Madeleine Gaudin: In the land of women

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - 6:36pm

In many ways “Julieta” noticeably lacks the stylistic ticks of its writer/director Pedro Almodovar. It’s tame, as far as Almodovar is concerned, sticking to a simple plot, down-to-earth characters and not even a hint of singing.

What it does retain is Almodovar’s signature feature — women. And, not just any women, real women, some of the realest women created by a man possibly ever. It’s easy — so easy it’s almost boring — to find what’s wrong with onscreen portrayals of women. What’s much more interesting, and cosmically reassuring, is looking at all the ways Almodovar gets it right.

Almodovar rose to international acclaim following his 1988 film “Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” The film’s title is poorly translated into English as “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” That film, screened in my high school Spanish class, was my first introduction to Almodovar.

In the film, a web of people become increasingly tangled in each other. In classic, almost Shakespearian comedy, Pepa loves Iván whose son Carlos and his fiancé Marisa want to buy Pepa’s apartment where she’s trying to console Candela, etc. etc. It’s hilarious and impossibly confusing. In the middle of it all is Pepa, a hurricane in the best sense of the word. She’s manic and destructive and most of all a force.

His latest, “Julieta,” joins a portfolio of films that demonstrate Almodovar’s keen observation of and empathy for the daily suffering of the modern woman. The central figure, Julieta, is a woman defined by loss, first by the death of her husband and next by the abandonment of her daughter. Almodovar gets increasingly close to her over the course of the film, sifting through the nuances of her psyche. He understands her deeply enough that he can visually form her with very little spoken dialogue (the film was originally called “Silence” but the name was changed to avoid confusion with Scorses’s film of the same name).

To Almodovar, it seems, women are the fabric that hold the universe together. His film “Talk to Her” is a perfect example of this. Despite being comatose, the two women at the center of this film hold it together. The other characters are reliant to some extent on their presence.

Some criticize what they call Almodovar’s stylization or even fetishization of female suffering, something the director seems to address in his 1999 Oscar-winning film “All About My Mother.” This is a common criticism pointed at gay men who make art about women.

And yet, empathy and beauty are not mutually exclusive. Almodovar’s film do not need to be come any less beautiful to be real and deeply true. His picture of the experience of women, painted in striking colors and perfectly laid out shots, is one steeped in a deep understanding of what it means to suffer mundanely. It is very easy to show Day 1 of grief, Almodovar has mastered the art of Day 1001. 

Raised by a strong community of women, Almodovar is clearly attuned to the ways women interact with each other. Themes of maternity and sisterhood dominate his family dramas.

Part of what sets Almodovar’s women apart from other cinematic representations is his deep understanding of female friendship. Contrary to what gal pal rom-coms might lead you to believe, the backbone of female friendship is not two women telling each other how much they like each other and swapping relationship advice in a trendy bar. So much of female friendship is unspoken. Its essence is in moments like the one in which Beatrice helps Antia lift her depressed mother from the bath. Or when Julieta returns to the park where her daughter and Beatrice used to play, only to discover Beatrice has done the same.

Some American filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Mike Mills have captured the parts of womanhood that elude so many others. Baumach’s 2015 film “Mistress America” examines the overlapping nature of sisterhood and friendship and Mills’s “20th Century Women” examines the role three women play in the development of a teenage boy. Both films capture the empathy and tenderness that Almodovar’s films exude.  

So it’s not impossible. Male filmmakers can put real women on the screen. What is takes it seems is a simultaneous look inward and outward, a close examination of the women around the director and a reflection on how they shaped the director himself. Almodovar is a standout, but he’s not alone.