Pedro Almodovar loves women. This is a fact evident in just about every film in his oeuvre. Occasionally, women find themselves in sticky situtations. What are the circumstances in which violence is used by Almodovar’s women? Is violence a legitimate means out of such a situation? Does violence empower them or is it merely a necessary evil? By examining such examples as Volver and What Have I Done to Deserve This?!, we shall see.
I. What Have I Done to Deserve This Pent Up Aggression?!
Violence is an almost natural side effect, if you will, of the Almodovar universe. One of Almodovar’s earliest films, What Have I Done to Deserve This?! (1984) begins in a Kendo dojo with cleaning woman Gloria (Carmen Maura) watching as several men with wooden practice swords swing them in violent unison. Soon, she is invited into the shower by a stranger – a detective, it turns out – who then has sex with her…or, at least, attempts to. Due to impotence, the detective cannot perform too convincingly, and so Gloria is sent out into the dojo wet and dissatisfied. An unhappy housewife, dealing with various family troubles and a degrading job as a maid, Gloria walks off screen only to re-enter frame with a wooden sword like she saw those kendo practitioners using and begins swinging it violently while yelping. This exorcising of the demons of pent-up aggression is the first evidence that Gloria has had enough of her difficult existence – before we in the audience are even introduced to her home situation in full – and, ultimately proves to foreshadow a key plot development.
Later in the film, Gloria gets into an argument with her piggish husband Antonio (Angel del Andres Lopez) and kills him by beating him over the head with a leg of ham – a plot device borrowed from an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode (“Lamb to the Slaughter”) and adapted from a Roald Dahl story. In this case, we can see that Gloria’s sense of pent-up anger/frustration/aggression has finally let loose and the results, while violent, are not wholly justified per say. Antonio is a pig and demeaning as a husband, but does not arguably deserve to die as he is not someone who has hurt Gloria or their kids. Indeed, it appears his only crime is that of boorishness.
The use of violence on the part of Gloria, while somewhat understandable at the point at which it occurs, is nevertheless justifiable only by a stretch of the term. What woman hasn’t wanted to kill her husband and escape to a life of freedom? But what does it get Gloria in the end? Although she “gets away with it,” as Alex Ramon points out, “What Have I Done To Deserve This!? might, then, be interpreted as a feminist text about a woman who ends up liberating herself from her “suffocating” life and marriage. But the film’s perspective is more complex. For Gloria, the death of her husband and the loss of her family (one of the sons moves to the country with her mother-in-law, the other goes to live with a dentist) doesn’t signify a feminist triumph; instead it simply brings more loneliness and desolation.” Violence, then, has in some sense freed Gloria of one burden while creating another – that of living another day.
II. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Of Those Whom Attempt to Kill Their Ex-Husbands with Revolvers Once Fresh Out of the Asylum
The notions of pent-up frustration and women driven literally to madness by their piggish
male counterparts, resulting in (quasi-justifiable) homicide (though merely attempted here) was repeated again in the international hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). The character of Lucia (Julietta Serrano), the ex-wife of serial philanderer Ivan, has been released from a mental hospital and begins stalking her ex in order to kill him in revenge for driving her mad when he left her. Near the film’s end, she steals a revolver and forces someone to give her a ride to the airport where she holds the gun on Ivan. Ultimately, she is thwarted by Pepa (Carmen Maura), Ivan’s current ex (if you will), who bears him less ill will than when the film began. However, in this most overtly comical of films, Almodovar shows the lengths to which a woman scorned can be pushed under the right circumstances. Only by the grace of God (and some good luck) does Pepa manage to avoid the mad fate of Lucia and save Ivan from mortal ruin, despite her feelings being crushed by him. But what of Lucia? Would killing Ivan really have empowered her? Would it have made her feel better for having been driven mad by the man she loved? In what kind of mind does that make sense?
III. A Volver (Return) to Motherly Defense of Others
Almodovar loves mothers and caretaker types of all sorts and his films are filled with them – from the well-meaning male nurse of Talk to Her (2002) to the bereaved protagonist of All About My Mother (1999) to the suffocating housewife in What Have I Done to Deserve This?! (1984). In Volver (2006), he creates one of his most powerful portraits of motherhood and all that it entails to date. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is a woman living in a small village with her barely teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and unemployed piggish lout of a boyfriend Paco (Antonio de la Torre).
Paula, alone at home one day with Paco, finds him trying to come onto her in the kitchen as she stands over the sink and stabs him with a butcher knife in self-defense. Raimunda comes home to discover this and, horrified, cleans up the crime scene and disposes of the body (in a fashion much like a story that appeared in Almodovar’s 1995 film The Flower of My Secret). But there is more to this story. Raimunda, it is eventually revealed, was raped as a young woman by her father and ultimately gave birth to Paula – her daughter and her sister. Angry at her mother for not realizing she was being raped by her father, and angrier still that she couldn’t do anything to stop it, she acts in defense of Paula as a means of doing what her mother never did and, apparently could not do. Although Paula saves herself from presumably much the same fate of her mother, Raimunda manages to make the situation fly and protect her daughter in the long run through her abilities of body disposal. In this case, was the violence necessary in order to prevent further evil? Perhaps. But does that make it “right”? Who can say?
IV. Sex & Death with a Matador’s Hairpin
Women have been portrayed as predators from time to time, and perhaps no woman has appeared more predatory in an Almodovar film than Maria Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) in his bizarre psychosexual noir Matador (1986), who likes to kill her partners at the moment of orgasm by stabbing them with a hairpin. This seems to be a form of psychosexual power struggle on the part of Maria, and not exactly a means of survival and removal from violent situations. As perpetrator, Maria is hardly sympathetic. What then are we to make of this? An odd early chapter in the career of a director known for loving women? Or a statement about the kind of women he doesn’t like? What, if anything, is this film trying to say about the role of women in relation to violence – and psychosexual violence at that? Almodovar speaks of the “constant inversion in the film of male-female roles” (Strauss) by virtue of Maria taking on the role of torrero, yet “Matadoris not a film about bullfighting.” Then what is it? About the relationship between sex and death, okay, but to what end?
V. Crossing a Line with Antonio Banderas?
If Maria in Matador is an example of an active female victimizer, certainly women have been victimized throughout history in various ways, viewed as the so-called “weaker sex,” and yet generally Almodovar views them with a tenderness and understanding that is almost non-existent in other contemporary male filmmakers. However, he will portray them as victims as needed. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), a young woman is stalked, tied down and sado-masochistically raped by a disturbed individual (Antonio Banderas) who has apparently fallen in love with her. Soon, they form a relationship. So what happens when Banderas is utilized in a strictly violent way? Will there be shades of gray or is it simply deplorable? Almodovar films are rarely simple.
At the Cannes Film Festival, however, controversy rang out over Almodovar’s latest effort, The Skin I Live In (2011). Based on the Thierry Jonquet novel Mygale. Banderas stars as Robert Ledgard, a successful plastic surgeon whose daughter is violently raped and subsequently kills herself. Tracking down the perpetrator, Ledgard first rapes the rapist, then performs a sex change operation on him, then transplants his own dead daughter’s face onto the rapist’s before raping him/her again. What are we to make of this? On the one hand, Almodovar seems to be creating a tale of vengeance most foul in which a terrible crime is avenged with another, but on the other hand, isn’t this just creating more terrible crime? Is what Ledgard does any less terrible than his daughter’s rapist? What are we to make of the trailer, in which the “woman” (the rapist, presumably with the daughter’s face grafted on) attempts to escape and threatens to kill the doctor? And is any of this empowering his daughter from beyond the grave? Or simply victimizing her once more? Time will tell…
VI. Conclusions & Reflections
Violence is an unfortunate but natural aspect of human nature. It has existed for centuries side by side with civility, peace and understanding and it appears all must exist in order for an equilibrium to be maintained. If the way Almodovar uses violence in relation to the way he uses women in his films is peculiar and seems to suggest an attempt to balance the scales, thus removing them from a disadvantageous position (albeit occasionally ill-conceived), at least his love for the opposite gender shines through. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t be the films of Pedro Almodovar.
Ramon, Alex. “All About His Women: Almodovar.” Boycotting Trends: Movie, Music & More
Musings Blog. 5 Feb. 2010. <http://boycottingtrends.blogspot.com/2010/02/all-about-his-women-almodovars-female.html>. 6 June 2011.
Strauss, Frederic. “Matador: Sex, Death, Abstraction, Male Characters, The genesis of a story.”
Almodovar on Almodovar: Revised Edition. Faber and Faber, Great Britain, 2006. Pg. 55.
Note: This was originally written for Eva Maria Soto’s Pedro Almodovar Chiron course in Spring 2011 at Portland State under the title: He Had It Coming: The Empowerment of Women Through Violence in Almodovar.