Pedro Almodóvar is one the most-acclaimed working directors in world cinema over the past three decades, but he's been a sort-of willful blind spot for me. Although I enjoyed a few prominent Spanish movies from the 1990s, such as Belle Epoque, Jamon Jamon and The Day of the Beast, the only Almodóvar I've seen is Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! That movie's dark humor and twisted psychology were bracing, but there's something about the outwardly kitschy appearance and tone of his movies that dampens my enthusiasm. There is clearly a substantial audience who responds positively to his style of hyper-florid, overly quirky near-camp, and who tend to give movies that trade in a similar gaudy aesthetic generous credit from the start. I, on the other hand, go into such movies with almost a touch of dread, as too often the style misaligns with my sensibility by such a margin that they must achieve something extraordinary in other areas to compensate. Sadly, the film that seems to be regarded as Almodóvar's masterpiece, All About My Mother, hit me squarely on my nerve of indifference. It's certainly a nice-looking production, with appealing performers, but its narrative is simultaneously too busy and too static, not helped by what seemed like an utterly haphazard case of tonal schizophrenia. I can see how, if his style appealed to me, I might forgive or go with those problems, but that's not the case.
Cecilia Roth stars in All About My Mother as Manuela, a single mother whose intense relationship with her teenage son is overshadowed by her reticence to discuss both her past and his father, from whom she has been estranged for 18 years. A tragedy sends Manuela from Madrid to Barcelona to find her ex-husband, but what she ends up with is a new surrogate family, consisting of a transexual hooker (Antonia San Juan), a pregnant nun (Penélope Cruz) and a lesbian actress (Marisa Paredes) with a junkie girlfriend. Dedicated to actresses, All About My Mother not only offers supposedly meaty roles for its capable cast, but also includes direct references and parallels to the acting showcases of All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire. However, none of the individual, seemingly rich, pieces added up to a thematically coherent, satisfying whole; or, at least, it pursues a theme that is as far off-base for me as is Almodóvar's style.
At the start, All About My Mother, with its mysterious string score, bold imagery and slightly creepy mother-son dynamic, feels like an off-beat riff on Brian De Palma's riffing on Hitchcock. A quick turn in the plot, however, precipitates a shift in tone which completely ditches that alluring opening. Almodóvar then seems to be constructing the content of a screwball comedy, but plays it like half-soap opera, half-sensitive drama. All of this zig-zagging from one intention to another might have worked in the hands of a masterful storyteller, but Almodóvar is 60% style and 40% provocateur, and the thematic purpose to his glam mischief becomes lost in his whirlwind of showy directorial busywork.
All About My Mother is overstuffed with promising narrative details, but they further muddle the undynamic central character arc and the resonance of the overall theme. Manuela is dully static as she naturally assumes the role of mother to the other women she encounters. None of the characters or performances felt fully realized, but more like deliberate constructs of "shocking" qualities designed to break down preconceptions that an audience for this film would not care about anyway. Even Cruz, with her wonderfully emotive eyes, felt trapped within a character lacking the integrity or intelligence of the actress portraying her. When Manuela becomes the caretaker of a newborn, I suppose Almodóvar's purpose is to contrast it with her first run at motherhood as being secretive and self-denying, and thereby suffocating, destructive and doomed. Her new chance at raising a son from scratch gives her a fresh opportunity to embrace whatever extended family she has at her disposal, despite their sometimes troubling flaws, gifting the child with multiple diverse mother-figures from the offset. I can see how this inclusive ending might strike the perfect chord with many, but, weirdly, Manuela's climactic epiphany takes place offscreen during a blink-of-the-eye two-year transition, stealing the emotional payoff from the character's own story. Almodóvar just doesn't seem that interested in his characters as people. They're either knick knacks that look great within his production design, or they're buttons he can push to prove how edgy and yet enlightened he is.