Penélope Cruz has appeared in four Almodóvar films to date (Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006), and Broken Embraces (2009)). I was going to simply write about Volver for the blog, it is among my favourite films, but in my mind the film is inextricably linked to Cruz and her star image (in part, no doubt, because that was the prism through which I initially viewed it –see note at the end of this post). Almodóvar has over the years worked with a succession of female muses: Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, and most recently Penélope Cruz. He adeptly both plays to their strengths and also pushes them beyond what they have delivered for other directors –labelling him a ‘women’s director’ is often meant to be derogatory, but Almodóvar directs women like few others. While his muses have played iconic roles for other directors, I would argue that the roles given to them by Almodóvar are among their most memorable, and (in terms of UK audiences) often their best known as well. It is a well-circulated story in her interviews that after sneaking into a screening of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), a young Penélope Cruz told her mother that she was going to be an actress and would someday work with Almodóvar. This post looks at how her career has intersected with his, and why Volver can be seen as a ‘star vehicle’ custom-made for her.
In 1992 Bigas Luna and Fernando Trueba, the directors of the two films that launched Cruz’s career (Jamón jamón and Belle epoque, both 1992), publicly stated that this new actress was going to have a major career ahead of her (see: Angulo Barturen (2007) and Trueba (1992)), but Almodóvar (who had yet to meet her) also went on record to say that a major new talent in Spanish cinema had arrived: ‘Es la gran revelación femenina de este año […] En tres o cuatro años podrá lucir en su hall tres o cuatro estatuillas de “Oscar”’ [‘She is the female revelation of the year […] In three or four years she could have three or four Oscars’] (quoted in Ponga 1993: 85). It would actually take her another fourteen years to get an Oscar nomination, but it was under the direction of this early advocate of her talent that she got there (and those three Spanish directors who championed her from the start were all thanked in her 2009 Oscar acceptance speech when she won for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Allen, 2008)).
As demonstrated by the roles he wrote for her in Live Flesh and Volver, Almodóvar prefers Cruz in the social milieu (at the bottom of the heap) of her first role, Silvia in Jamón jamón: ‘Sus mejores interpretaciones han sido las muy plebeyas y echadas palante de Jamón jamón, La niña de tus ojos, Carne trémula, Blow ([…]), No te muevas, y Volver’ [‘Her best performances have been those very common and daring [women] in Jamón jamón, La niña de tus ojos / The Girl of Your Dreams (Trueba, 1998), Live Flesh, Blow (Demme, 2001) ([…]), Non ti muovere / Don’t Move (Castellitto, 2004), and Volver’] (Almodóvar 2006: 96). He omits All About My Mother from the list because her role in that film was more delicate and related to another aspect of Cruz, her spirituality (ibid), which can be traced back to her role as Luz in Belle epoque (Evans 2004: 56). That said, although Sister Rosa comes from a more bourgeois background than Cruz’s other significant roles (apart from Luz), the first time we see her is when Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is trawling Barcelona’s red light district and her taxi passes Rosa handing out condoms to the assembled prostitutes; Rosa wears her class lightly and moves through the different social strata with ease and without judgement (the only place she seems uncomfortable is in her middle class family home).
The other striking aspect of Cruz’s four Almodóvar characters is that they go against the grain of her image as the eternal ‘niña / hija de España’ [little girl / daughter of Spain] and suggest a development and / or maturation of her star persona in so far as, while all four films put her in the daughter role in a mother-daughter relationship (with Pilar Bardem, Cecilia Roth (and Rosa María Sardá), Carmen Maura, and Ángela Molina respectively), in the first three films she is also a mother. Guillermo Cabrera Infante noted at the time of All About My Mother’s release that ‘parecería que Penélope Cruz está en las películas de Almodóvar para dar la luz entre las sombras’ [‘it would appear that Penélope Cruz is in Almodóvar’s films to give birth between the shadows’] (1999), a play on words (‘dar la luz’ –to give birth, but taken literally ‘to give light’) that highlights the luminosity that is one of Cruz’s trademarks (Evans 2004: 59), the theme of motherhood or maternity that Almodóvar has woven into her image, and also the dark situations that Almodóvar puts her into so that she can shine. All three of these aspects, as well as a heightened sense of Spanishness, were drawn together once more in Volver.
Fittingly for a film that allowed Cruz to draw a line under her girlish image and be considered as a woman, Volver had gestated so long that when Almodóvar originally conceived the idea (Volver’s narrative features as one of the plots of the Amanda Gris melodramatic novels in The Flower of My Secret) he thought that Cruz would play Raimunda’s daughter, the role eventually taken by Yohana Cobo. The film is a ‘return’ on many different levels for both Almodóvar and Cruz. For Almodóvar it is a return to his roots, to La Mancha (where he was raised) and the customs of rural Spain:
De todos modos, soy manchego y es una de esas cosas que yo no me discuto a mí mismo. Pertenezco a aquella tierra. Además, en esta película se habla como sólo se habla allí, que es un modo de hablar muy distinto al del resto de Castilla. Es la película más puramente manchega que he hecho […] Me he fijado en toda la cultura y las pequeñas cosas que existen en la sociedad manchega alrededor de la muerte […] [‘In all forms, I am Manchego and this is one of those things that I don’t dispute about myself. I am of that land. What’s more, in this film they speak as only they speak there, which is a form of speaking that is very distinct from the rest of Castilla. It is the most purely manchega film that I have made […] I have paid attention to all of the culture and the little things that exist in manchega society surrounding death’] (Almodóvar in Costa 2006: 100)
He also returns to the world of women (having made two films, Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004), which focused on men) and Almodóvar’s representations of gender go against the grain of what is expected from a country with Spain’s history; thus Cruz takes her place in an impressive line up of strong female protagonists within Almodóvar’s oeuvre. The film is also a return to his working with Carmen Maura, Penélope Cruz, Lola Dueñas, and Chus Lampreave (all of whom had worked with him before). For Cruz, aside from marking her return to Spanish cinema after a five-year absence (her previous Spanish film was Sin noticias de Dios / Don’t Tempt Me (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2001), her performance in Volver stands as an encapsulation of her career to date.
|Silvia and Raimunda|
Volver is a ‘star vehicle’ in the manner described by Richard Dyer ( 1998) and Paul McDonald (2000), a film tailored to the star’s existing image to maximise audience expectation and consumption, effectively using the star as the premise for the film. While Almodóvar links Raimunda (Cruz) back to his own earlier creations (specifically Gloria (Carmen Maura) in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)) and to the women in his family (Costa 2006: 100), this character in a film described as ‘un bello canto a las raíces’ [‘a beautiful hymn to roots’] (Torreiro 2006: 63) can also be seen as a knowing homage to the origins of Cruz’s star image: Raimunda contains the same elements of sexuality, family relations, luminosity, and the struggle between tradition and modernity that were embodied by Cruz’s early roles. She could be the older sister of Jamón jamón’s Silvia, or indeed the woman Silvia grew up to be (all naivety long since gone), complete with a daughter whose age corresponds to the baby that Silvia was carrying in Bigas Luna’s 1992 film.
Raimunda also evokes The Girl of Your Dream’s Macarena Granada (a star of 1930s musicals) through her heartfelt performance of the song ‘Volver’ but unlike the ‘Princess of Spanish Cinema’ in Trueba’s film, Raimunda shied away from and rejected the attention that her voice brought her as a child. She is clearly styled after several Italian actresses (another (weaker) link to Cruz’s own image given her critical acclaim in Non ti muovere), as Almodóvar references the high-glamour aspect of female Italian stars of the 1950s, such as Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale, through Raimunda’s hair, make-up, and the pencil skirts and fitted cardigans. But at the same time there are also certain visual iconographies (Dyer  1998: 62) that call to mind Silvia, in terms of dress and also an association with lower social classes, working women, and food (our attention is drawn to food that is traditionally Spanish, with several characters bringing food back to Madrid from visits to their hometowns). There are also several visual references to Jamón jamón, or at least visual set ups that recall the earlier film, such as the respective sequences where they carry home shopping, and also a scene where Raimunda, half ready to go to work, sits on Paula’s bed to reassure her that everything will be alright: the latter is a mirror image of a scene in Bigas Luna’s 1992 film, but Cruz is now the mother rather than the daughter.
Raimunda’s clothes, with their bright colours and fashionable styles, reveal her to no longer be part of the village community where she grew up, at the same time as her accent and mannerisms firmly tie her to her birthplace; her internal struggle between tradition and contemporaneity (a recurring feature of Cruz’s roles in Spanish films), between the past and a possible future, have placed her in limbo due to the secret she keeps hidden. This struggle between tradition and the contemporary is also suggestive of something similar taking place at a wider level in Spanish society: Richard Dyer offers an ideological reading of the star as embodying or representing hegemonic struggles within a given culture and that certainly seems to be present in the images of Penélope Cruz, and also Javier Bardem. In 1992 Spain’s grapple with its identity and the legacy of its past was played out on a grand scale as the country found itself on the world stage for the first time since it had gained democracy (the year saw the Olympic Games in Barcelona, the quincentennial commemoration of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, the World Fair in Seville, and Madrid’s designation as ‘European City of Culture’). Cruz and Bardem emerged at that precise moment and this battle over Spanish identity is ingrained in both their images; that certain elements are still present in Cruz’s image all these years later suggests that Spain has yet to fully reconcile its past (tradition) with its present (contemporaneity). (That said, this ‘conflict’ is not exclusively Spanish; to some extent most national identities are in ongoing negotiations with the past). In this context it is significant that Volver also emphasises Raimunda’s regional identity because in Spain it is not simply Spanish identities that exist in the plural, but also regional identities that have their own fissures and fragilities (Berthier and Seguin 2007: xvii); these fissures occur twice over as the manchega Raimunda is transplanted to a different region (Madrid).
Raimunda is on the periphery both in terms of geography (her apartment in Madrid is in Vallecas, which on the DVD director’s commentary Almodóvar describes as one of the poorest barrios in Madrid, and as being on the outskirts of the city) and family (she had no contact with her mother in the years preceding her ‘death’ and has been unable to confide in her family that she was abused as a child and that Paula is her sister as well as her daughter). Silvia also lived on the margins of society (Raimunda’s family is admittedly more ‘respectable’), and like her we see Raimunda teetering in espadrille wedge shoes as she drags home heavy shopping bags; that they walk such distances even with heavy loads is a subtle illustration of their lack of money. Cruz has stated that the film is a tribute to working women, and to women who carry themselves with dignity when doing jobs that are looked down on (Ponga 2006: 90). Many interviews and profiles throughout Cruz’s career have emphasised her own working-class roots by stressing that she has not forgotten where she came from, and this aspect of her image was highlighted at the time of Volver through Cruz saying that many women in her family (particularly her mother) had inspired her performance (Ponga 2006: 90). Volver also places the actress within the familial structures and support networks of women that are a common feature in her Spanish films (although an emphasis on family is not unique to Spain, it is a theme that most of Cruz’s ‘key’ Spanish films have in common) and that are exemplified by the women surrounding Raimunda in the film. Volver sees Penélope Cruz return to the origins of her star image and Almodóvar gave her what may become her definitive role, epitomising the quality that all of her best roles contain, a quality that Bigas Luna identifies as originating in Cruz herself: ‘una luchadora nata’ [‘a born fighter’] (2007: 48).
[This post is an edited extract from the Penélope Cruz chapter of my PhD thesis (which if you hadn’t guessed by now, is about Spanish stardom). Broken Embraces hadn’t been released in the UK at the point when I submitted, so any mention of that film has been added in for this post, as have the translations of quotations that were originally in Spanish, but otherwise it has been a case of cutting things rather than adding. Note: all translations of Spanish quotations into English are my own –I’ve included the original Spanish as well for clarity (and to allow people to highlight any errors).]
Almodóvar, P. (2006) –‘Mi Pe, mi Carmen’, Fotogramas, March, p.96.
Angulo Barturen, J. (2007) –El Poderoso Influjo de “Jamón, Jamón”, Madrid: El Tercer Nombre, S.A.
Berthier, N. and J-C. Seguin (2007) –‘Introducción’, in Cine, nación y nacionalidades en España, edited by N. Berthier and J-C. Seguin, Madrid: Casa de Velásquez, pp.xv-xviii.
Bigas Luna (2007) – ‘El descubrimiento de una estrella’, Magazine, La Vanguardia, 14th January, p.48.
Cabrera Infante, G. (1999) –‘Todo sobre Almodóvar’, El País, 16th May.
Costa, J. (2006) –‘La fama, la muerte y todo lo demás: una conversación entre Penélope Cruz y Pedro Almodóvar’, Citizen K España, Spring (March/April/May), no.5, pp.98-102.
Dyer, R. ( 1998) – Stars, with supplementary chapter by P. McDonald, London: BFI Publishing.
Evans, P.W. (2004) – Jamón, jamón, Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós.
McDonald, P. (2000) – The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities, London: Wallflower Press.
Ponga, P. (1993) –‘Penélope Cruz: dulce pájaro’, Fotogramas, December, pp.80-85.
(2006) –‘ Penélope: salvajemente serena’, Fotogramas, March, pp.86-94.
Torreiro, M. (2006) –‘Un bello retorno’, El País, 17th March, p.63.
Trueba, F. (1992) –‘Como se hizo: Belle epoque’, Fotogramas, month unknown, pp.112-113.