A spellbinding evolution of Pedro Almodovar’s all-women-on-board feminism and his dynamite-cased challenge to the realms of normality, All About My Mother deftly explores tensions in human identity as it transmutes cinema into a portal for escape, community, and aesthetic rebellion against the reality principle. A fantasy worthy of Chaplin or Tati, Almodovar’s hypnotic, incandescent fantasia of pop-art styles and unchecked melodrama encircles true cinematic bravado while visualizing the stylistic wanderlust of a woman searching for a new identity after her normative gendered status as “mother” is prematurely ended in a swift burst of tragedy. Although it redresses the failure of its medium to adequately entangle itself in the complications of female relationships, Almodovar’s style can’t be mistaken for anything but a fantastical ode to a century of cinema that, sometimes inadvertently, managed to provide respite for the very women it so often neglected.
Almodovar’s infatuation with the women often benighted in the cinematic realm is no secret, but All About My Mother reflects both a widening and a deepening of his cinematic feminism into new horizons of performative, aesthetic abandon. He slathers his long-time home of unbridled melodrama all over the screen like an unchecked cinematic id let loose in a Douglas Sirk Telenovela, recasting tremors of day-glo color as both shields for women to hide within and emotionally bold weapons for them to wield against a society that threatens to prescribe their identity around every corner.
Roles in Almodovar are multitudinous however, with the director running the gamut of “performance” from the more obvious fantasias of stage and screen acting to more implicit questions about gender performance and the flexibility of the social roles that slide all around a human core that is somehow inextricably interrelated with the social selves the characters embody in everyday life. For Manuela (Cecilia Roth), whose son’s premature demise instigates a physical and mental tryst with life that takes her to Barcelona to find the boy’s father, a transvestite who is never reclaimed, the stability of her socially defined role as “mother” is ripped out from under her. Fluidly playing mother, caretaker, verbal sparring partner, assistant, and phantom moral guide in this fable of modern femininity, she becomes something of a crux around which a handful of women centrifugally circle in uneasy harmony in Almodovar’s portrait of female community and the dexterity of the roles they play in everyday life.
Although the lives of the characters always threaten to spin outward, Almodovar resists pitying them. Instead, he redefines his women as pneumatic pistons of agency, both active and passive, dialectically liberated and imprisoned by the buttress and blow of social identity. A certain mother-earth quality shadows Manuela throughout the film as a facet of her compassion, but Almodovar – while positively valuating female care and community – rescinds the offer to reduce this care to purely maternal, matriarchal lines. Manuela’s motherhood is multipartite and wears many masks. But it is always entangled with other relationships and roles – the best friend she is to her son, for instance, or a sister to a nun impregnated by the object of Manuela’s quest – that unshackle her from a singular identity as “mother”.
The ambidexterity of Almodovar’s vision is bracing, stitching sexual liberation next to classical empathy and swarming romanticism, all while exhibiting none of the pocket-contempt for his characters many other modern directors cart their complicated moralities out on. Unlike most of his filmic generation, Almodovar is not shy about indulging whole-hog in the good spirits of women who find joy as well as contest in their shifting intercommunal relationships. Without slipping into the menacing, tyrannical role of dictator director, he both douses the screen in the presentational resplendence of orgiastic color while also allowing his characters and actresses the good grace to breathe in the popped-out spaces around them as portals for expression, rather than be controlled by those spaces. In doing so, the women become agents of their own identities as much as prey to them. They rely on the artifice of everyday life and the fluidity of their socially constructed roles both as canvases on which they play and as brushes with which they navigate the brackish waters of tragedy and turmoil.
For Almodovar, the realms of melodrama and theatricality are not false masks to denounce the essential, fixed selves lingering somewhere beneath the social roles of actor, mother, friend, and so on. Instead, these various identities are inextricable parts of how people make meaning out of flesh and bones. They are discursive spaces for closeted rebellion against tragedy, by for instance recalibrating one’s own motherhood to one’s own liking. Or foregrounding one’s fascination with the lusty, primordial, potboiling impulses of A Streetcar Named Desire, or the leering, lacerating sexual urgency of All About Eve – two other films, namechecked here, that conjure the dualities and liquidity of social identity as a navigable battleground. Life itself is an act of role playing, and the roles are not smug falsities but genuine selves we construct in the world.
In all of these films, importantly, the external and internal selves are not diametric opposites, with Eve’s or Stanley Kowalski’s “true” selves revealed in mysterious bouts of narrative trickery. By embedding theatricality in the very soul of his film – in the act-based structure of the narrative, in the steamy style of the framing, in the throbbing elegance of the colors – Almodovar fashions a palpably passionate, sensitive ode to the constructive fibers of social theater and public identity not as also-rans to one’s true, individual self but fundamental building blocks of our core beings. Which is a radical riposte from an aging director to their younger self, an evolution as well as a question about the soul of Almodovar. By 1999, the swinging-pendulum phallus that was Almodovar’s cinema had been typecast as bad boy cinematic lingerie, making play with the clay of sexual identity to conjure fornicating, vivacious, even libidinous fables about momentary sex and pliable physicality. With All About My Mother, he reveals just how pliable the human species can be, and how pliability is not only testament to his ability to mold women. It is also a weapon for women to use against him.