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
Published in October 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
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…