Long-established, if not altogether consistent, pillars of the European art film, the Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar and the Frenchman Jacques Rivette are predictable only in their perversity. In Rivette’s case, flouting the norms is generally a matter of form; for Almodóvar, however, it’s more like mother’s milk.
Almodóvar’s All About My Mother is as straightforward and plot-driven as any movie about life imitating art imitating life could possibly be. While Almodóvar has never lacked for international attention—in America, he’s surely been the most widely distributed foreign-language filmmaker of the past 15 years—with his 13th feature, the 48-year-old writer-director has received the best notices of his career, and not without reason.
Erupting out of the Super-8 underground, Almodóvar started wild and then, after the superb one-two punch of Matador and Law of Desire, turned wildly uneven. Hot fluff like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and High Heels gave way to the sour s/m of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Kika, and the less-than-successful attempts to break into something more sober with The Flower of My Secret and Live Flesh. All About My Mother is the achieved synthesis of the whole Almodóvariety show, a new genre—part farce, part weepie, low camp and high melodrama, caustic yet heartwarming, humanist and programmatically gender-blurring.
Opening with a close-up pan down an IV drip, All About My Mother is concerned with scripting its own mortality. Almodóvar evokes sacred texts only to rewrite them. The nurse Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and her teenage son Esteban watch All About Eve on TV, then, to celebrate his birthday, take in a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. The play already has talismanic significance for Manuela—she met her long-vanished husband in an amateur production wherein she played Stella to his Stanley. It acquires even greater weight when, after the performance, Esteban dies in an attempt to secure an autograph from the diva Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), who plays Blanche DuBois.
More screwball tragedy: After arranging for Esteban’s heart to be transplanted, devastated Manuela goes to Barcelona in search of the boy’s father, once Esteban but now Lola. Cruising the local meat market in an absurdly lyrical sequence, she finds instead Lola’s transsexual friend La Agrado (Antonia San Juan), who gets most of the movie’s best lines: “All I have that’s real are my feelings and those pints of silicone that weigh a ton.” Manuela also encounters a beautiful young nun (Penelope Cruz) who happens to be pregnant. As God is everywhere, so A Streetcar Named Desire is playing here too. Manuela goes backstage, like (but unlike) Eve Harrington, and winds up as Huma’s personal assistant.
All About My Mother is a movie in which wallpaper patterns border on the lysergic, women typically wear red and characters are prone to compare any given situation to something out of How to Marry a Millionaire. It is also a movie in which forms of motherhood proliferate—as does the kindness of strangers—and fathers are generally worse than useless. Although Manuela never gets over her son’s death (throughout, she is compelled to repeat the story of his fatal accident), Almodóvar does contrive to crown her maternal sorrow with a climactic miracle.
The filmmaker dedicates All About My Mother to “all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all the people who want to be mothers” and to his own mother. Pagan as Almodóvar’s exuberance may be, his cult of the Madonna, his meditation on the notion of a virgin birth and his insistence on martyrdom all seem profoundly Catholic. In any case, I’d very much like to have our mayor (no mean cross-dresser himself) see the movie and explain how it’s not.
At once the most classical and the most experimental of nouvelle vague directors, Jacques Rivette makes no more compromises at 70 than when he was a kid navigating the murky currents of Left Bank paranoia in Paris Belongs to Us. It’s in the nature of Rivette films to fly beneath the radar: Secret Défense, like its two immediate precursors, is having its local premiere at the appropriately forbidding Anthology Film Archives.
Just shy of three hours (and thus one of the director’s medium-length features), Secret Défense is an elegant, ascetic, and rigorous meta-thriller that updates the Greek tragedy of Electra and infuses its tale of filial revenge with the detached fatalism the young Rivette so admired in the later movies of Fritz Lang. Research scientist Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire) has her routine rudely disrupted when her unstable younger brother, Paul (Grégoire Colin), confronts her with evidence that their father’s accidental death, five years before, may have been a murder committed by his partner, Walser.
Bonnaire’s Sylvie is serious, almost severe, while Colin plays Paul with a permanent glower. The performers are wearing masks, just as they would have for Euripides, and just as is the dourly mysterious Walser (Polish actor Jerzy Radziwilowicz). The action is slow to develop until, more convinced of Paul’s craziness than Walser’s guilt, rational Sylvie decides to protect her brother by shooting Walser first. The heart of the movie is then a 20-minute set piece in which, having resolved to commit murder, the driven Sylvie travels by train to Walser’s château. There, she pulls a gun on him but the wrong person winds up dead—with Walser himself a seemingly willing accomplice after the fact. Secret Défense has so far moved relentlessly in one direction. Now, although no less deliberate in its pacing, the narrative takes a surprising turn. (It’s a Hitchcockian maneuver and there’s an additional echo of Psycho when the innocent victim’s sister comes looking for her.)
Secret Défense—which can be translated as “Top Secret”—is a mystery made of long takes and empty spaces in which duration and distance exert their own irrational fascination. Hermetic and somewhat opaque, this perfectly symmetrical tragedy is not for every taste. For those willing to enter the Rivette zone, however, it’s a chess puzzle devised by a grand master.
All About My Mother A Sony Pictures Classics release. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Opens Nov 19. Secret Défense Directed by Jacques Rivette. At Anthology Film Archives 32 2nd Ave, NYC, 212-505-5181, Nov 19 through Dec 2.