Friday, April 3, 2009

Volver: Against Idealization of Mother-Daughter Relationships in Pedro Almodovar's Films

Volver, a film by Pedro Almodovar, starring Penelope Cruz is a tale of a family of women and their intergenerational experience of sexual abuse and the murders of the fathers/perpetrators.


We watched this film as part of the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies (T-BIPS), The Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society (TBPS), and the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of South Florida film series, “Women in Crisis: Scholarly and Clinical Perspectives.” Adriana Novoa, Ph.D. USF’s Humanities and Cultural Studies and Horacio Arias, M.D. facilitated the discussion with the audience. [Pictured left to right: Adriana Novoa, Ph.D.; Kim Vaz, Ph.D.; Horacio Arias, M.D.; and USF student David Astril.]

Dr. Novoa noted that Volver is just one in a series of Almodavar’s films (Talk to Her, Bad Education, All about My Mother) that continues his focus on the impossibility of the unity between men and women and the romanticizing of all female family and friendship groups that provide unconditional support, renewal, and protection.

She interprets Volver against the backdrop of a contemporary Spanish society in transition between village and city life. In the region of the country in which the film is set, the idealization of the mother as matriarch is particularly strong. The mythology and fantasy is that the mother allows for the adult to have a woman to return home to who will offer a perfect asylum.

In the film, Irene the mother of Raimunda and Sole pretends to the girls that her marriage to their father was a perfect love in which he died in her arms. The truth turns out to be that he was a womanizer and a child molester, a truth Irene ignored for years, casting her daughter Raimunda out of the family to keep from having to face it.

The movie is replete with splits: male vs. females; men are dangerous women are safe; the dead vs. the living; ghosts vs. real people. Irene exists in a dissociated state. She is both dead and alive, a ghost and a real person. She arrives to her daughters lives in the city in the trunk of a car; she has a stench from her constant flatulence and she sleeps under the bed.

It is only in her dissociated state that Irene can “not notice” that her daughter is being abused. The daughters are themselves confused. They ask and wonder if their mother is alive and does the forgiveness the mother says she has returned to give coming from the mother who is alive, or the one who is dead.

Novoa sees Alamodavar’s views as retrograde and sexist. He is playing into the values of an authoritarian state that says that the mother is responsible for holding the nation together. He provides a romanticized vision of the return of the mother to a terrorized and torn society, ripped apart by the unchecked destructiveness of the father who rapes, violates and disunites the family/nation. Once the man is dead, reconciliation can occur and women can help heal the fractures.

This essentializing of the female characters minimizes the negative qualities that are a natural part of mother/daughter relationships that are steeped in a history of betrayal. Irene feels rage against her husband and a lack of remorse for murdering those who have betrayed her. Irene burns the people who cause her pain (her husband and his lover) and or casts them out of her house (e.g. her daughter).

Dr. Novoa noted that in Almodavar’s hands, Irene is a terrible mother imposing her will on her children dominating them and celebrating their failures at love because it makes room for her. For Irene, single women need not be alone she tells Sole, implying that her mother can fill the romantic void. Mother and daughter can share the same bed. Irene demoralizes her daughters through critiques of their bodies (in a way that leads the audience to wonders if Irene blames Raimunda for her own molestation).

Dr. Arias pointed out that the film uses comedy to ease our anxiety about sexual abuse. But but joking about our problems does not eliminate the need to actually process them – to learn new ways of handling our ambivalent feelings for the people we love. In his analysis, Dr. Arias said that the Irene (Raimunda’s mother) was unable to have a loving relationship with her husband and was incapable of emotionally connecting with her daughter. Because Irene did not have the ability to relate, she could not teach her daughter how to resolve the problems in her own intimate relationships with her male partner for whom Raimunda had both loving and hateful feelings.

Raimunda was unable to resolve her contradictory feelings about the hate that she felt for her father because of his abuse and the rage she felt toward her mother for “not noticing” the abuse. Her rage against her mother was coupled with the longing and need for her her. Because Raimunda was unable to handle her complex feelings generated by her husband’s masturbation and sexual inappropriateness with her daughter and to assertively protect her daughter – i.e., repeating the failure of her mother, the abusive man ends up dead. The goal of therapy for people with this type of ambivalence would aim to help them integrate these disparate emotions and tolerate and make sense of the contradictory affect in order to have relationships that neither devalue or idealize the other person.

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1 comment:

Care said...

Without a doubt this is the most intense of all relationships, sparks alternately flying around and threatening to blaze the surroundings and then coming to rest in the intimate warmth of a glowing campfire. Until adolescence, the mother-daughter relationship is one of general warmth and closeness. Sure, there are the occasional blow-ups, but most resolve themselves with heartfelt apologies from both sides, and lots of hugs.