The title of Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, Volver, literally means “to return.” But, at least when pronounced with an American accent, it’s not hard to imagine an aural pun referring to a certain part of a woman’s anatomy. If that’s deliberate, then the title is not only a reference to the film’s status as figurative ghost story, but also a declaration of intent to explore the lives of a handful of women sprung (as all women are) from the wombs of their mothers.
It’s also a return to a certain form for Almodóvar, whose breakout film, lo those many years ago, was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and who is probably still most popularly known as a director of smartly updated women’s melodramas. Unfortunately, that form represents a big step backward from the relative riskiness of projects like Talk to Her and Bad Education. Volver feels really cozy and just a little overstuffed, like something that’s been calibrated to satisfy audience expectations. It’s a cleverly scripted drama featuring a big-bosomed heroine, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz, better here than she’s been anywhere before), who’s not just able in the kitchen but also takes responsibility for her daughter’s colossal transgression, for her mother’s injured pride (and similarly ferocious response), and the thicket her own life has become all in the course of this film’s 120 minutes. The title also alludes to a form of karma, the notion that what goes around comes around — from youngest to oldest, this film is populated by women you do not want to fuck with.
Talk about a crowd-pleaser — it’s testimony to Almodóvar’s development as a filmmaker that he plays his audience so well. There’s enough intrigue and good humor that you barely mind the clichés, the misdirection, and the easy capitulation to formula. I hear a lot of griping about Cruz, but while she doesn’t give any kind of world-beating performance here, she’s more than competent and makes an awfully good-looking movie star. Blanca Portillo’s Agustina is a cipher, a woman of almost eerie quiet whose illness forces Raimunda to confront the hauntings in her own life. And Carmen Maura is the clear stand-out as Raimunda’s mother, wide-eyed and wearing something close to a cherub’s grin on her face — she’s back from the dead to take a stab at setting right those earthly matters she can still touch.
Even the press notes suggest Almodóvar saw Volver as something of a retreat after his recent ventures into uncharted territory. “I enjoyed it more,” he writes, “because the last shoot (Bad Education) was absolute hell. I had forgotten what it was like to shoot without having the feeling of being permanently on the edge of the abyss. This doesn’t mean that Volver is better than my previous film … just that this time I suffered less.” So I don’t begrudge the director finding a kind of contentment in this kind of cinematic comfort food. I just hope the loss of the edge he seems to have found lately is no kind of permanent condition.