Manuela, a single mother living in Madrid sees her only son, Esteban, die in a car crash as he runs to request an autograph from Huma, a theatre actress he idolises. In her grief, Manuela travels to Barcelona to find Esteban’s father, a transvestite named Lola who does not know that they had a child. In Barcelona, Manuela is reunited with her friend, Agrado, and meets a young nun, Rosa, who is pregnant with Lola’s child. Manuela gets a job as an assistant to Huma, the actress her son admired. When Rosa discovers she is HIV positive Manuela gives up her job to nurse her and on Rosa’s death adopts her son. At Rosa’s funeral Manuela meets Lola and introduces him to his second son, also named Esteban. Despite contracting HIV at birth Esteban Jr. is free from the virus at the end of the film.
All About My Mother is an Almodóvar film. This is not simply a director’s credit indicating a technical role but signifies; ‘ways of being, ways of looking and certain types of movies’ (Arroyo 2011: 7). Paul Julian Smith (2000: 2) has argued that to understand this particular sensibility and style it is vital to recognise the three fundamental issues central to Almodóvar’s work; ‘gender, nationality and homosexuality’ to which Arroyo has added cinema itself. These ways of being are explored through a series of paradoxes and conflicts within the construction of visual style, characterisation, genre and plot. The paradox as a concept and motif becomes central to understanding the Almodóvar world view. This is a world where the mise en scène and narrative foregrounds artifice but the characterisation rests on emotional authenticity and a real relationship with the spectator. This paradoxical framework of Almodóvar’s films has led to a range of positive and negative critical responses. Epps (2009: 1) summarises this characteristic in considering the reception of Almodóvar’s films in academic, critical and popular contexts, where they have been described as both ‘serious and superficial, political and apolitical, moral and immoral, feminist and misogynist, experimental and sentimental, universal and provincial.’ The disagreement and conflicting value judgements in response to Almodóvar’s work may in part be provoked by the seeming ambiguity of the postmodern aesthetic. In an Almodóvar film though this aesthetic functions to subvert traditional representations of ways of being and behaving, seen most explicitly in representations of gender, sexuality and the family. It is this which provokes the controversy often attached to Almodóvar’s films where the audience is frequently expected to align with characters who are amoral and their behaviour shocking.
All About My Mother is the epitome of an Almodóvar film. It is a genre film and an auteur, art-house film. It is a film about authenticity and artifice, told through wild and exaggerated stories about unbelievable people which is entirely convincing. The success of the film relies on the bonds of identification between spectator and character, producing a strong emotional response. The film is typical of Almodóvar’s style in its use of melodrama, the references to cinema history, the theatre and popular culture and in its exploration of themes of performance linked to gender identity.
Melodrama is the ideal form for exploring the themes which concern Almodóvar. Traditionally the form has been referred to pejoratively in comparison with drama; in part due to its close association with female stars and female audiences. The form of melodrama is itself paradoxical. Its use of extreme events and coincidences renders it unbelievable at one level but it can only function successfully by creating a powerful emotional response in the audience; something which might be assumed to be impossible due to the distancing effect of the incredible events. The artifice – but affective – style of the melodramatic plot foregrounds the constructed nature of narrative. This provides a formal reflection for Almodóvar’s worldview; that the most authentic people are the people who construct their own lives and identities, rather than accepting their ‘natural’ and inevitable place in life. The only relatively unsympathetic characters in the film, Nina (an actress Huma is in love with) and Rosa’s mother, are implicitly condemned for their lack of authenticity. Nina rejects acting and her relationship with Huma to return to the suburbs, marry and have a child; her traditional choices are signalled as a form of cowardice and subterfuge in comparison to the characters that are on the margins of society. Rosa’s mother is ashamed by her daughter’s behaviour, letting Manuela replace her in her role as mother. In an explicit judgement on her lack of authenticity, Rosa’s mother works as a forger, creating copies of paintings by famous artists.
All About My Mother is an example of reflexive cinema in that it draws the audience’s attention to its status as a work of art, as a construction with a particular point of view – rather than a form of realism. This reflexivity is apparent in the emphasis on the theatre with its inherent qualities of staging and acting. The theatrical aesthetic is central to the mise en scène and mise en shot and has become a recognizable Almodóvar signature in his mature films. The predominant style is the use of a medium two-shot with the actors placed next to each other on the horizontal axis, like actors on a stage. The composition is balanced, nearly symmetrical to the extent that a line could be drawn down the middle of the screen, creating a mirror image of the two sides. The style is characterised by a narrow plane of depth; flat blocks of colour provide a backdrop for the action. The compositional symmetry and simplicity of the shots create meaning in itself; the pure focus on people is typical of Almodóvar’s humanist concerns, but also through contrast when broken. Manuela and her son Esteban are repeatedly framed together at the beginning of the film. Sitting on the sofa together watching All About Eve, the framing is relatively tight in medium close-up creating even greater emphasis on their togetherness. Behind them the wall and framed prints creates a flat backdrop emphasised by the use of colour in the shot; Esteban and Manuela are dressed in blue and orange, the same colour as their surroundings. The camera is static, the scene captured in a long take, reminiscent of early tableau cinema. On the night of Esteban’s death, they are framed in a similar way as part of the theatre audience, side by side. After his death Manuela goes to the same performance in Barcelona (an example of repetition and return which becomes a theme of the film) once again she is on the left of the frame; the emptiness of the space next to her symbolises her grief.
The reflexive nature of the film is evident in the many different examples of storytelling in the film; Estoban is writing a book titled ‘All About My Mother’, it isn’t clear if this is a journal, a biography of his mother or the screenplay of the film we’re about to watch. The title is a play on the film title he and Manuela have just watched, All About Eve, a Hollywood film about the obsession of a fan for a famous actress. The plot line of that film is partially repeated in the plot of All About My Mother, a homage which serves to draw attention to film as a construction. Estoban’s notebook is also presented in an unconventional shot – where the camera seems to cross over to the ‘wrong’ side of the screen creating a point of view shot for the spectator from inside his writing, perhaps foregrounding Almodóvar’s presence as the author of all these different narratives.
It is soon apparent that all the characters in the film are performers in different ways – some more explicitly than others. Manuela at first appears to be a conventional character fulfilling typical gender expectations; she is a nurse, has a loving relationship with her son and is introduced in a traditional, domestic environment – preparing a family dinner. As the film progresses Manuela is also shown to be a performer of roles. As the head nurse of an organ transplant unit she acts in a training film. This is a simulation to help doctors discuss organ donation with the bereaved relative, Manuela plays the role of the wife who cannot accept that her husband is dead, a very similar situation to the one she later plays for ‘real’. (The scenes in the transplant unit are also familiar from very similar scenes in Almodóvar’s previous film, The Flower of my Secret.) She tells Esteban about her days as a student actor when she played Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (‘the play marked my life’, she says), the narrative and themes of the play echoing the developments in All About My Mother. Manuela also understudies for Nina and once again plays Stella – a character who is pregnant. This emphasis on the different roles Manuela plays is a way of questioning the role which society often claims is the most natural for a woman, that of mother. At the end of the film when Manuela is a mother again she is the nonbiological mother of a child whose parents are a nun and a transsexual. Like many of the characters in the film, the role she has chosen for herself is the most authentic one.
In All About My Mother this idea of authenticity through selection finds its personification in Agrado, Manuela’s friend who was born biologically male but has constructed a new identity, one which refuses easy biological distinctions. Agrado outlines the changes and modifications made to her body in a scene which brings together many signature Almodóvar techniques at the level of plot, visual style and cultural references. One night at the theatre when Huma’s play has to be cancelled, Agrado takes to the stage to provide an ‘alternative production’. Rather than seeing manipulation and construction in the creation of identity as false, Agrado explains that ‘you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed you are’. This concept is illustrated through the monologue in which Agrado lists her operations and cost for each procedure done; cheeks, hair, breasts, etc. During the monologue Agrado states, ‘I’m very authentic, all made to measure’ and earlier explains to Manuela that ‘All I have that’s real are my feelings – and the silicone’. The meaning of Agrado’s persona is also produced through the mise en scène and framing of the sequence. Agrado stands alone on the theatre stage in front of the grand, velvet curtain (itself a motif repeated in Almodóvar’s films, it appears as the backdrop to the credit sequence in Talk to Her) to perform the story of her life, a narrative which Agrado has constructed with great ingenuity and wit. Theatre – and performance – plays a central role in All About my Mother, it is a place where people can be transformed into their real selves.
These performances are also part of the motif of repetition which has become recognisable within and across his films. The most explicit exploration of this theme is found in the idea that ‘life imitates art imitates life’. For Epps (2009) the theme of repetition is linked to the structuring authorial theme of return; All About my Mother is about the need to return to find resolution and the possibility of renewal. Manuela’s return to Barcelona is represented as an emotionally draining, cathartic experience through a visual metaphor for rebirth as Manuela travels through the train tunnel and into the lights of Barcelona. This experience is further emphasised by the musical soundtrack which soars over the swooping shots of Barcelona at night. To ‘return’ has a political resonance in a country which had agreed to the ‘pact of forgetting’ in the aftermath of Franco’s dictatorship (symbolised perhaps by the character of Rosa’s father suffering from dementia and memory loss) but where in 2006 ‘The Law of Historical Memory’ was passed which recognised the need to return psychologically and literally (those who were exiles under Franco were given ‘the right to return’) to the era of dictatorship. In returning to Barcelona, Manuela fulfils Esteban’s wish to know all about his father, she acknowledges the secrets of the past and in doing so recreates her own life.
Sarah Casey Benyahia
Jose Arroyo, ‘Pedro Almodóvar’, in Yvonne Tasker (ed.), Fifty Contemporary Film Directors, 2nd edn., London and New York, Routledge, 2011, pp. 6–17.
Bradley S. Epps, ‘Approaching Almodóvar: Thirty Years of Revolution’, in Bradley S. Epps (eds), All About Almodóvar: A Passion for Cinema, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2009, pp. 1–34.
Paul Julian Smith, Desire Unlimited: the Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar, London, Verso, 2000.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Spain, France. Production Company: El Deseo, Renn Productions, and France 2 Cinéma. Director: Pedro Almodóvar. Producer: Augustin Almodóvar. Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar. Cinematographer: Alfonso Beato. Music: Alberto Iglesias. Editor: Jose Salcedo. Cast: Cecilia Roth (Manuela), Marisa Paredes (Huma Rojo), Antonia San Juan (Agrado), Penélope Cruz (Hermana Rosa).]
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.