APCS conference

Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 2007 Annual Conference – Hope for Hard Times: Anxiety, Alienation and Activism, Rutgers University, 2-4 November 2007.

Panel: A return to Almodóvar: Roundtable discussion of his most recent film.

Panelists: Marilyn Charles (chair), Austen Riggs Center; Hilary Neroni, University of Vermont; Elizabeth Danze, University of Texas; John Blood, Yale University; Luis Martin-Cabrera, University of California, San Diego, Laura Gonzalez, Glasgow School of Art


Mothers, daughters and cryptophores. A few remarks

Two related issues in Volver have particularly touched me, as I have examined them in my artistic practice. First, the mother-daughter relationship –which I explored in a sound installation called ‘Things I have never told you (Mother)’ shown in 2000–. Second, the seduction of the secret –which is the topic of my current visual research work.

After two films considering male relationships, Almodovar returns, in Volver, to his signature genre of women’s melodrama or “Almodrama”, as Cuban critic Cabrera Infante calls it, exploring their self-sufficiency. Indeed, male characters, are either killed, or represented as gaze or objects (remember the male gaze Sole experienced at Paula’s funeral), and this resonates of one of a literary work representing Spain’s matriarchal society: Lorca’s La casa de Bernarda Alba. In Almodovar’s film, women, through their activities, perform the social roles of both men and women: they cook and clean; they lift and bury corpses. They work to re-establish the domestic order after death, rape, incest and murder (Kinder, 2007: 7), and for that, their attention is solely focused on their fellow female characters, sacrificing sexuality.

Women’s interactions within this film, however, are mediated by secrets, either shared, or to be shared. Secrets are seductive, in the sense of leading astray, of spawning a change in the direction the characters were set to take at the beginning of the narrative. In Volver, secrets have a particular bearing in consolidating the four mother-daughter relationships at the core of the story, all of which are also mediated by some kind of death or disappearance:

• First: Irene and Raimunda share Irene’s murder of her husband and his lover; and Raimunda’s incestuous relationship with her father, also Paula’s father. Key to this relationship is the slow approach of these two characters within the film (through the singing, the farts) and which culminates in the final scene, where their secrets are shared. Irene says: “Si hubiera muerto, hubiera vuelto” (If I had died, I would have come back), the desire to share her secret is so seductive that it would have lead her astray from death’s path.

• Second: Raimunda and Paula become more united by Paula’s killing of Paco; and Raimunda’s promise to tell her, in due time, who her real father is.

• Third: Irene and Sole. Sole is the first to be let into the secret that Irene is alive.

• And fourth, Agustina and her missing mother, who was never at home when Agustina was growing up –she was brought up by her grandmother–. Agustina is a kind, solitary character whose quest is to find her mother, in order to share her secret. At the end of the film, Irene takes on this role, and their bond is strengthened by the fact that, although Agustina knew everything, she did not tell.

Irene and Raimunda; Raimunda and Paul; Irene and Sole; Agustina, alone. Image credits: © Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda

Indeed, the secrets these women carry have to be dealt with privately from within the mother-daughter relationship; public confession is not possible. As Agustina said: “Los trapos sucios debemos lavarlos entre nosotras” (literally: we should wash our dirty linen between us): no police and no media –especially TV represented in the film as the reality programme Donde quiera que estes– can help with the burden and the loss these women are suffering. For Agustina, this decision means her death. Abraham and Torok’s work on cryptophores, secrets, phantoms and mourning is, of course, of particular relevance to my position in relation to this film, and I wanted to point in their direction (Abraham & Torok, 1994), even though I don’t have time to elaborate in the 5 minutes allocated for my position paper.

For Almodovar, the privacy of mother-daughter relationships, and the intensity bore by carrying secrets, create anxiety but also bear hope. This is evident in Volver, which ends with renewed relationships; and also in some of his other films that speak about mothers, primarily High Heels and All About My Mother. In order to contextualise Volver within Almodovar’s oeuvre, it might be useful to look at Paul Julian Smith’s comparison with Picasso’s artistic development (something useful for a visual artist, anyway). Smith highlights a status of distinction within Almodovar’s films that separates them into two creative periods:

• A pink or rose period, which comprises his first 10 films: from Pepi, Lucy, Bom y otras chicas del montón to Kika. This is characterised by a more playful and florid approach to image making, excess, and the exploration of the social through marginal milieus

• And a blue period: From The flower of my secret to Volver. Here the social is dealt with in a more mature and austere way; he incorporates literary references, and shows delight and a little nostalgia.

These creative periods can also be mapped in relation to Almodovar’s progressive turn from Eros to Thanatos. The development of Carmen Maura (Irene) as a chica Almodovar, is the best representation of this shift as the characters Almodovar has written for her transfer in Marsha Kinder’s words ‘her legendary resilience from the comic sphere of sexuality to a more somber culture of death’. (Kinder, 2007: 5).

Both of these turns (pink to blue, Eros to Thanatos) are evident in All about my mother and Talk to Her; but, in Volver, their manifestation is specially compelling, as death and its drive carry the hope of resurrection, of a renewed return, even if this comes at the expense of sexuality.

The ghost of Irene, with director Almodóvar. Image credits: © Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda


Abraham, Nicholas & Torok, Maria (1994) The shell and the kernel. Volume 1: Renewals of psychoanalysis. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Kinder, Marsha (2007) Volver. In Film Quarterly, vol. 60, number 3, pp. 5-9

Smith, Paul Julian (2003) Resurrecting the Art movie? Almodovar’s Blue Period. In Contemporary Spanish Culture: Television, Fashion, Art and Film. Cambridge: Polity Press