Almodóvar’s Women: Breaking the Roles, Remaking the Mold

Beginning in July, the Criterion Channel added a collection of films written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. It includes nine films and an interview with the director. Nearly all of Almodóvar’s films center on the narratives of women and often, LGBTQ+ characters appear in prominent roles as well. It’s well known that the portrayal of women in film history leaves something to be desired. Some women, typically those who are cisgender, white, and have a higher socioeconomic status, have been afforded better representations. Even so, there is still a long way to go in front of and behind the camera. Because of this, Almodóvar’s choice to center on women’s narratives takes on extra meaning. He tells the stories of women of color, poor women, transgender women, and women at those intersections. Trans women are often absent onscreen and when they do appear, their representation tends to either center a tragic coming out story (a la Girl (2019) or Boys Don’t Cry (1999)) or paints trans people as villains, such as in Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Sleepaway Camp (1983). Almodóvar goes beyond these singular representations of women with his nuanced, complex and deeply human female leads. 

The following films are available on the Criterion Channel through the end of August. 

Warning: this article contains spoilers. 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

women on the verge
El Deseo S.A.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was one of Almodóvar’s first successful films. As the title suggests, this Almodóvar staple dives deep into the lives of three cisgender women as they reach their breaking points. It’s a fast-paced comedic movie that begins at the end of a romance, but does not use romance as a central story point. Hysteria is the central theme, but rather than painting the women as irrational or crazy, Almodóvar lets their humanity shine. The women are facing traumatic events — lovers leaving abruptly, depression, drug abuse, etc — and reacting accordingly. It could be argued that any portrayal of hysterical women contributes to women’s oppression, but there is something more to this film. The women are not solely comprised of their breakdowns: they have jobs, friends and entire personalities. One of the women, Pepa (Carmen Maura) works as a voice-over actor and juggles her own relationship issues, supporting a friend and working to sell her penthouse. Each woman has layers like Pepa, making the film notable for its character development despite its basis in the hysterical woman archetype.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

tie me up
El Deseo S.A.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! stars Antonio Banderas as Ricky, a man with an unhealthy obsession with Marina (Victoria Abril) that drives him to kidnap her. For much of the movie, Marina is tied to a bed with tape over her mouth. Ricky controls her every move and expresses his eternal love for her while he does so. Marina puts up a fight at first, but she eventually develops feelings for Ricky in a plot twist reeking of Stockholm Syndrome. The ending makes the overall portrayal of women questionable, but up until that point, Marina and the other female characters have more agency than most women in films at the time this was made. Before Marina’s kidnapping, it’s established that she has a successful acting career and close friends who care about her. She’s a strong woman and puts up a fight against Ricky, but she succumbs to him; which is not wholly impossible, but sends a message that Ricky’s persistence changed her mind. This is an unhealthy way to think about romantic relationships and calls into question the meaning of the premise. Combined with the overall better-than-average portrayal of women, this confusing message makes Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! a lackluster entry in Almodóvar’s catalog. Yet, it still reflects his tendency to represent women in a more realistic and respectful way than many other writers and directors. 

All About My Mother (1999)

all about my mother
El Deseo S.A.

Almodóvar’s All About My Mother follows Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse, immediately after her son Esteban’s (Eloy Azorin) unexpected death. She decides to seek out Lola (Toni Cantó), her old partner who was Esteban’s parent but is unaware Manuela had a baby. Along the way, Manuela spends time with Agrado (Antonio San Juan), an old friend who is a trans woman and a sex worker. Manuela’s life becomes entangled in the community there, with her eventually becoming a caretaker for the child of a friend who died from AIDS. The complicated string of events sends Manuela through grief, existentialism, and instances of transphobia against her friends and former partner who are trans women. Though none of the trans characters are played by trans actors, Almodóvar does not seem to cast according to gender. He casts by performance, with some trans women played by cisgender women and some by cis men. There are still flaws in this, as trans folks should be given the space to portray themselves, but there is a level of fluidity and disregard for gender stereotypes asserted by Almodóvar’s through this decision. Almodóvar writes Lola and Agrada’s characters the same way he writes cisgender women. They are fully human, with complex backgrounds and personalities. 

Bad Education (2004)

bad education
El Deseo S.A.

Much like All About My Mother, Almodóvar’s film Bad Education features trans women at the forefront of a complicated, twisting story. Bad Education is a dark drama about abuse in the Catholic church, jealousy, and revenge. It features transgender characters, but, unlike in All About My Mother, the character’s trans identity is less of a driving force in the story. Bad Education is propelled by Juan’s (Gael García Bernal) desire to make and star in a film adaptation of his sister Ignacio’s (Francisco Boira) life. Ignacio, a transgender woman, recently died of a drug overdose. Through a series of revelations, Juan’s true intentions become clear and with each twist, the pace quickens and the stakes grow higher. Bad Education is full of cross-dressing and queer relationships, but they are rarely made to seem out of the ordinary. Ignacio’s identity is talked about in disapproving ways at times, but overall her gender identity is not an issue. The film is more interested in leaning into its reveals and relishing their consequences. Bad Education is a romp that just so happens to include a transgender storyline, something that is unusual in films, but welcome.

Volver (2006)

volver
Sony Pictures Classics

Perhaps Almodóvar’s most well-known and critically-acclaimed film, Volver (meaning to come back, or to return) is a twisted story of two cisgender women struggling with grief and abuse. Shortly after her mother’s death, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) takes on an entirely new life. Her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), kills her father in self-defense after he attempts to assault her. The scene is painful to watch, but there are catharsis and relief knowing she overpowered her abuser and will never be hurt by him again. Almodóvar filmed the assault scene in the most respectful way possible: he did not film it. Instead, the aftermath is shown: the father, on the kitchen tile in a pool of his own blood; Paula, shaken but safe; and Raimunda, alarmed and engaged as her daughter tells her what happened. The revenge is just as sweet even when the attempted rape is not shown onscreen. After Raimunda realizes what has happened, she helps Paula cover up the murder and takes over a local restaurant to pay the bills, replacing the role her husband played in the house. By doing so, Raimunda is going outside the traditional gendered role of a wife, leaving the domain of the home and living without a man at her side. Volver is interested in women’s lives, with all their struggles and triumphs. It does not blame victims of abuse, instead, it empowers them. It remains a painfully relevant film even 13 years after its release, showing that Almodóvar was ahead of his time. 

The Skin I Live In (2011)

skin i live in
El Deseo S.A.

Almodóvar’s most recent film to feature a transgender main character is, unfortunately, a step backward. In comparison to his previous work with trans characters, The Skin I Live In (2011) uses one of the most tired and unrealistic tropes: the forced transition. Robert (Antonio Banderas) is a plastic surgeon specializing in skin repair for patients with severe burns. He keeps one of his patients, Vera (Elena Anaya), captive in his home while he performs procedures on them. The Skin I Live In echoes Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in the storyline, but the tone and end differ. Rather than Vera falling in love with Robert, Vera eventually escapes captivity. When Vera escapes, though, their friends don’t recognize them. While in captivity, Robert performed a sex change operation on Vera, formerly Vicente, and transformed them to look like his late wife. The film is not about transgender identity, it’s about Robert’s need to control and how it manifested in a violent change of another person’s body against their will. Even so, the forced transition narrative is harmful and inaccurate to the experiences of trans folks. It does not fall into many of the usual tropes, like the murderous transgender woman trope seen in many horror films, but it doesn’t improve the way transgender women are portrayed. The film itself is beautifully shot and scored, but the premise feels dated in a way that much of Almodóvar’s other films don’t.

In comparing Almodóvar’s representation of transgender women and cisgender women, there isn’t too much dissonance. Portrayals of both become problematic at times; in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! for cisgender women and in The Skin I Live In for trans women. The key, though, is that Almodóvar intentionally tells stories about women. His inclusion of transgender women, though radical in many circles, is not something that should be considered revolutionary. Ideally, film will reach a point when there is a multitude of examples of trans women in film (and other marginalized folks, too). Until then, though, Almodóvar’s body of work is full of interesting, layered depictions of women. Messy, imperfect, irrational, genius, cunning and remarkable women. 

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