We continue our Almodovar season – following on from the exploration of Bad Education two weeks ago, and building up to the imminent release of his camp comedy I’m So Excited next month – I bring you All About My Mother from 1999.
The plot swings into action with little time for preliminaries. After the noticeable bond between a mother and her son is shown as they watch All About Eve, a personal homage from Almodovar to Bette Davis (which would be later acknowledged in the credits), the action kicks in. These end credits ultimately make no attempt to hide Almodovar’s intentions as to the nature of the film, as it culminates with dedications to all of the mothers in the world.
This is not just a film with a focus on female protagonists for Almodovar (and there are many of them, and few males: a welcome change) but more specifically about motherhood and its notable difficulties. The story is bookended with these, as the young son Esteban dies suddenly on his 17th birthday at the very beginning. This prompts devoted mother Manuela to seek out the father of her only son, so pursuing his final wish. In doing so she revisits some old friends and old memories, and in exploring the skeletons in her closet comes to terms with her youth.
What Almodovar dares to do – as we’ve become accustomed to – is to ensure that this love-letter to motherhood is presented via a variety of fully-fledged and well-rounded characters, with their flaws, weaknesses and excesses. Instead of being treated to a one-dimensional version of femininity, we’re instead given the grand tour with a bunch of eccentrics with difficult-to-define sexualities, complex interpersonal relationships, and a whole myriad of other issues.
If they do portray the same sides of one particular coin, then the vision is of pure Almodovar: a world of sex, drugs and associated scandals. It’s full of people failing to function in one sense and yet, as far as they’re each concerned, managing to completely flourish at the same time.
The construct of the narrative results in a tale which is so much more than a coming-of-age realisation, and instead relies on a variety of themes throughout in order to create a rich experience. Like the rest of Almodovar’s back-catalogue, this isn’t a film which consigns itself to being about simply one thing over another. Even despite the heavy influence of “female”-ness and the characters’ introspection of this, it has many other strings to its bow.
We are given a brief insight into the HIV epidemic and the obvious ways in which it can hit home hard and without warning. The lifestyle that these girls lead – and that Manuela revisits – is carefree, but means that these very likeable characters will endure some tough times. Through Manuela primarily, it explores the negotiation between freedom in youth and the necessary growing-up required when motherhood calls – though this isn’t to say that this is what always happens.
Not all of the mother-and-child relationships are tarnished with the same brush that depicts ease in caring for one another, and this helps to convey the difficulties and broadness of what it can be like, and that there is no single definition – or illustration – of what motherhood might be. At the same time, Almodovar manages to do what he does in so many of his other films, and that’s to blend humour, darkness, tragedy, excitement and passion all into one. The picture flits from moment-to-moment with the audience not knowing what emotion they’ll feel next, but this has always suited his style. It’s also reflected in the meandering and unpredictable nature of the plot which leads the viewer along a merry dance of uncertainty.
The well-crafted photography of the picture serves to remind us that this is one of Almodovar’s most loving and most personal pictures to date. Toning down (though not excluding) the raucous behaviour of sex, passion and revenge, and instead focusing on the everyday issues that span an adult life – and the impact these decisions have on sons and daughters – leads to a surprising and tactful observation piece from the Spaniard.
A slight break from the norm in terms of some of the themes and the overall tone, then, results in a more honest and unashamedly proud picture in All About My Mother. The focus on not just one or two but a bunch of female protagonists who are the centrepiece of the story is one of the reasons that Almodovar is so heavily praised for his work.
Almodovar just seems to ‘get it’ when it comes to creating fun and messed-up characters for the screen that you can’t help but empathise with – no matter what they do – and this is some achievement. It depicts the flaws and problems that we exhibit and encounter in everyday life, but makes them no worse off – in fact quite the opposite – for being such people.
Next week: Volver…