Fighting Modern Loneliness Together: Groups of Women in Pedro Almodóvar’s Films

Written by Bridget Carls

Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar is an internationally acclaimed director, acknowledged by some as the last European auteur. He writes all of his own movies– in fact, his personal assistant, Lola García, claims that writing is his favorite part of the process.[1] He is known, among many idiosyncratic features, for his gender-bending plots and characters, his love of bright colors and kitsch, and his strong female leads. This essay will examine the last of those: the strong women in his films, and more specifically, the way they interact as a group. The three films discussed herein are each from a different era of Almodóvar’s body of work: his first commercially released film Pepi, Luci, Bom, y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls from the Heap) (1980),[2] the internationally acclaimed box-office success Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) (1988),[3] and the recent Volver (Return) (2006).[4] Each of these communities of women is different: the first is a group of women within la movida, the second is a hodgepodge of women convened by heartache, friendship, and coincidence, and the third is a family-and-neighbors unit typical of rural Spain.[5]

In examining Almodóvar’s use of women, it is important to note that he has stated that “men… are dramatically boring to [him].”[6] To better understand this quote, we must look back on the cultural background from which he emerged as a director. Born in 1949 in La Mancha, he was raised in a Spain dominated by Franco and a culture of machismo. Certainly, in a culture that privileges conventional manliness, it would be difficult for men to be interesting emotionally. Most importantly, these two authoritarian influences created an environment ripe for backlash and mockery. Or, as A.O. Scott put it in his 2002 New York Times piece, “[In] Post-Franco Spain, offending sexual propriety, religious authority, and Fascist family values in the name of pleasure was a therapeutic and political necessity.”[7] Franco’s regime fell in 1973, and the decade that followed saw an explosion of hedonism, which was strongly represented in the arts, especially in Madrid. This new cultural movement was known broadly as La movida madrileña (the Madrilenian groove scene).

Almodóvar (right) on the la movida scene

The artistic community of la movida is highly visible in Pepi, Luci, Bom. In this movie, the protagonist, Pepi (Carmen Maura), is part of la movida– her friend Bom (Olvido Gara) is a singer in a punk band, and there is a scene in which Pepi, Luci (Eva Siva), and Bom go to a party that epitomizes the movida parties. It was this community that made it possible, in terms of financial, artistic, and emotional support, for Almodóvar to realize his early works.[8]

Pepi, Luci, Bom was born as a punk comic strip called “General Erections,”[9] the remnants of which can be seen in the party scene (and the intertitles). It is remarkable that what started as a dick-joke became a film about three women navigating post-Franco Madrid. In this film, Pepi struggles to assert herself in a strongly masculine culture. When a Fascist policeman who lives in the apartment building across the street comes to arrest her for growing marijuana, he forcibly takes her virginity in exchange for his silence. This is an act emblematic of the patriarchy
asserting itself on the female body, and when Pepi gets her friends to beat him up and his wife to leave him (albeit temporarily), her response is equally emblematic of women’s post-Franco ability to fight back.  Similarly, when Luci has left to go on tour with Bom, the villainous policeman tries to have her arrested and brought back to him, only to be told that if he took the case to court, he would have all of the country’s feminists at his back.

Returning to this essay’s core topic of groups of women, the character of Luci presents and interesting dilemma. Throughout most of the movie, she travels around with Pepi and Bom, seemingly complicit in their plans to take revenge on her husband (the policeman). When asked by Pepi if she minds if Pepi blackmails her husband, she responds, “No, he deserves it.” The girls and the audience are led to believe that she is a part of their sisterhood, and are therefore surprised when she goes back to her villainous husband at the end of the movie. Although we are aware throughout the movie that Luci is deeply masochistic, it is nonetheless a bit of a shock to realize that she is such a slave to her desire that she is willing to throw away her friends in exchange for a husband that is finally as physically violent with her as she had hoped when she married him. All-consuming desire is a favorite topic of Almodóvar’s, most clearly articulated in his statement that “If you can find an absolute pleasure, you also have to pay an absolute price.”[10] For Luci, forgoing sisterhood is an easy choice in service of her masochism.

Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980)

Although Luci is lost to the villain, at the end of the movie, Pepi and Bom still manage to offer a sense of community to each other. Almodóvar himself has rejected this interpretation, saying that “modern women are alone. Pepi and [Bom] abandon [Luci] who is not alone, while they are deeply so.”[11] Nonetheless, when Bom expresses her inability to continue to live and work with the men in her band, and Pepi invites her to live with her, in exchange for protection (Bom boxes). Furthermore, when Luci first disappears, Pepi cooks Bom her favorite dish to comfort her. Having someone there to cook one’s favorite dish when things are going badly is not a mark of being alone. Additionally, while Luci may be sexually fulfilled by her abusive husband, there is a strong case for the argument that she is isolated from everything by the extremity of her desire. But perhaps Almodóvar is comparing the pair of women to the rural communities he grew up with– a subject he explores in depth in Volver.

In between Pepi, Luci, Bom and Volver, Almodóvar directed fourteen other films, of which Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios is the sixth.[12] Mujeres “is generally accepted as [his] commercial ‘breakthrough,’ a venture that smashed box-office records throughout Spain and achieved… international visibility.”[13] Unlike Pepi, Luci, Bom, Mujeres does feel like a movie about the loneliness of modern women. While Pepi nourishes Bom with cod and chiles, Pepa (Carmen Maura) accidentally anesthetizes everyone with gazpacho laced with sleeping
pills.

Pepa’s (Carmen Maura) special recipe gazpacho

Although the film features many women, they generally move around in the same space without offering each other emotional support. For example, when Candela (María Barranco) shows up at Pepa’s apartment, Pepa refuses to listen to her woes, telling her it can wait. Candela, who has been calling Pepa for hours and hours, is so hysterical that she half jumps off the balcony. Fortunately, Candela manages to grab on to the railing at the last moment, but it is only after this radical act that Pepa finally listens to her story.

Another instance of lack of solidarity in Mujeres is the way in which the women treat each other for the sake of the men. Pepa, Paulina (Kiti Manver), and Lucía (Julieta Serrano) are all fighting over the same man, Iván (Fernando Guillén). Paulina, a lawyer referred to as “la feminista,” choses Iván over taking Candela’s case, and at the the of the movie, even after seeing how Iván has treated other women, she still chooses to go with him. Candela allows Carlos (Antonio Banderas) to make the moves on her in front of his sleeping fiance (Rossy de Palma). Additionally, as mentioned above, Pepa allows her troubles with Iván to interfere with being a good friend to Candela.

Therefore, it seems that Mujeres rather than Pepi, Luci, Bom has at its center “the moral… that modern women are alone.”[14] Almodóvar goes on to say that he “[doesn’t] mean people who are genuinely lost, without any kind of social connections… but rather someone… erratic, not because she doesn’t know what to do with her life, but because at a certain point– the point where the writer enters the story– she is searching for something she is only vaguely aware of.” [15] This quote seems as though it were written about Pepa. She has social connections with Candela and Ana (Ana Leza) and the people at the studio, and she has a well-paying and publicly acknowledged job as an actress. When we enter the story, it seems that she’s searching for Iván, but at the end she refuses his request for a conversation over drinks. Her real goals are so vague that it is hard to clearly define them, but given that the last scene is a conversation between her and Carlos’ fiance Marisa, perhaps all she wanted was to rid herself of her modern loneliness.

On the subject of groups of women, it is notable that both Pepi, Pepa, and Irene in Volver are all played by Carmen Maura. In fact, Almodóvar has a tendency to work with the same actors. From the three films discussed in this essay, women that also appear in other Almodóvar films include Kiti Manver, Chus Lampreve, Rossy de Palma, Lola Dueñas, María Barranco, and the director’s own mother Francisca Caballero. He has stated that this is because he “[likes] having an artistic family, like a stable repertory, which is sincere and concrete.”[16] Because of this, one can argue that what they bring to their roles is equally important in the forming of Almodóvar’s oeuvre, as collaborators in realizing his vision.

After Mujeres, Maura and Almodóvar parted ways.[17] But when they worked together again in 2005 on Volver, Almodóvar wrote, “I listen to Carmen reading, integrating my observations, and I feel we are just the same as when we did Law of Desire [1987].”[18] The verb volver means “to return,” and with this project, Almodóvar and Maura returned to their previous working relationship.

Mother (Maura) and daughter (Cruz) in Volver

Within the space of the film, it seems that Almodóvar has found a cure for the loneliness of the modern woman: returning to one’s roots in the country. Almodóvar himself says that “[t]he solidarity between neighbors is a quality that all characters of Volver bring with them to the city.”[19] After the death of Raimunda (Penélope Cruz)’s husband and her aunt Paula, she gets help from some of her female neighbors. Also, her sister Soledad (Lola Dueñas) lives relatively close to her, and Raimunda feels free to drop by unannounced whenever she needs to, even leaving her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) with Soledad when Raimunda needs to be out of town overnight. But even with all of this support she gets in Madrid, at the end of the film, Raimunda returns to live in the village she came from.

In the two earlier Almodóvar films discussed in this essay, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Mujeres, there was little mention from the characters about their villages and hometowns. One example is Kiti Manver’s character in Pepi, Luci, Bom, “Singer/Model Who Is Not a Whore,” who talks about how she didn’t come to Madrid to be a whore, and mentions that one of the singers in Bom’s band is from her village, but it doesn’t seem like she wants to go back. It seems that the movida characters that populate Almodóvar’s early work (and personal life) were coming to the city to be wild in a way that they could not in their villages. Almodóvar has been known to say that in his village he felt “like an astronaut in the court of King Arthur” and “knew he was born to take on the big cities.”[20] Although his earlier female characters may struggle with “modern loneliness,” they at least are getting a chance to be in the city and be themselves. And, one can argue, they are struggling with loneliness together.

The village that Raimunda and her family are from is in La Mancha, where Almodóvar himself is from. In his discussion of Volver and the memories he drew from, Almodóvar says he remembers “the patios, blooming with life, plants, neighbors, and secrets as deep as wells and loneliness. Female loneliness.”[21] And yet in the next paragraph, he speaks at length about female neighbors relying on each other. Therefore, it seems that there is no escape from the dichotomy of Almodóvar’s films: he almost fetishizes the loneliness of women, and yet he often makes films about groups of women dealing with life together.

Perhaps the most lonely moment in Volver is when Raimunda buries her husband. And yet she is not alone – she hires one of her neighbors, prostitute Regina (María Isabel Díaz) to come with her, in exchange for her hourly rate and a job with perks at Raimunda’s restaurant. Initially hesitant about doing something illegal as an immigrant with her ability to stay in Spain at stake, Regina stays up all night with Raimunda, enthusiastically hacking away at the ground with a pickaxe. Additionally, two female neighbors help them load the freezer into the van, without expecting payment, other than the vague expectation that one might eventually need something from one’s neighbor, at which point she will reciprocate.

Volver

It is possible that the loneliness in question is really the loneliness of women in the absence of men. Almodóvar says, “Many of our mothers ended their lives in the company of [female neighbors] because we children had other lives to live.”[22] And yet in the three movies discussed here, the villains are men: in Pepi, Luci, Bom, it is the Fascist policeman; in Mujeres, it is womanizing Iván and the Shiite terrorists who have thrown everyone’s lives into disarray; in Volver, it is the actions of Raimunda’s predatory husband and father that lead to most of the upheaval in the women’s lives. In Volver especially, the women are at their best when they have overcome the men in their lives. Furthermore, at the end of that film, three generations of women from the same family will thereafter live on the same block, negating the inevitability of mothers dying without their families. But if “[f]emale neighbors are an appendix to the family– a necessary and complementary appendix,”[23] and therefore essentially a part of the family, living and dying with each other does not, to me, evoke loneliness.

After viewing these films, one might find the director’s comments about the pervasive loneliness in women’s lives somewhat shocking, given that they could easily be read by audiences as paradigms of female solidarity. Another example from Volver is that after Irene kills her husband (Raimunda’s father) and his mistress, she wanders about the countryside for a few days and then decides to turn herself in. But when she comes to say goodbye to her sister (Chus Lampreve), she finds that her sister has gone senile and decides to remain in the house as a ghost, caring for her sister. After her sister dies and she reunites with her daughters, Irene then moves into Augustina (Blanca Portillo)’s house, to care for her during her decline from cancer. Furthermore, it is only once Raimunda learns that her mother killed her father because her mother finally realized he was abusing her that mother and daughter can reconcile. So although Irene no longer has a man, she is better off without her husband because he was a terrible human being. In killing him, she has brought herself closer to the women around her.

As mentioned previously, Raimunda brings a sense of neighborhood to the city. When she is approached by a film crew who wants her to cater for them, she sets out to buy food for the meal. However, because she doesn’t have enough money to feed them all, she asks her female neighbors to give her food, promising to pay them back when the film people pay her. All of the neighbors she asks agree to let her owe them, and she responds by paying them back generously, and inviting Regina to bartend, even before they make the burial deal.

What really cements the atmosphere of female community is the character of Agustina. As Almodóvar says, “Agustina… is the ultimate neighbor.”[24] Every morning while Aunt Paula is still alive, Agustina knocks on her window and doesn’t move until she gets a response. When Aunt Paula dies, Agustina arranges the funeral. When Agustina gets cancer, she at first tries to get money for treatment by appearing on reality television with her sister Brigida (Carmen Machi, appearing only briefly) to make a spectacle about herself by asking the general public if anyone has any information about their mother’s whereabouts. While she’s on television, Agustina changes her mind about placing family issues in the spotlight, and when she returns, she says to Raimunda, “We should wash our dirty laundry at home,” and later to Raimunda and Soledad, “I would rather die at home than go to Houston [for a cure] and not be able to look you in the face.” For Agustina, her community of women is more important than life itself. And the community gives back– as mentioned, Irene devotes herself to caring for Agustina at the end of her life, although that is partially because it is Irene who killed Agustina’s mother as she lay with Irene’s husband.

Whether or not Almodóvar himself agrees with this reading, he has created a film that tells women that as long as they stick together, they can make it in the world. Volver seems to say, “To hell with lying, cheating, degenerate men. It is the women in your life that will stick around, from birth to deathbed.” Similarly, despite Pepi, Luci, Bom having been intended as an homage to the loneliness of the modern women, the sense one gets from the last scene is that friendship between women triumphs over Facist policemen– the husband may have reclaimed Luci, but Pepi and Bom are on to new, better experiences and projects. Mujeres, on the other hand, shows the wreckage that can occur when women interact superficially rather than communally. Previously mentioned salient examples are that Pepa won’t listen to Candela, so Candela almost kills herself: Pepa and Candela are each in a tizzy about a man– one that is leaving and one that is a terrorist. Only when Pepa decides she is finished with Iván can she sit down, survey the wreckage of her life, and have a thoughtful discussion with another woman.

Almodóvar comes from a rural background in La Mancha that privileged communities of women, particularly a support system of female neighbors. From there he went to Madrid and became part of the artistic community that exploded in post-Franco Spain. People from this community collaborated with him on his films, in terms of financing, behind-the-camera support, acting, and inspiration. Several of his movies, most notably Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and Volver portray and celebrate communities of women. Despite being a man, and despite his fetishization of the loneliness of women, Almodóvar makes convincing and moving arguments for the importance of sisterhood throughout his body of work.

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Notes

[1] Oliva, Ignacio. “Inside Almodóvar.” Trans. Susana Sartarelli and Brad Epps. All About Almodóvar. Ed. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009. 389-407.return

[2] Almodóvar, Pedro. (Director). (1980). Pepi, Luci, Bom, y otras chicas del montón. [Film]. Madrid: Figaro Films.return

[3] Almodóvar, Pedro. (Director). (1988). Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios. [Film]. Madrid: El Deseo.return

[4] Almodóvar, Pedro. (Director). (2006). Volver. [Film]. Madrid: El Deseo.return

[5] Almodóvar, Pedro. “Volver: A Filmmaker’s Diary.” All About Almodóvar. Ed. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009. 450.return

[6] Francia, J.I. and J. Pérez Perucha. “First Film: Pedro Almodóvar.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 6.return

[7] Scott, A.O. “The Track of a Teardrop, a Filmmakers Path.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 164.return

[8] Strauss, Fredric. Almodóvar on Almodóvar. Trans. Yves Baigneres. London: Faber and Faber. 1995. 10.return

[9] Ibid. 12.return

[10] Kinder, Marsha. “Pleasure and the New Spanish Mentality: A Conversation with Pedro Almodóvar.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 53-54.return

[11] Strauss. 15.return

[12] In other words, of his commercial films, Pepi, Luci, Bom is the first, Mujeres al borde is the seventh, and Volver is the sixteenth.return

[13] Epps, Brad and Despina Kakoudaki. “Introduction.” All About Almodóvar. Ed. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009. 11.return

[14] Strauss. 15.return

[15] Ibid.return

[16] Clark, Tim. “Pedro Almodóvar: Desperado Living.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 60.return

[17] Sotinel, Thomas. Cahiers du cinema: Pedro Almodóvar. Trans. Imogen Forster. Paris: Caheirs du cinéma Sarl. 2010. 44.return

[18] Almodóvar. 449.return

[19] Ibid. 451.return

[20] Kinder. 45.return

[21] Almodóvar. 450.return

[22] Ibid.return

[23] Ibid.return

[24] Ibid.return

Bibliography

Almodovar, Pedro. (Director). (1988). Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios. [Film]. Madrid: El Deseo.

Almodovar, Pedro. (Director). (1980). Pepi, Luci, Bom, y otras chicas del montón. [Film]. Madrid: Figaro Films.

Almodovar, Pedro. (Director). (2006). Volver. [Film]. Madrid: El Deseo.

Almodóvar, Pedro. “Volver: A Filmmaker’s Diary.” All About Almodóvar. Ed. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009. 446-463

Clark, Tim. “Pedro Almodóvar: Desperado Living.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 58-61.

Epps, Brad and Despina Kakoudaki. “Introduction.” All About Almodóvar. Ed. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009. 1-34.

Francia, J.I. and J. Pérez Perucha. “First Film: Pedro Almodóvar.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 3-8.

Kinder, Marsha. “Pleasure and the New Spanish Mentality: A Conversation with Pedro Almodóvar.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 40-57.

Oliva, Ignacio. “Inside Almodóvar.” Trans. Susana Sartarelli and Brad Epps. All About Almodóvar. Ed. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009. 389-407.

Scott, A.O. “The Track of a Teardrop, a Filmmakers Path.” Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews. Ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2004. 162-167.

Sotinel, Thomas. Cahiers du Cinema: Pedro Almodóvar. Trans. Imogen Forster. Paris: Caheirs du cinéma Sarl. 2010. 44.

Strauss, Fredric. Almodóvar on Almodóvar. Trans. Yves Baigneres. London: Faber and Faber. 1995.

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