'Volver", meaning "to return", is the title of a song by Argentinian tango artist Carlos Gardel. Volver is also the new film from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, in which the song is lip-synched con pasión by Penelope Cruz. Almodóvar's latest is itself a return, in many ways.
It's a return to his origins, with the Madrid-based director revisiting his native region of La Mancha. It's also a sort of return to the womb: a celebration, indeed glorification, of motherhood. And it's certainly a return to form, a confident display of relatively simple narrative mastery after the tortuous mirror-play of Almodóvar's last film Bad Education.
Once regarded as a wayward poet of the lurid and perverse, Almodóvar, since the mid-1990s, has contrived to haul himself onto the lofty peaks of red-carpet auteurdom: the success of All About My Mother, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000, exemplified the universal acceptance of his work as embodying European cinema at its richest and most stylistically exuberant. But this international maestro, his name now virtually a byword for classic style, was once responsible for abrasively queer underground films of the early 1980s Madrid movida, a post-Franco variant of the punk explosion. Among his early low-budget trashfests: Labyrinth of Passion, about a nymphomaniac rocker named Sexilia, and his 1980 debut Pepi, Luci and Bom in which a teenage punkette introduces herself to her housewife lover-to-be by pissing in her face.
Visiting London to promote Volver, the 56-year-old director - portly as ever, but now silver-haired and sartorially downbeat in red polo shirt and blue windcheater - cheerfully admits he's changed. However - speaking sometimes in accomplished English, sometimes through an interpreter in breakneck Spanish - he fervently denies that he's become an institution. "I'm still something of an outsider," he insists, "because I decide what I'm going to do - I don't consider the industry, I don't consider the audience, I've been master of my own career. People now like my films and give me prizes, but I've maintained that same level of independence." Indeed, recent Almodóvar films feature just as many transsexuals, junkies, misfits and polymorphous sex bombs as they ever did. But he himself is no longer the same, he says, and neither is his metabolism.
"I've had to consider my health. I'm talking about drugs, I'm talking about not spending the night out, I'm talking about not looking after yourself, which is what I did in the 1980s. It was great fun, but it had to stop because it was very dangerous. I do need to sleep eight hours every night. Before, I slept two hours and it was enough."
With this quieter Almodóvar comes a new simplicity: of all his films, Volver may be the least cluttered by a proliferation of back stories and tales-within-tales. Almodóvar admits that in the past, he's had trouble controlling "an inflation of stories". He's not quite sure where this endless flow of narrative comes from, psychologically speaking, but he admits that he often uses the tried-and-true method of scanning headlines. One strand of Volver came from a story in a Puerto Rican newspaper about a man separated from his wife, whose family would not let him contact her. He decided to murder his mother-in-law so that he'd have a chance of talking to his beloved at the funeral. While the interpreter translates this, Almodóvar cracks up in delight.
"Fantastic! And he did it, you know! I kept the paper." Not that any of this actually found its way into Volver: Almodóvar is likely to take a narrative seed and plant it in entirely different ground.
More than most European directors, Almodóvar has always been attuned to pop culture at its most strident. In his early films, he would abruptly interrupt the action with scabrous TV skits - ads for knickers which changed colour when you peed - while 1993's Kika, with its shock-doc show The Worst of the Day, presciently forecast the extremes of today's reality TV. When he talks about television now, Almodóvar hardly sounds like a man whose work once thrived on outrage. "In Spain at the moment, reality television goes beyond all limits and I sometimes wonder whether what they do might be illegal. It's not just a few programmes, it dominates all channels, and they respect no rules of good taste or ethics. It's incredible, the corrosive power that this has on people."
If television is still present in Volver, Almodóvar says, it's not for satirical ends, but simply as part of the social backdrop: "It's very much part of everyday life, where an ordinary housewife from an ordinary part of Madrid can become a celebrity." "Everyday" is the key word: however outré Almodóvar's dramas, they always return to his perennial scene-of-the-crime (and in Volver it literally is the scene of the crime), the kitchen. He specialises, you might say, in the domestification of excess: whatever torrents of perverse passion flow through these stories, the dominatrix next door will always have to drop by and borrow sugar, and even the grandest diva must remember to feed the cat. "The kitchen is very much the symbol of a feminine world, but where I come from, La Mancha, it's also the place where social interchange takes place. If someone comes to the house, the first thing you do is offer them some food." Bathrooms figure largely, too, and even an international fashion plate such as Penelope Cruz must be prepared to shed her pride and be filmed on the toilet, as she is in Volver. "In my own life," Almodóvar says, "my friends do it in front of me - when a girl's got to go, a girl's got to go. It's an important moment in Volver. It's when she's on the toilet that she can smell her mother's farted - it's that very personal smell. That's something very emotional for me," he adds tenderly, "because when my mother used to fart, she used to burst out laughing."
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Pedro Almodóvar was born, and spent the first eight years of his life, in Calzada de Calatrava, in La Mancha. Almodóvar shot the film 20 kilometres from his birthplace, in Almagro, a village that has changed little as it is a national heritage site. Volver is a tribute both to Almodóvar's province and to a fondly-remembered generation of grey-haired village matriarchs. Consequently, in Spain, the film has attracted a wider age-group - and, to the director's surprise, a wider political spectrum - than any of his previous work. While it's hardly a conservative film, you can see why Volver has appealed to conservatives: it's a hymn to family values (after a somewhat warped fashion) and to a nostalgic village ideal. "This is a film that's moved everybody, and wherever they come from, it's moved them for the same reason - because they're a mother, or because they have a mother."
Mothers are also the protagonists of a strain of cinema that's close to Almodóvar's heart: Cruz's Raimunda is a direct descendant of Hollywood melodrama moms such as Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. A glamorous nurturing amazon, the exquisitely coutured Raimunda also functions as Almodóvar's militant promotion of the lapsed tradition of the European screen goddess.
Inspired by Anna Magnani ("For me, the symbol of motherhood") and Sophia Loren, Almodóvar has engineered Cruz's transformation into a full-blown European icon, as opposed to the slapdash gamine of her English-language films. Without false modesty, Almodóvar prides himself on being uniquely qualified to make the best of Cruz. "I think you can say that she looks upon me as something of a father. Certainly she's better in Spanish, but I think she's better in my films, because we have this very close relationship." Almodóvar insisted on remodelling his star, right down to padding out her derrière: "I needed a big bottom, because you know, it's one of the signals of a mother. I took all the decisions about her clothes, makeup, everything. Sometimes I got the feeling of doing something... not dirty, but you know... Like James Stewart in Vertigo built a female image for himself. In any case, it was perfect for the movie. She never was more beautiful." The same can't be said for Carmen Maura, Almodóvar's one-time femme fatale, who courageously shuffles through Volver in ratty grey hair and grimly unappealing ankle socks. She and the director enjoyed an intensely close professional partnership before falling out after their sixth film together, the international hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Almodóvar prefers not to discuss their rift, but insists they resolved matters three or four years later. Even so, it took 18 years for them to be reunited. "I hesitated because I didn't know if she'd changed. But when we started reading, I got the feeling that there was something completely intact, that it was the chemistry of our past." Wasn't it a little cruel, though, to kit out Maura so unflatteringly? Almodóvar laughs, seemingly taken aback by the suggestion. "Oh no, she was having fun, absolutely. No, that was not a punishment. No, no, not at all. To give her that monologue that she has at the end, it's a gift. I mean, forget the socks - this is a gift for any actress."
Despite fluctuations, Spanish audiences have stayed true to Almodóvar, ever since Women on the Verge... broke national box-office records. Even so, Spain's critics and film establishment have never taken to him quite as enthusiastically. "It's not that I've had problems with the critics," he says, "but the most interesting things I've read about my own films have been in another language, not in Spanish." His 2001 film Talk To Her, he points out, "won prizes worldwide, but in Spain, it didn't win any prizes at all. Success outside your country can create problems at home." Even so, Almodóvar has not yet accepted any Hollywood offers, despite being sent every possible American script about transvestites. There have been near misses, notably when he was offered Brokeback Mountain. "That was the first time I really hesitated about making an American movie, because I read the short story and I was in love with it. But I was afraid not to make the movie with the kind of freedom that I'm used to." In the event, he loved Ang Lee's film, as did just about everyone. Still, you can't wondering what Almodóvar's Brokeback Mountain might have been: given all that campfire cooking, he wouldn't have been short of opportunities to explore the nostalgic mysteries of cowboy farting. m
DARK HABITS (1983)
A cheerful early essay in Catholic camp, in which the likes of Sister Manure and Sister Snake prove that nuns just want to have fun.
THE LAW OF DESIRE (1987)
Starting out virtually as a gay 1980s lifestyle film, Almodóvar's sixth film turns into a torrid thriller of murder and passion, with Antonio Banderas (below) making his mark as a lethal bit of rough.
TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! (1989)
The film that sealed Almodóvar's rep as prince of perversity: this bondage saga stars Victoria Abril as a porn queen in peril.
LIVE FLESH (1997)
Almodóvar boldly reinvented himself with this offbeat Ruth Rendell adaptation: a tale of passion and paralympics.
TALK TO HER (2001)
A tale of male obsession, starring Rosario Flores as a female bull fighter: beneath the stylistic gloss, the themes are as perverse as ever.
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