Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is only eighteen years older than her teenage son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), but she seems magnificently world-weary. She's one of those women whom the ravages of life have made more ravishing -- the kind of woman who by right inhabits the center of great drama, and great weepies too. That makes her the ideal heroine for Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, which, even more so than most of his movies, aspires to both greatness and teariness. For Almodóvar, the distinction between the two may not be necessary.
Shortly after the film begins, Manuela reads from the preface of a book she has given Esteban for his 17th birthday, Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons: "When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation." This seems odd coming from Capote -- whose whip often snapped outward -- and it doesn't always apply to the best of Almodóvar, either, though it does to his worst. What's truly original in his movies, especially Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and What Have I Done to Deserve This?!, isn't the hothouse masochism but, instead, the fun-house mix of machismo and kitsch and melodrama and froufrou, all done up in bright florid Pop. The instability of this mix stabilizes Almodóvar, for whom only the "unnatural" is natural. The changeability of sex roles calls forth a farrago of confusions. Men turn out to be women or, as in the case of All About My Mother, men and women, while women are life's essence: In his press notes for his new film, Almodóvar writes, "Three or four women talking represent for me the origin of life, but also the origin of fiction, and of narration."
This is a lot to lay on the gender. (I wonder if Almodóvar has ever watched The View.) But one can, I suppose, accept it as a poetic conceit, the way one might accept it in Tennessee Williams, whose presence permeates All About My Mother. Manuela once played Stella in an amateur production of A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Esteban's father (also named Esteban), whom she ran away from without ever telling him he had a son. When Manuela and her boy attend a performance of Streetcar in Madrid, the theatrics onstage have the same temperature as the action offstage. The flamboyance of the drama is merely an extension of the lives of its players.
Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), who stars as Blanche in the production, is a damaged diva in love with Nina (Candela Peña), the actress playing Stella, about whom she says, "She's hooked on junk, but I'm hooked on her." (The line is a sex-switched homage to the wronged-woman melodramatics of Hollywood's Golden Age.) When Esteban runs after Huma for an autograph in the pouring rain after the show, he's hit by a car and killed; his heart is transplanted into the chest of another man, and Manuela, whose job it is to oversee donor-organ transplants for a Madrid hospital, lives out for real the scenario she once only acted in medical-training films playing a donor's widow. Because it was her son's wish to know his father, she returns to Barcelona after eighteen years to find him -- now a he-she named Lola whom Manuela describes as "the worst of a man and the worst of a woman."
The title, All About My Mother, is a takeoff on All About Eve -- which we see Manuela and her son watching on television when the film begins -- but the movie is not about female-against-female connivance, as the Bette Davis movie was. It's about Woman, specifically Manuela, as divine caregiver. For Almodóvar, the glory of women, and also the source of their tragedy, is their horror of being alone, and what they do to avoid it. In Barcelona, Manuela takes up the care of the nun Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), who is pregnant and HIV-positive from an encounter with Lola; the sorrowing mother resumes a connection from the old days with the hooker Algrado, whom she knew before Algrado acquired breasts. Played by the Spanish nightclub performer Antonia San Juan, Algrado's a pansexual imp in faux-Chanel couture whose finest hour comes when she stands before an audience of theater patrons after a canceled performance of Streetcar and announces, with an impromptu flourish, that "a woman is more authentic the more she looks like what she has dreamed for herself."
Algrado is the comic spirit of All About My Mother, and Almodóvar periodically gives the film over to her camp antics. It's a good thing, too -- the director's swoony and serioso vision of femalehood is otherwise a bit much, even though excessiveness here is obviously the point. Almodóvar isn't merely playing around with kitsch, which he clearly adores; he's also buying into its most sentimental attitudes. The women in All About My Mother are all Blanches looking for the kindness of strangers. Those strangers, of course, are other women, or men who want to be women, and therefore no strangers at all.
This is Almodóvar's best film in a long while. Cecilia Roth and Antonia San Juan are great, emblematic opposites. Their performances are both stunners. But I don't think we should unqualifiedly hail the director for growing out of the Pop playfulness of a movie like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in favor of the supposedly ripening maturity of this film. For Almodóvar, females are the life force because they must be actresses in their own lives to survive; beneath the frazzled histrionics, his women's spirits rage to be free. May I suggest that kitsch is kitsch, whether it's served up with the brazen lyricism of an Almodóvar or the deluxeness of a Ross Hunter?