, I didn’t know what to make of the seemingly disparate (and disjointed) nature of so much of the remaining narrative. What has organ donating got to do with motherhood? What has loss of a son got to do with gender-bending? What is the precise relationship between Streetcar (we see the final scene of the play no less than three times) and all the other texts with the film’s focus on camp comedy, drug addiction and a general tone which teeters deliriously between dark and light? Agrado may be a wonderful character, but how does she fit within the wider story about motherhood and loss? The way Madrid and Barcelona are shot, they seem like two different films tacked on to each other, not just two cities. I remember feeling the film was finally uneven and curiously insubstantial with way too many plot-contrivances for its own good – I found the character of Rosa especially unbelievable. I have now seen all of Almodóvar’s work since that first encounter and finally the mists clear. For me there are two key words necessary to understand this film (and perhaps all Almodóvar) – identity and transition. Throughout all his films the two themes work on each other inexorably even if outwardly the narratives that contain them might seem so different.
Almodóvar is an artist who perhaps symbolizes most emblematically the great change that assailed Spain in 1977 when four decades of fascism ended with a General Election and the advent of democracy. The change in society wasn’t quick or easy. In fact it took decades for the country to sort itself out and some say that even now things are still in transition. Fascism may have died with Franco, but Spain was (is?) still split by the old right-left division that had been the original cause of the 1936 Spanish Civil War. Almodóvar grew up during the last two decades of Francoism and was always firmly on the left. He was a central figure in La Movida Madrileña, a counter-culture cultural renaissance movement that attacked everything Franco had stood for. His films can be interpreted en-masse as a consistent and methodical attack on Francoism and its attendant pillars of support (male chauvinist patriarchy, state-sponsored organized Catholicism, sadistic policemen, twisted authority figures), and a simultaneous celebration of freedoms won by the advent of democracy (rights for women, sexual release, drug use, etc). Almodóvar’s films lay out the twisted and confused fabric of this new post-Franco Spanish society where people struggle to define themselves, to establish their new identity in completely changed (and still changing) circumstances. Some stay as they were before and refuse to change. Others change and successfully negotiate their ticket to a liberated future. Others spin around in terminal funk and remain in desperate need of someone to push them in the right direction. In this sense identity and transition become key words in understanding this director. I would pick out three key areas where this transition and search for identity takes place – in the area of politics (what does ‘being Spanish’ mean to any of the key characters?), of sexuality and the body (as a repressed homosexual growing up under Francoism we can understand how important the sudden new-found freedom was for Almodóvar and a great many repressed people irrespective of their sexual orientation), and in the artistic process itself (writing as well as filmmaking as expressed by a fascination with cinema history and a very knowing post-modernism). In All About My Mother we see all three areas explored with great subtlety, in fact the subtlety is so great that I’d say it’s hard perhaps for non-Spanish people to easily pick them out, but once identified they provide the glue that holds the various disparate elements of the film together in a seamless whole. What follows contains spoilers.
An on-going feature of all Almodóvar’s films is an emphasis on the theme of transition by using borderline locations, locations on the way to being other locations so as not to be locations at all. Think of the apartment blocks in Pepi, Luci, Bom and What Have I Done to Deserve This?, the convent about to close in Dark Habits, and the areas of urban decay (Ricky’s deserted home town in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the pre-fab slum area where Victor lives in Live Flesh, the rundown area around the restaurant in Volver) where characters scrabble to make sense of their lives. Almodóvar delights in using airports and roads to emphasize life as being a state of transience, and especially in What Have I Done…, Live Flesh and Bad Education this state is specifically political in being related directly to Spanish history. In All About My Mother the politics are less obvious but we still note obvious references. The film is set deliberately between Madrid and Barcelona (the two cultural epicenters of the country) and Spanish-speaking members of the audience will notice the contrast between the accents of the actors, the Catalan accent being very different from that of Madrid. They will also pick out the fact that Cecilia Roth is from Argentina. Both Manuela and Lola are from that country and in the hospital scene at the end Manuela refers to the ex-dictator Jorge Rafael Videla as she attempts to cheer up Rosa – “Videla’s in jail and you’re going to have a baby.” The reference cleverly refers to 1998 and the time of the making of this film when Videla was jailed for the kidnapping of babies during the ‘Dirty War.’ It’s clever because it underlines Spain’s position as a multi-national, multi-cultural nation, connects with Rosa’s childbirth and also connects forward through Rosa’s funeral to the next scene which is a staged scene from Federico Garcia Lorca with Huma acting the part of a mother searching for her lost children. Lorca was a passionate socialist who was killed by the Falange and whose writings were banned by Franco. The human rights abuse of Franco is thus connected with Videla in a sequence which demonstrates Almodóvar’s concern with a free multi-cultural democratic Spain evolving away from her evil past.
This past is presented in the form of Rosa’s parents who are not so much evil as plain useless. The conservative mother (Rosa Maria Sardà) does little mothering. She forges Chagalls and is happy to let Manuela take care of her understandably rebellious daughter throughout her pregnancy. Her connection with ‘old Spain’ is demonstrated by her snobby outrage over her grandson being HIV+ lest anyone else find out and by seeing Lola as “a monster.” Actually she is the monster for renouncing her motherhood and for not accepting the new openness. She is as useless in the ‘new Spain’ as the father who is plain out of it with Alzheimer’s. The casting of Fernando Fernán Gómez underlines the connection with Francoist Spain even more, Gomez being a Spanish actor-director who appeared in countless films and directed over 30 of his own during that time. Spanish audiences watching would automatically make the connection without being told. These are people unable or unwilling to keep pace with the political and cultural change who will simply ossify and die as they are.
The politics are played down in this film though the borderline locations still dominate all the key scenes with the emphasis less on democracy/fascism and more on life/death which perhaps are two sides of the same coin – the hospital scenes in both Madrid and Barcelona; the field outside Barcelona where the clients drive around prostitutes in a nightmarish Fellini-esque spectacle; the dressing room in the theater where everyday life is fictionalized into a different ‘reality’ en-route to the stage; and finally the biggest borderline location of them all – the graveyard. Also not to be overlooked are the vital train sequences shot to resemble birth with the camera traveling down a tunnel like a baby heading for life, or a person heading for re-birth. These occur at opposite ends of the film and emphasize again life’s transience as a woman loses her son and eventually gains another by virtue of hard graft, of being able to adapt to changing circumstances and find an identity in the new society.
In this film the search for identity in the transient wilderness takes place mainly in the body and this is what connects organ donating with gender-bending. Manuela is a nurse placed in the same position as other mothers who have just lost their children and has the choice of offering up her son’s vital organs to give others life. She decides to give the hospital the OK and the story of the heart transplant, including plane flights from Madrid to Coruna is told in great detail by Almodóvar as if to underline that what has happened isn’t so much the death of a son, but the change of his identity. He lives on in another body with another identity. This has in turn robbed Manuela of her identity. Her name is still Manuela and she’s still a nurse, but she is no longer a mother. In fact, robbed of her life-force she doesn’t know who she is and returns to her grassroots in Barcelona to effectively find her own identity by reconnecting with her past. There she finds other characters who are also lacking identities, a point made most obviously by the presence of two transsexuals, one who demonstrates the bad consequences of transition and identity confusion and the other who stands for the good. In the former it is perhaps important that excessive celebrating and partying after the death of Franco is shown to have left a poisonous legacy. This is encapsulated by the figure of Lola (“I was wild,” she says) who is an “epidemic” (Manuela’s term) responsible for the destruction of both herself and everyone around her. The father of Esteban, Manuela did the right thing (playing the protective mother) moving away from him to Madrid when she knew she was pregnant with their son. Lola’s transience and ‘lack of identity’ is expressed by her transsexuality and wild impulses which have turned her into a junky, led her to impregnating Rosa (depicted in the film with Cruz’s beautiful looks as ‘innocence deflowered’) and given both herself and her future son AIDS in the process. At the point Manuela is reunited with Agrado we also learn Lola has stolen everything Agrado had to buy a ticket to fly to Argentina. Lola’s transsexuality is presented as a license for hedonistic excess which can only end in tragedy – it is an uncontrolled morally repugnant response to social change and Almodóvar demonstrates great skill in stating the disgust, but still retaining our sympathy for Lola at the end when Manuela finally tracks her down and explains things in an understanding way. Indeed this scene is one of the most miraculously achieved in all Almodóvar.
On the other hand Trans-sexuality gets a hugely positive depiction in the character of Agrado who is the figure of kindness as her name intimates and is the constant source of hilarity throughout the film. She welcomes her transient state and confusion over sexual identity by asserting her own control and being happy with who she is without resorting to the kind of self-destructive excess indulged in by Lola. In other words, she accepts and is happy with her identity in the ‘new’ Spain and Almodóvar demonstrates his support of this in a beautiful sequence where Agrado addresses a packed theater from the stage. It is a statement from the core of Almodóvar’s worldview which basically asserts the right of everyone to be able to be who they want to be in an emancipated state in a world without a closet. After giving the audience a detailed price-list for what it cost to perform all the operations (more organ donating!) on her body to realize her dream of being a man in a woman’s body Agrado says, “It costs a lot to be authentic, madam, and one can’t be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed you are.” The wild applause she receives underlines Almodóvar’s own approval and the fact that everyone else should agree as well.
This acceptance of sexual freedom, or the right to be who you want to be in a changing world is also expressed in the way the two lesbian lovers in the film are treated. Again we have the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’. The bad is obviously Nina who demonstrates Lola’s excess by indulging in drugs and emotional blackmail over her partner who she doesn’t love, but simply uses knowing Huma is dependent on her. Like Lola, she is given a bad end which in the upturned morality of this film entails marriage, a return to her parents and a fat baby to boot! Huma on the other hand, while not a perfect person, demonstrates loyalty to her new-found friends (Manuela, Agrado and Rosa) by providing both employment and friendship, while above everything else being a fabulous actress which clearly makes her OK in Almodóvar’s book!
Key to the film is the way all these characters find their identity in a changing world through the help of Manuela, the character who ‘plays mother’ to everyone. She helps Huma manage her life by taking care of Nina, tracking her down when she goes AWOL, and even taking her place on stage when needed. She helps Agrado by taking her off the street and introducing her to Huma who employs her, and she helps Lola by giving her solace while she is dying – she gives a photo of their son and lets her read Esteban’s diary. Most obviously she helps Rosa through her pregnancy and when she dies, Manuela adopts the son (also named Esteban), making it her own and crowning her return to ‘real’ motherhood. In a nutshell, Manuela helps all the characters find their identities in the surrounding chaos and in doing so she gets her original identity (as a mother) back again.
The third arena where transition and identity are explored is in the artistic creative process itself. Almodóvar has always been intensely aware of cinema history and his place in it. People will connect him with Fellini and Hitchcock because they are the best known, but perhaps his deepest roots lie in Spanish cinema and the films of Edgar Neville and Luis García Berlanga, not to mention Luis Buñuel. In All About My Mother the connection is underlined by the casting of Fernando Fernán Gómez, Almodóvar clearly wanting to underline his new cinema equating with the new Spain – an acknowledgment of the past and a statement of intent for the future. Actually he has been doing this from Pepi, Luci, Bom onward with his incessant use of post-modern themes – inter-textual pastiche, meta-cinema, faction and constant referencing to other art either existing or invented (a blurring of high and low culture). In All About My Mother a statement of all this assumes a hitherto unprecedented sophistication with the themes of post-modernism offering the perfect conduit through which transience and identity can be explored.
The post-modernism is evidenced by inter-textual pastiche (diary writing, TV commercials – for nappies! - , theater, melodrama, tragedy, comedy) and by a number of references to other texts (Capote, Williams, Mankiewicz, Lorca, etc), but the theme of transition and search for identity is most clearly stated by the film’s use of metafiction. Precisely whose mother are we talking about here? The film is Almodóvar’s and clearly on one level it is a requiem for his own mother. On a second level it is the diary of a dead boy with Esteban acting as a doppelgänger for the director. At the beginning we see Esteban writing in his diary (his dream is to be a writer) and at one point he seems to write directly on the camera shooting him as if he is writing the very film we are seeing. Immediately, the title words “All About My Mother” appear. Esteban wants to find out more about his mother and insists on watching her work as an actress at a video demonstration of doctors interviewing a mother about letting them use her dead son’s organs for donation (a scene lifted from the opening scene of The Flower of My Secret). Esteban also wants to find out about his father, why half of all the family photos have been cut out and why his mother won’t tell him. He also wants Huma’s autograph after watching A Streetcar Named Desire. The film demonstrates how all three wishes are granted, the film depicting what he would no doubt have written down in his diary if he were alive. Immediately after his death, Manuela has to do the interview with the doctors for real. She then goes to Barcelona to find Esteban’s father. On the face of it there is no need for her to find the father for herself. She left Barcelona to escape him. Why does she need to go back really? The answer lies in Esteban/Almodóvar directing her to go back to find out about his father. She even eventually gets Huma’s autograph thus granting all of her son’s wishes.
The film’s title also plays on the title of Mankiewicz’s 1950 film All About Eve which is essentially about acting, how characters manipulate each other to advance their careers. Note all the characters in All About My Mother are actors playing actors. Manuela met Esteban before he became ‘Lola’ when they were acting A Streetcar Named Desire on stage, she playing Stella to his Stanley. In the course of the film Manuela copies the behavior of Eve (Anne Baxter) by insinuating herself into Huma’s (re Margo’s – Bette Davis’ – ) confidence to play Stella on stage in place of the indisposed Nina. We see a clip from All About Eve near the start (Manuela and Esteban watching it on TV together) only for Manuela to copy the behavior, perhaps in the imagination as written down in the dead boy’s diary. Both Huma and Nina are obviously roles played by actresses, but they in turn play roles on stage (Huma playing Blanche as well as the mother in the Lorca adaptation). Even Agrado is given a stage turn delivering her paean to authenticity by being faithful to your dream of who you want yourself to be. As well as celebrating transsexuality, this is also the precise rationale behind the whole acting process in both real life and on stage/film. The process is presented as a way to discover identity (the desire for authenticity) and find direction/stability in a fast-changing world.
Esteban is the most obvious doppelgänger for Almodóvar and the diary is the most obvious ‘text’ which makes up the film we are watching. The dense patchwork of other texts (Cassavetes's Opening Night, Manckiewicz's All About Eve, Capote's Music for Chameleons, Williams' Streetcar, and the homage to Lorca) make up a second ur-text for what we are watching and complicates the question of authorship (who is controlling the narrative) even further, but key to the central idea of the film is that Manuela isn’t just Esteban/Almodóvar’s mother. She becomes everybody’s mother in the shape of an emotional rock around which all the characters gain the confidence to assert their identities and get along in the new world. By association then the ‘My’ of the title is a euphemism for all of us sitting in the audience as well. It is through a stable and reliable maternal base that we can all find the necessary confidence within our own identities to negotiate a ticket to a bright and positive future. This relates closely to Spain on a national level, and it relates universally as the concluding moving dedication clearly underlines: “To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother.” It is the film’s universality that has surely made it such a resounding and deserved global success.