All About My Mother (1999)

by Jonathan Beller


All About Your Desire

cover art

All About My Mother

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Antonia San Juan, Eloy Azorin

(Sony Pictures Classics)

Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother adds credence to the argument that melodrama is to the postmodern what tragedy was to the ancient Greeks: the highest form of poetic expression because its form corresponds to the architecture of the cosmos. To draw a convincing figure of everyday life, the postmodern film (or this one at least) must include too many contradictory elements, too many coincidences, too many colliding universes and too many inter-related tragedies to bear. That is, it is only by connecting the visible world of nursing, theatrical performance, and middle-class motherhood to the subterranean world of prostitution, transsexualism, heroin use, and AIDS in such a way that all of these elements are interdependent while also being in dramatic contradiction, that the film can hope to generate a structure of feeling adequate to the complexity of urban life.

All About My Mother, over the top, highly contrived, and emotionally wrenching, clearly belongs to the second half of Almodovar’s opus, an opus which from start to finish has been an interrogation of sexuality and social context. All of his films might well be considered interventions in the construction of sexuality in the public sphere. If the early films — like The Law of Desire and Matador — explored gay sexuality, popular culture, and the underlying violence of eroticism with a direct, in-your-face, machista-gay passion, the later works — which include Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, High Heels and All About My Mother — are engaged in a sophisticated cultural politics of seduction. These later films are at once heroic and strategic. They endeavor to engage the universe of supposedly civilized passions sanctioned by heterosexual monogamy, while at the same time exploring the limits, contradictions, and deceits of these passions. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, for example, stages a farcical romance in which boy meets girl, boy ties up girl, and girl falls in love with boy. This preposterous conclusion, which some viewers found amusing, others scandalous, and still others plain dumb, surreptitiously achieves a more acerbic quality if and when you realize that its farcical premise is the presupposition of traditional heterosexual courtship: specifically, the constraining of women leads them to love the men who constrain them. Almodovar here grafts onto a light erotic comedy a scathing critique of heterosexual politics.

Such a critique could only be launched from a perspective located beyond the confines of normative sexuality. And All About My Mother utilizes a similar strategy. Beginning in the familiar, if eroticized, universe of motherly love, it leads the (mainstream) viewer into a sexual and political beyond. We first become aware of underlying complexity when 17-year-old Esteban (Eloy Azorin) asks his mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth) if, hypothetically, she would prostitute herself to protect him. She replies that she has already done almost everything a mother could do for him. This exchange builds on an apparent sexual tension between mother and son which the viewer cannot be sure exists for the characters, but can be quite sure exists for the film. We are thus drawn into the film, sharing with it a knowledge of the secret eroticism of family, in which sexuality and love are inextricably woven. This “knowledge” gives the film a sophisticated and tony air.

When, a few scenes later Esteban is killed before Manuela’s eyes while chasing a taxi for an autograph, she returns to the heretofore unseen universe of sex workers and transsexuals from which she had protected him. There, in the world which she fled partially in search of a safe, that is middle-class and “normal” life for her and her son, she achieves earlier dreams she had thought it necessary to put aside for motherhood. She realizes buried aspects of herself both despite and because of her terrible loss.

Most importantly, Manuela acts, as Stella in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, a role she had played before Esteban was born, but also as an actor among actors. Theatricality appears everywhere and everywhere appears as the “false art” which at once underlies existence and through which true community might be realized. Indeed, Manuela’s previous life, her role as a transplant nurse, also retrospectively appears as an act, although no less real or important for all that. Performance becomes visible as the sine qua non of existence and taking control of one’s performances becomes Manuela’s conduit to buried memory and lost history because it makes her past live again. She, and her community of actors, transgendered souls, and pregnant HIV-positive nuns fill existing roles with their own desires, thus making life anew. They can love, have sex or not, and calibrate their situations to their needs, if they can release their creative powers.

If I had to sum up the thesis of the film, it would be something like, “Repression of untoward desire can be fatal to others, if not to yourself.” Manuela hid her previous life from Esteban, giving Esteban pictures of her with the image of his father ripped away, and never, in seventeen years, telling him that his father was a transsexual. Esteban, an aspiring writer, was searching for her past, that is his own past, when he was killed. The structure of the film suggests that even though there exists no single or explicit causal link between Manuela’s silence and Esteban’s death, he dies because she hid the past. As with the ancient tragedies, the trauma of hidden origins works itself out in the logic of events which here kill Esteban.

But, it must be said that All About My Mother offers far more than a thesis about repressed desire; it evokes and engages such desire, seeking its release. The next Esteban (for the film manages to show that there will be another one, magnificently doing so in such a way that the next one does not replace the former) will know that his father had breasts, used IV-drugs, and died of AIDS, and that knowledge will be essential.


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