To say that I liked Volver is not, perhaps, to say very much; since I have long been a fan of Almodovar; I’ve seen all of his feature films, and liked all of them, more or less. As “more or less” goes, Volver is pretty strong among Almodovar’s recent films, it is better than Bad Education (which I wrote about here), and at least as good as All About My Mother; though it doesn’t quite reach the sublime heights of Talk To Her.
Volver, like much of Almodovar’s recent work, is an unashamed melodrama. People who complain that there is less of the campy, perverse, sacrilegious, over-the-top “transgressive” humor here than there was in Almodovar’s early films, or even than in the last few, are missing the point, I think. I love all that fun stuff, of course; but I also feel that it often played the role of a defense, a disavowal, an alibi: Almodovar put it in as a kind of cover, in order to get away with the melodrama that was his real cinematic passion. Far from agreeing with the cliche that his recent films, and this one especially, are more “normative” than all the ones about junkies and drag queens and fetishists, I’d say rather that Volver is more disreputable than (for instance) Dark Habits, or even Law of Desire (which remains nonetheless one of Almodovar’s greatest films), precisely to the extent that it doesn’t hide or deflect in any way its basic melodramatic drive.
Melodrama is one of those things that (nearly) everybody loves, but that nonetheless can never be spoken of approvingly in polite company. For instance, we’ve seen Quentin Tarantino lovingly resurrect such “low” genres as the revenge/splatter film, the blaxploitation film, and the martial arts flick — and even give these genres a “feminist” twist, as he argubly does with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown and with Uma Thurman in Kill Bill — but can you imagine Tarantino giving a similar loving reconstruction to melodrama? I can’t (though, of course, I’d be thrilled if he surprised me). In this respect I think that Almodovar remains the more radical filmmaker, even if his recent films, like this one, are superficially the kind of tony art film fare that people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a theater seeing a “genre” picture can say they like (not realizing, of course, that the “Euro art film” is as conventionalized, that is to say as much of a genre, as any sortt of film out there).
I’ve said a lot about melodrama at various times on this blog (most extensively, perhaps, in relation to Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I’ll try not to repeat myself; I’ll only point out here that, of course, for the last 100 years or so, melodrama has largely been the province of women and gay men. It’s disreputable because it isn’t macho enough. In Volver, Almodovar gives us an almost all-female cast. The films spans intergenerational relations — mothers and daughters — across three generations; and the film concerns the emotional ups and downs of these relationships, bringing them to a kind of resolution or reconciliation (not a redemptive one, but one in which the characters gain the ability to live with what they have felt, and what they have done).
Men are only onscreen marginally in Volver, and the only role they play in the plot, really, is that of the father-as-incestuous-rapist. In expelling this monstrous father from the scene of familial relations, the women in the film literally get away with murder — something which Almodovar clearly presents as ethically justified. I can imagine the Lacanians being up in arms at this, in sheer horror: what could be more narcissistic and regressive and New-Agey? where’s the Law of the Father? etc. etc. But I think that reading Volver in psychoanalytic terms is precisely wrong: any attempt to do so is short-circuited precisely by the way that the familial and “oedipal” dynamics of the film are so upfront, so obvious, so clearly and overtly “citational.” Everything in the film is something we’ve seen before: Almodovar does not proclaim any sort of transgressive liberation from oedipal dynamics, because these dynamics have already exhausted themselves as cliche — they are so omnipresent, so utterly evident, that they don’t even need to be “deconstructed” (deconstruction, in any case, is precisely a strategy of complicity with that which is being deconstructed; Almodovar doesn’t need to perform any such deconstruction of the oedipal, because he has already given plain evidence of its banality. He simply says “of course; so what?” and moves on to something else).
So far I haven’t been as clear as I would like. I said that Volver is citational; everything in it is something we’ve seen before. I should add, heard before: since Alberto Iglesias’ score is so self-consciously reminiscent of Hollywood non-diegetic music (particularly, perhaps, of Bernard Hermann’s great scores): the music doesn’t make us feel joy or sorrow or relief or tension and suspense, so much as it makes us self-conscious about the fact of hearing movie music that is supposed to signify and induce such feelings. That is kind of what I mean by “citational”: it applies to the screenplay and characters, and to Almodovar’s camera movements, as well. This heightening of a certain generic quality is itself one of the mechanisms of melodrama; emotions aren’t singularly personal, as much as they are transpersonal and enacted. They are states of mind, or (more physically) costumes and systems of posture and gesture, that the actors “put on” when they inhabit their roles; and that we the audience “put on” as well when we watch the film, identifying with those generic roles. And this kind of “dress-up” and obvious taking on of superficial roles is a way to inhabit emotions in their pure state: before they have been personalized, and given the heavy meanings and entrenched limitations of the oedipal drama. Melodrama, in this sense, is precisely the way out from tragedy. Tragedy is meaningful, and oedipal, and eventuates in catastrophe; but melodrama is entirely passional — and thereby, however painful, also purely transitional, rather than conclusive. (This is why melodrama is so familiar to us as a never-ending serial form, as with daytime soaps and Latin American telenovelas). There is always another act, another twist. Volver means “to return,” and the film’s conclusion is really just a situation where life will go on, with doubtless more twists and more convulsions. (There will always be more fathers, and they will always have to be murdered anew; but this is precisely why the oedipal drama is too banal to govern the film’s situations with some sort of Symbolic meaning; and why the relations of mothers to daughters are always ones of reconciliation, resignation, and continual renewal, rather than some sort of Imaginary reflection and fixation).
The film’s two divas, Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz, are both as prickly and annoying as they are charismatic, and this itself is part of the charm of Volver. Roles are fluid, emotions are as fickle as they are overwhelming, and even though acts always have consequences, these consequences are themselves negotiable and mutable. Almodovar invests everyday life with unaccustomed emotion; but he also renders emotion in so light and airy a way that — even at its most negative — it seems more an adventure than a burden.