Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Volver (2006)
The Birthday Series always seems like such a great idea when you take it on. 34 films, spread over a couple of months spanning the highbrow and the low, covering almost every genre and usually containing a great mix of films that I’ve been meaning to rewatch, haven’t seen or at least can be interesting about. However, a moment of introspection tells a different story, as they almost always have periods that contain hideous film after hideous film, runs that drain the soul and leave the humble reviewer a shaking wreck on the floor. When you couple it with that certain dates appear to be the release time of choice for certain types of films, then what you have is a series that can, potentially, claim to be the most difficult any of us take on. This is my second run through the Birthday Series, and this time I’ve been forced to take on a lot of second and third choice films from the original attempt. So, it’s time for Almodovar number 2 on my list, 2006’s Volver (release date August 25th).
This list is dramatically more highbrow than my first foray through the Birthday Series, featuring 4 films by Spanish National Treasure Pedro Almodovar. I’ve seen almost all of the elderly filth merchant’s output, and remain nonplussed as to why he’s such a critical darling. For the most part, they either disgust me or else they bore me, but in a few unfortunate efforts they manage to do both. Ebert said about Volver that Almodovar is “a director that loves women”, and I respectfully disagree. He doesn’t, he loves freaks. Still, with almost every Almodovar film I’ve seen there’s usually plenty of high-quality nudity to distract me from proceedings and relieve the terminal boredom/ quell the rising tide of nausea.
This time around, Penelope Cruz had returned from making terrible American movies to the less than welcoming embrace of Pedro. Pedro, clearly, had in mind to teach her a lesson about buggering off to America and forgetting her roots:
‘The role is about her humanity, her heart as well as her face. Pretty girls don’t usually get such parts. In America, they don’t know how to use actresses. I saved her from Hollywood.’
I think he’s being somewhat duplicitous about this, because the old queen never had the slightest qualms in getting Cruz naked for his films. However, he’s upset about something: her time in Hollywood has made her too thin. Pedro’s solution? Yup, that’ll be a prosthetic arse. Quite how fitting one of the world’s most gorgeous women with an artificial rear end is saving her from Hollywood is open to interpretation. Myself, I think it isn’t. I think it’s a reminder to her that she is, first and foremost, a Spanish actress and not an American starlet.
Anyway, digressions about Cruz’s prosthetic behind aside, this is the film: Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) are sisters from a town in La Mancha. On returning for a funeral, their next door neighbour tells them that she heard their aunt talking to their long dead mother. This is impossible, as both their parents died in a fire years before the film starts. No sooner have they returned to Madrid, than Sole finds their mother Irene’s ghost (Carmen Maura) has hitched a ride back. In the meantime, Raimunda’s daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), has attracted the unwelcome attention of her father, and kills him defending herself. The rest of the film follows the events from the fall out of this death and the return (Volver is literally translated as Return) of their mother. Secrets are revealed, women do a lot of talking and I practically pass out from the sheer unadulterated boredom. There’s only one piece of nudity and it’s Cobo’s which is minging because she’s 12 or something. What the fuck Pedro?
This is an excruciating film. To say it’s boring doesn’t even begin to get to the bottom of it. Christ knows what I was thinking when I gave it a pass last time. As with other Almodovar’s this is, again, a glorified telenovella, we’ve got hidden incest, sister/ mothers, crimes of passion, and so forth, but what we really have is a lot of women talking. Talking and talking and talking about frankly boring, weird and irrelevant subjects. I thought the film was going to briefly spring in to life when they dispose of the body, but nope, nothing happened then either. I think of all the Almodovar films that I’ve ever seen this is him at his most restrained and therefore least interesting. He talks about Volver being about the juxtaposition of sex and death, but that really isn’t the case, because there’s naff all sex. What there is, I suppose, is a lot of analysis of relationships, and when the central conspiracy is laid bare, it is a humdinger, and would have made me sit up had I not lost the will to live about 20 minutes before it.
The award-winning acting here is, I suppose, good. It’s hard to tell when you honestly don’t care about anything that’s happening on screen. Cruz is luminous in Spanish films, so far better than she ever is in anything in English, and it’s easy to see why she thought she’d make it in America. Maura, reconciled with Almodovar after a 20 year moody, is good as Irene, but the absurdity of her situation taints the performance, and she’s got some difficult and frankly bizarre speeches towards the, for wont of a better expression, climax of the film that she has a good stab at. Dueñas is probably the best of the leads, but all in all it’s pretty easy to see why these actresses all picked up awards for this- it’s pure critic bait.
Volver is also a pretty film. The Spanish landscape looks sumptuous, and the camera lovingly lingers over Cruz’s cleavage enough times to make me think that Pedro may be on to something here, but at the end of the day it feels soulless, it doesn’t feel like he’s got a connection to the material. This is, frankly, surprising, as Vovler is very much him working through the issues that arose with his mother’s death, but the film is warm, yet strangely sterile. He’s at his most restrained, as noted above, and so it feels like he hasn’t thrown himself into it the way he normally would.
Overall, this is a crap film, and I really don’t recommend it. To say I was bored is an understatement, and I bloody resent the time it took to sit through. I’m not cut out for soap operas, and, if you remove the parade of grotesques that usually appear in Almodovar films, I don’t think he is either. If I had rewatched this before The Skin I Live In then I would have docked the later points, because watching Volver it became apparent that if he hasn’t got a twisted narrative and flashily repellent characters then he’s got nothing else. Almodovar needs to hide in the shadows of society with his freakshow, because when exposed to the light what remains is singularly empty and uninteresting. I give Volver a deeply disappointed 1 prosthetic arse out of 4.
In fact, now I think about it, Cruz’s prosthetic arse is a great metaphor for this film- looks great, but at the end of the day, it’s totally artificial and becomes boring very quickly.
This is not, frankly, making me look forward to the other 2 on the list.
Until next time,
The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:
- 2011- The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism (2.5 out of 4)
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny (1 out of 4)
- 2007- Knocked Up (1 out of 4)
- 2006- Volver (1 out of 4)
- 2005- Red Eye
- 2004- Dead Clowns
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
- 2002- Talk to Her
- 2001- Jeeper’s Creepers
- 2000- Gossip
- 1999- All About My Mother
- 1998- The X-Files
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion
- 1996- The Last Supper
- 1995- The Usual Suspects
- 1994- The Color of Night
- 1993- Surf Ninjas
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume
- 1990- Wild at Heart
- 1989- Bull Durham
- 1988- Crossing Delancey
- 1987- The Big Easy
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
- 1985- Better off Dead
- 1984- Oxford Blues
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn
- 1982- The Thing
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway
- 1980- Schock
- 1979- Rich Kids
- 1978- Coma