Penélope Cruz has appeared in 14 American films without being memorable. Yet Almodóvar takes her back to Spain, gives her curves—and she is immortalby Mark Cousins / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
As I write, Britain’s art-house cinemas are muy contentos. Since its May premiere at Cannes, they have been licking their chops at the prospect of showing Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, Volver, about a woman whose mother returns from the dead. Art-house cinemas need quality hit films to subsidise their education and repertory programming, and Volver had “hit” written all over it.
Almodóvar’s following has grown over the years, and his style has matured as he has reduced the amount of gay sex in his films and increased the range of feeling, the harmonics of his mode of melodrama. He has become the closest that beleaguered art-house programmers have got to a dead cert. This following alone does not explain Volver’s success, however. The film’s most memorable imagery is that of its star, Penélope Cruz, at a chopping board as Almodóvar’s overhead camera looks down into her breasts; or her getting out of a car; or looking straight to camera in close-up. The most memorable sound is the exaggerated kissy noise that the women in the film make when they embrace each other.
Cruz is gorgeous, of course, yet she’s been in 14 American films without being nearly as memorable. What did Volver do to her? How did Almodóvar render her so indelible? Part of the answer has been all over the tabloids. Almodóvar gave Cruz curves. The imagery of women in American cinema derives from the cult of thinness in southern Californian culture—think of Nicole Kidman. Almodóvar, by contrast, had in mind the sort of women he knew in La Mancha. “I put on three kilos,” Cruz told journalists, “and Pedro asked me to stay at that weight level during the filming.” The reverse is usually the case in Hollywood, and weight reduction is often written into the contract. Almodóvar has said that Cruz’s breasts are “one of the visual virtues of cinema,” but it was her bottom that he had padded so that it “represents a glorious maternity.” According to Cruz, “he said a big bottom would push me down closer to the earth.”
Yet Cruz’s Raimunda isn’t only memorable for her curves. The kohl-blackness of her hair and eyes are etched on to the screen. America’s most iconic movie women—Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day—were both luminous blondes. Cruz, like Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani (to both of whom she is regularly compared) seems in Volver to drink in light rather than burnish it. Where Monroe and Day sometimes dissolve into a scrim of soft focus, Cruz’s contours are rock hard—back to the earth again. Cruz is grounded in Almodóvar’s film. She visibly comes from this place. She makes you think of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s point that a tree grows best where it’s planted.
A further reason why Volver is so memorable is that it is all about women in a year in which—once again—the best films are about men. The key movies this year have been, for me, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, Bruno Dumont’s Flandres, Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: Un portrait du 21e siècle, Rafi Pitt’s brilliant Iranian film It’s Winter, and Laura Poitras’s Iraqi documentary My Country, My Country. All are centred on men to the exclusion of almost everything else. Almodóvar’s is the reverse, a portrait of women to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Almodóvar’s homosexuality has been used to explain his affinity with women in general and the observational fine grain of Volver in particular, but it is difficult to find any kind of firm equation between the sexuality of a director and the way he or she portrays women on screen. Gay American director George Cukor’s key leading lady was Katharine Hepburn, all stalky brio; straight director Howard Hawks went for a similar type. Cult gay director John Waters treated the characters and contours of women as if they were cartoons, as did hetero Italian Federico Fellini. Among the best movies I know about women—the most honest, the least sentimental—are those by heterosexual director Shohei Imamura. So perhaps the sexuality factor is overplayed.
What is certainly underplayed in Almodóvar’s work, and one of its most interesting elements, is the influence on it of the Spanish theatre aesthetic esperpento, a combination of realism and irony not seen much elsewhere. Says Almodóvar, “In the 1950s and 1960s, Spain experienced a kind of neorealism which was far less sentimental than the Italian brand and far more ferocious and amusing. I’m talking about the films of Fernan Gomez… and The Wheelchair.” Watched now, The Wheelchair (directed by Marco Ferreri, 1960) seems to have been a wellspring for Almodóvar—its story of a widower who, in trying to buy a motorised wheelchair, inadvertently ends up killing his whole family, prefigures Almodóvar’s admixture of tears and absurdity. This too is a reason why Cruz’s face burns on screen. Behind her eyes, puissant human forces are at play. Raimunda’s life and experiences are both absurd and deeply moving. She sees her dead mother—how could we not be moved?—and yet the events which allow her to do so seem to mock the feelings we have. The mix is Spanish and Almodovarian. It is his face, too, that we see on screen.