Bechdel Test Canon: Volver
This entry concludes the Bechdel Test Canon. I've had a blast putting it together over the last two months, connecting films thematically and attempting to incorporate a variety of textual and extra-textual concerns. First of all, I'd like to thank Kelsey Wallace, Kjerstin Johnson, and the rest of the staff for their characteristically sterling work and support. I extend that appreciation to all of the great commentary from readers who went along with the exercise, made recommendations, disagreed with me, and in some cases rewrote my entries. I'm also excited to continue reading JDTress' series on Oprah's final season and Chally's investigation of feminist literary writers and characters and hope you all follow along as well. If you want to keep up with me, check out my blog Feminist Music Geek.
Finally, I'd like to acknowledge some films I didn't get to talk about. While I didn't think I needed to say any more about mainstays like Thelma and Louise, Heathers, But I'm a Cheerleader, and the work of Nicole Holofcener, I wish we could have discussed (among others) Daisies, In My Skin, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Nobody's Fool, Me Without You, The Watermelon Woman, I've Loved You So Long, Set It Off, D.E.B.S., High Tension, Agora, Bagdad Café, Tiny Furniture, For Colored Girls, and Made In Dagenham. It's comforting to know that so many interesting films pass and challenge the Bechdel Test, as well as explode staid notions of what a film canon is and should be.
It's appropriate that I conclude with Pedro Almodóvar's 2006 feature Volver, which in Spanish means "to come back." In many ways, this film is responsible for the series. Late last year, two friends had a disagreement over it. One ranked the best films of the decade on Facebook. The other noted that Volver was missing, prompting the list maker to dismiss it as "overrated." Responding out of frustration with this list—which lined up with several reputable publications—we noticed many of the supposed "best" films didn't prioritize female contributions to acting, directing, and screenwriting, nor were they especially invested in telling compelling stories about women and girls. So we recruited a cinephile friend to draft a manifesta that included a list of films from the decade that celebrated these achievements, as well as emphasized global cinema and contributions from media producers who are queer and/or people of color. Many of those features were included here. But Volver got us started.
It's also as emotionally devastating as it is visually stunning in its focus on the fraught relationships between generations of female family members haunted by the ghosts of past memories and tragedies. Penélope Cruz should have won an Oscar for her performance, but the six principal actresses richly deserved the Best Actress award they received at Cannes. Cruz stars as Raimunda, a resourceful working-class woman. She is fiercely dedicated to protecting her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), who she loves deeply despite the horrible origins from which she emerged. She forges complex, interdependent relationships with her female neighbors, divorced sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), and cancer-stricken family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). She also reconciles with her mother Irene (Carmen Maura, one of Almodóvar's earliest muses), who reveals herself after the death of her sister Paula (Chus Lampreave) despite reports that she died in a fire with her husband several years ago. In actuality, she went into hiding after avenging the sexual abuse Raimunda suffered at the hands of her father, committing arson to the love nest he shared with Agustina's mother with them inside. The thought of female family members sharing and keeping secrets amongst themselves and mothers tending to unfinished family business weighed so heavily on my heart that I called my mom immediately after the screening I caught and may have made lunch plans with my aunt later that week. It remains one of my all-time favorites, both within and outside of the director's filmography.
I mentioned Tyler Perry's film adaptation of For Colored Girls earlier in the post. In the Salon review linked above, Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Perry is cribbing from Almodóvar, whose work influenced Precious director Lee Daniels. Though regarded by some as a baseless comparison, I gather the similarities. Though I haven't seen For Colored Girls yet, titles like Madea's Family Reunion, Why Did I Get Married I and II, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself employ high melodrama, divulge blood-curdling family secrets, focus on female survivors based on women in the filmmakers' family members who overcome suffering at the hands of abusive men, and showcase bravura ensemble performances from formidable actresses.
The same is true of Almodóvar's oeuvre. Like Perry, Almodóvar has also been taken to task for delving into sexist stereotypes and representing his female protagonists and their exchanges as two-dimensional. I don't think those criticisms are invalid, though must counter with his efforts to incorporate queer themes and be trans-inclusive in his representations of female identity, which contrasts sharply with Perry's work. Ultimately, as director Michel Gondry points out in the liner notes of his Directors Label DVD, most of Almodóvar's films revolve around friendship and people helping each other. Thus while I am uneasy about Almodóvar's earlier work, which tempers frank representations of sexual violence and abuse with camp, I find the interplay of humor and tragedy in later efforts beautifully unsettling. Films like Volver potently strike this balance, which is why I keep returning to it and continue to search for films invested in exploring female identities in all their rich complexity.
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