Film: The man who loves women

All About My Mother Director: Pedro Almodovar Starring: Ceclia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Candela Pena (101 mins; 15)
Click to follow
For those readers interested only in finding out whether a reviewer liked or disliked a new film, let me come straight to the point. Pedro Almodvar's All About My Mother is a masterpiece, an instant classic. It also has the most beautiful dedication I've ever encountered in the cinema. Here it is in its entirety: "To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider ... to all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to all men who act and become women, to all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother."

It's the film we, Almodvar's faithful fans, have been waiting for, the film we knew he had, as they say, in him. Yes, the mise-en-scene is as promiscuously post-modern as ever. It draws on a multi-hued patchwork of influences that his own sensibility has now seamlessly assimiliated: Joseph L Mankiewicz's All About Eve, of course, to which his own title is a homage, Tennessee Williams (it's a production of A Streetcar Named Desire that sets the drama in motion), Capote, Lorca, even How to Marry a Millionaire. And, yes, he hasn't lost his campy taste in accessories (as always with Almodvar's films, one is constantly noticing eye-fetching lampshades and earrings and wallpaper - but then, that was also true of the work of Ophuls, Sternberg and Paradjanov). Yet, as always, his postmodernity is a question less of relativism than of reconciliation.

An art film, All About My Mother can equally be enjoyed - and has been throughout Europe - as a popular, Coke-and-popcorn melodrama. Its narrative contrives to be both linear and elliptical, its performances both theatrical and natural. By some ineffably alchemical process of which he alone holds the secret, Almodovar reconciles reality and illusion, tragedy and farce, the gay and the straight, the pure and the impure. You may refuse to recognise yourself in his hybrid hothouse of lesbian actresses, pregnant nuns, heroin addicts, Aids sufferers, transvestites and transsexuals - only when the film is over, and one has been released from its spell, does one realise that not one of its relationships, save that between a mother and her son, is technically "non-deviant" - but I defy you to remain untouched and untroubled by it.

The film's heroine, at least prima inter pares, is Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a single mother living in Madrid who loses her only son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) in an automobile accident on the night of his 17th birthday, just before revealing to him the truth about his supposedly dead father. Unable to assuage her grief - she helplessly "follows her son's heart" by spying on the patient into whose body it has been posthumously transplanted - Manuela determines to track down the boy's father in Barcelona. There she meets up with an old chum, the transvestite La Agrado (Antonia San Juan), as well as the exquisitely frail young nun Rosa (Penelope Cruz) and the chain-smoking actress Huma (Marisa Paredes), whose Blanche Dubois she and Esteban had watched together on the evening of the accident. Discovering to her horror that Rosa ...

Enough. It would be cruel to divulge too much in advance of so meticulously calibrated a plot, particularly as Almodovar himself declines to. By which I mean that All About My Mother spends its first half acquainting us with a set of disparate characters whose lives appear to be only very tenuously interlinked; then, in its second half, provokes a delicious, virtually permanent frisson of anticipation as we progressively become aware of how the various plot-strands are beginning to converge towards what promises to be a profoundly satisfying climax. The frisson is one of wonderment at the sheer mastery of the narrative construction, but it's also, inevitably, one of dread that, sooner or later, the director will put a foot wrong. Rest assured, he never does.

In the delicacy of its emotional shadings, in its acute sense of the world's beauty and fragility, not least in its giggly, all-girls-together sense of fun, All About My Mother isn't so much a "gay" as a truly "feminine" film. As such, it represents both a repudiation of what the director Jacques Rivette, referring to Scorsese, contemptuously dismissed as le cinema de mecs - or "blokes' cinema" - and the expression of one (not so paradoxical) definition of a homosexual as a man who loves women. Almodovar clearly loves women. Just as clearly, the women he loves best are those who are slightly past it, as it were, the weathered survivors, their once-beautiful faces sculpted by slaps. It's tempting to attribute such a predilection to the homosexual cult of bruised and self-destructive showbiz icons (Judy Garland, notably, at the disastrous end of her career or even the biliously over-the-top and over-the-hill Bette Davis in All About Eve) and leave it at that. Except that, in his case, it would seem to be genuinely uncontaminated by the covert misogyny with which it has all too often been accompanied.

Since the cast is beyond praise, I won't bother praising it. I'd only like to add that if, over the years, an artist appears to become more profound, it's perhaps just that he is finally becoming himself. I've never met Almodovar, nor do I know anyone who has, but I feel confident in asserting, after seeing All About My Mother, that one could say of him what was said many years ago of the bisexual Pierre Loti, a now-forgotten turn-of-the century spinner of exotic romances. Loti, someone remarked, loved men and he loved women and, had there been a third sex, he would have loved that too.