Monday, August 28, 2006

Review - Volver

There’s a lovely joke during the early stages of Volver, which occurs just after a Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) has been cleaning up the aftermath of a bloody murder. A neighbour knocks on the door to drop off some keys, and when Raimunda answers the door he notices drops of blood on her neck. He asks her if she’s OK, and she flatly tells him it’s just “women’s problems”. That, in essence, is the central theme of Pedro Almodóvar’s work: the problems of women. No male director since Cukor has been more naturally attuned to the trials and tribulations of the fairer sex, and Volver sees Almodóvar plunging once more into femininity after the male-dominated Bad Education. The result is simply glorious.

The word Volver means ‘to come back’ or ‘return’, and it proves to be a most appropriate appellation. Not only does the film see Almodóvar telling a female story once more, it also marks a return for the writer/director to his native La Mancha; and it reunites him with Carmen Maura, his former muse, who last worked with him on 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown before the pair had a very public falling-out. With Maura and Cruz on board for a passionate tale of love and death, this is everything you expect from a Pedro Almodóvar film and more.

In a career-best performance, Penélope Cruz stars as Raimunda; an unfulfilled woman, living with her layabout husband and teenage daughter, whose life is about to be turned upside down. Raimunda’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura) died in a fire three years ago, but local gossip suggests her ghost has been spotted in the town, a claim backed up by Raimunda’s Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who says Irene has paid her a visit and even helped with the cooking and cleaning. Raimunda dismisses this as the ramblings of an old woman on the brink of senility; and in any case, she has much more pressing matters to attend to. When Raimunda returns home one night she finds her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) in a distressed state, and in the kitchen she sees why. Paula’s drunken stepfather tried to force himself upon Paula, causing her to defend herself with a kitchen knife, and his lifeless body is now lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

This is where the plot begins to spin into all sorts of directions, with Raimunda’s comical attempts to dispose of the body followed by her finding a new lease of life when she takes charge of her neighbour’s restaurant. Meanwhile, her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), a part-time hairdresser, has a vision of Irene for herself; and Augustine (Blanco Portillo), who has just discovered that she is suffering from terminal cancer, beseeches Raimunda to find out what happened to her mother, who vanished shortly after the fire which claimed Irene’s life.

Having made his name with films notable for their garish, camp excesses, Almodóvar’s work underwent a startling transformation with his 1997 film Live Flesh, and since that point his films have grown in maturity and substance, while still maintaining the hint of melodrama which he handles so well. Everything since Live Flesh has been a indisputable triumph for the director, with All About My Mother and Talk to Her winning Academy Awards, and if there’s any justice Volver will achieve similar acclaim.

Almodóvar presents us with a number of disparate plot strands and spends two hours weaving them together in leisurely fashion. His control is absolute, and by this stage in his career it feels almost effortless. Returning to his native La Mancha - where, it is said, the constant high winds drive the women of the town to madness and early graves - seems to have given Almodóvar an extra surge of creativity, and he lets Volver reach a higher pitch of emotional intensity than his most recent pictures have managed. As ever, your reaction to the film will depend on your ability to buy into the story Almodóvar insists on telling and accepting all of the absurdities, fantasy elements and far-fetched plot developments which he incorporates so seamlessly into the narrative; but those who do so will be handsomely rewarded.

In any case, Penélope Cruz is on hand to anchor the picture with a performance which absolutely took my breath away. I’ve never really been impressed by Cruz before now; she’s been fine in a couple of Spanish-language roles, notably her previous collaborations with Almodóvar, but her performances have been nothing special, and the less said about her attempts to act in English the better. But in Volver - Wow! Working with Almodóvar on this picture appears to have completely transformed Cruz; she achieves a subtlety of performance and reaches depths of emotion which she has never before seemed capable of. Almodóvar has saddled her with a prosthetic backside to give her a curvier shape, and he shoots her adoringly throughout. She’s sexy, strong, resourceful and sympathetic; she has never acted better or looked more beautiful. It’s unquestionably one of the year’s finest performances.

Almodóvar is a generous director, though, and he never allows the rest of his cast to be overshadowed even if Cruz is quite obviously the picture’s star. Carmen Maura makes the most of her opportunity to work with the director once more, and she appears to be having a whale of a time as the flatulent ghost whose reappearance causes so many complications. Whether she’s hiding under the bed or pretending to be a Russian immigrant, Maura gives a sprightly and charming performance; and when family secrets are revealed late on, she instils her scenes with a genuine sense of sadness and regret. The dependable Lola Dueñas is terrific here, offering a brilliant display of comic acting, and Blanco Portillo is heart-rending as the ailing Augustina. What an extraordinary roster of female performances Volver contains; no wonder the Cannes jury awarded the Best Actress prize to all of them.

But while Volver sees its entire female cast on such supreme form, the film is really all about Almodóvar. His mastery of filmmaking technique is a joy to behold; and his ability to slip from comedy to tragedy with such ease and such fluidity never fails to impress. As ever, his style is very easy on the eyes and ears; José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography is vibrant and evocative, with Almodóvar’s use of primary colours as effective as ever, and Alberto Iglesias’ score is a perfect accompaniment to the onscreen action - not least the Bernard Herrman-style strings which are used during Raimunda’s body-disposal efforts.

This is just a wonderful film. In truth, it’s doesn’t really mark any sort of advance for Almodóvar on his previous work, but when he does what he does so well it seems churlish to complain. Nobody else in the world makes films quite like Pedro Almodóvar, and Volver is yet another brilliant effort from a master filmmaker who just seems to get better and better. If All About My Mother was dedicated to mothers everywhere, then Volver is a paean to all women - an acknowledgement of their strength, spirit and compassion - and this splendid tribute is one in which we can all take pleasure in sharing.