Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
There aren’t many filmmakers who can match Pedro AlmodĂłvar’s ability to speak the language of cinema. Even amongst those who are unarguably fluent, be it Quentin Tarantino’s pidgin-like appropriation of junk genres or Todd Haynes’ chameleon-like ability to seamlessly jump between styles, AlmodĂłvar uses cinema as more of a brush than material for collage or disguise. Volver is rightly seen as AlmodĂłvar’s masterpiece for precisely this reason, using its predecessor Bad Education as a noir-inflected springboard for its own unique, heady brand of spiritual deception.
Volver first uses Bad Education as a lure, leading viewers to believe that Volver will be equally devoted to death and lies. To a certain extent, this is a true if somewhat simplistic view of the film- the characters in Volver are undoubtedly immersed in death and lies at every moment but where Bad Education was concerned with the way people use these two forces to fulfill their own selfish desires, Volver is concerned instead with how those same two forces can be used selflessly. The murder that begins Volver would be the focus of any other film but in AlmodĂłvar’s hands, it’s an event that is notable, yes, but not the crux of the story he wishes to tell.
That story is about a different dead body, specifically one that doesn’t seem to be quite so dead. Several years before the start of Volver, Raimunda (PenĂ©lope Cruz) and Sole (Lola DueĂ±as) seemingly lost their parents to a house fire. The people of the sisters’ village believe that the spirit of their mother Irene (Carmen Maura, once the director’s one-time muse, now returning to work with him for the first time in 18 years) has been taking care of their senile, frail Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) or so their neighbor Agustina (Blanco Portillo) tells them. Though both sisters have seen things that they can’t explain at Paula’s house they’ve long since written it off as superstition.
Irene haunts the sisters nonetheless, though in differing ways. Raimunda lives under the specter of her mother’s disapproval while Sole (whose full name, Soledad, literally means loneliness) feels alone without her mother. Where Raimunda has entered into an uneasy domesticity, caring for her teen daughter and slacker husband, Sole is merely floating, running an illegal hair salon and leaning on Raimunda. Neither sister is happy and the film finds its momentum in the way they overcome this unhappiness.
Raimunda escapes her current life after her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) kills her husband when he tries to molest her, forcing Raimunda to calmly clean up the mess and take on the responsibility of Paula’s crime. Her husband’s death rejuvenates Raimunda and with the combination of the timely departure of a trusting neighbor who happens to own a restaurant, she’s able to transform into the type of person she’d secretly longed to be.
What Raimunda becomes is a well composed, glamorous self-starter, free of the baggage of her less than satisfying home life. At Volver’s start, Raimunda had been dressed in drab earth tones, almost as though her intense beauty was something to be locked away. After her husband’s death she first begins to appear in seductive black dresses that accentuate her curves whereas before AlmodĂłvar’s camera had been forced to slyly reveal her beauty, from overhead shots looking down at her cleavage while she washed dishes to pans moving up her legs as she loads a car. Once the slight period of “mourning” is over she becomes vibrant, fully confident in her assets and putting them on display in low cut tops and bright ensembles.
Sole’s metamorphosis is less glamorous and social; in fact, it’s hidden by necessity. Following the funeral of her Aunt Paula, Sole discovers that her dead mother has stowed away in her car and will now be moving in with her. The need to come up with a secret identity for Irene is not questioned by Sole but instead just taking as a necessary precaution to keep the visitors to her salon from discovering that Irene is a spirit. That the visitors can even see Irene is never discussed.
But like Bad Education, the reality behind Volver’s plot is far more complicated than it initially seems. Volver is not a magical realist story, its seemingly supernatural elements much more human and instead something Irene has manipulated to her advantage and even calls out as such within the film. AlmodĂłvar uses audience expectations as tools to further complicate his story, leading viewers on as they go from expecting noir to expecting fantasy to expecting melodrama. In lesser hands this could be seen as cheap or manipulative but AlmodĂłvar never lets the story become anything other than natural and those intimately familiar with his canon are given an added dose of metafiction- Volver may in fact be a film within a film, its story derived from the novel that is stolen in The Flower of My Secret in order to become that film’s screenplay The Freezer.
Volver’s final twists are the ultimate in deception, revealing that a mother has lived as a ghost because she felt it was the only way to protect her daughters while her own daughter has had to go to similar extremes to protect her child, who almost falls prey to the same fate. The three generations of the family have unconsciously locked themselves into a loop of lies, perpetuating their problems because they feel it’s the only way to protect each other, sacrificing their own happiness in the hope that it will allow the next generation to find some semblance of that emotion. Even more hopeful is the film’s ending, which has Irene continuing her non-life as a ghost in order to take care of Agustina, shedding any claim to a life of her own even after she’s revealed the truth to her daughters.
AlmodĂłvar’s characters often rely on transformation and manipulation but the appeal of Volver is in the way its characters wield these as devices for selfless action, perhaps indicating a newfound humanism within AlmodĂłvar’s work, particularly in its relatively uplifting ending. As Irene turns her non-life into a righteous cause and Paula escapes the fate of her mother, AlmodĂłvar indicates that the past isn’t permanent and like the gender and family roles he’s always explored, it’s fluid even when it doesn’t seem like it can be.