We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Volver: flowers are tougher than you think · 30 January 07

Dear Harriet,

Late this afternoon Caroline and I saw Volver, produced by 4 different Spanish film companies, written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. It was at once feminist and gratifyingly feminine, touching and hard, wryly comic & realistic & warmly idealistic too. On the surface, it is probable; however, if you think for a moment about what happens, it’s improbable, utter madness. In its wackiness the film resembles Bunuel, say The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; in its sweep, Viridiana. The Spanish word "volver" means to return, and we have here a revenant & a return to the past to see how it’s repeated and to hope things won’t be as bad as they’ve been.

Like The Quiet incest and murder are at the center of the story: Paco (Antonio de la Torre), the husband of Raimundo (Penelope Cruz), and apparent father of Paula (Yohana Cobo), a 14 year old, attempts to rape Paula, and in fighting him off with a knife Paula kills Paco. It’s also like Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing: men exist in the margins of the movie; at the center are women’s relationships with one another, and the psychology projected is of people who survive through their relationships with others; the women are cooperative, caring because they are enabling one another to survive (not a small thing).

As the film opens we are in a cemetery on Sunday where mostly women are sweeping, cleaning, polishing, putting flowers upon rows of monuments over the graves of seemingly beloved relatives and friends. The effect of sweeping across this place and the poses through camera focusing and stills is comic (and when thought about later ironic):

Our little group, Raimundo, her sister, Sole (Lola Duenas), and Paula, leave the graveyard to visit a large old-fashioned house in which their feeble Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) lives; Raimundo feels Aunt Paula survives because Aunt Paula’s next door niece, and Raimundo’s cousin, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), an older women, checks in daily, and shops for her. When Raimundo returns home, we meet Paco: he is swilling beer, watching football and unemployed; he is a sad and sordid creature (we see him staring at Paula’s vagina under her tights as she does not sit with her legs closed); later that night Raimundo refuses to have sexual relations with him in bed, upon which the camera focuses on his face while he masturbates. Raimundo’s work the next day reminded me of the worst job Ruby (of Ruby in Paradise) sunk too: all day long in a laundry, only Raimundo also washes the floors of the vast laundromat. It’s when Raimundo returns home that she discovers Paco’s dead body in the kitchen, and through an at first suprizingly quick surmize guesses how he came to be dead.

The movie then moves out in three strands. We see Raimundo with much long effort clean the kitchen floor, lug the body in a blanket to a restaurant next door where she deposits it in a refrigerator compartment, and much later trick and blackmail a prostitute-friend who lives on the street, to help her (with two more friends) push the refrigerator compartment in a van, drive the van to a place in a wood by a river (one we later learn was one of Paco’s favorite places to come and dream), and bury the body still wrapped in the blanket in its fridge. We see her take over the next-door restaurant and make a successful business out of daily serving dinner and finally catering a large party for a company making a film nearby. When Aunt Paula dies, we at first think Irene (Carmen Maura), Raimundo’s and Sole’s mother’s ghost has come back from the dead to be with Sole (who has separated herself from an unworthy husband and runs a beauty parlor in her apartment).

It is gradually revealed that Irene is no ghost, but a living woman who helped Aunt Paula survive for years, and now wants to serve Agustina in her final illness (she has cancer) as well as make contact with both her daughters; that the grave Raimundo, Sole, and Paula have been cleaning each Sunday does not hold Irene and their father, but Agustina’s mother and Sole and Raimundo’s father whom Irene caught having sex together one afternoon and set on fire after she discovered that her husband continually forced sex on their daugher, Raimunda and impregnated her with Paula (so Paula is Raimundo’s half-sister). Irene gets away with this murder as the villagers are superstitious and assume she is a ghost, and are unwilling to investigate carefully who died and how.

Where incest is felt as horrific and grim in The Quiet because the wife and mother knew and turned a blind eye, and we watch the man get away with it; here the man either doesn’t succeed or the acts are thrown into the past, the men pay for their deeds, and at the end the women re-bond. Irene and Raimundo are survivors:

Left to right: Yohana Cobo (Paula), Penelope Cruz (Raimunda), Carmen Maura (Irene), Blanca Portillo (Agustina), Lola Duenas (Sole)—out of costume

A third strand is the emergence of long-hidden truths among the primary women (mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts), and our observing services freely given and bought and paid for among the neighborhood women as they help Raimundo through sharing, cooking and preparing food for her restaurant, and come to Sole for hair-dyes, hair-washes, and hair styling.

The visibilia of women’s lives are everywhere. Raimundo dresses very sexily; Paula is a typical teenager in her dress; Sole dresses in a feminine but quiet style (we are told she does not like to leave her house and it’s clear she allows Raimundo to lead her, an when her mother returns to her, she returns to sleeping next to her); Agustina dresses super-plainly, mannish-style hair and clothes (are we to feel she is an unacknowledged lesbian?). Old once cherished dolls are found in suitcases dragged about as well as jewellry and make-up kits.

The review on IMDB described the film as sublime and uplifting. Its surface tone is, though, prosaic and comic, continually deflating of class and money-based pretenses while it dramatizes idealized supportive relationships among women. The wacky feel of a ghost mother returning and the necessity of hiding her at first reminded me of the sustained fictions and mood of Since Otar Died and Goodbye, Lenin. The focus on women’s relationships and interlocking generations who repeat what the generation before did is like that of House of Sand.

The film contrasts strongly to the many many films and popular novels which show women hating one another, destroying one another, resentful daughters blaming their mothers for not training them in the stereotypical sexual behavior that is supposed to allure a man to marry them, dominating destructive and envious or frustrated mothers and older women caricatures. The mood is comic:

The emotions felt here among the women are camaraderie, pity, forgiveness as well as continual demands that all respect the interdependence of one another and fulfill basic daily human needs in a prosaic continual way. This is a film where women are seen making, eating, and surrounded by food and drink, providing the necessary ephemera of daily life.

I enjoyed the reflections of Spanish life today in what seemed to be a suburb of Madrid: everyone has cell phones; they drive small station-wagon type cars which they squeeze into mostly-filled parking lots; people watch and get onto day-time TV where the hostess is absurdly dressed (super-sexy with big hair and clown-like make-up) and the ordinary person is asked to humiliate herself (reveal shameful secrets which might hurt the people they speak of very badly and pragmatically) in return for the "privilege" of reaching out for non-existent help. I liked the high fulfilling or good moments of the film: for example, when Raimundo sings in front of the film company while they are having the party she has provided.

Raimundo’s words are those Irene taught her about the hardness of life, and how the past and future mirror one another; it’s the first time she’s sung in so many years that 14 year old Paula never heard her sing before.

Almodovar’s previous film well-known in the US is Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown; if you look at the other titles of his films, he seems repeatedly to dramatize women’s worlds, psychology, imagery associated with them (the closing credits were interspersed with lovely pictures of flowers), and experiences as they feel them. In this film none of the men we get to know is a supportive, strong or decently-controlled human being; they are not just no use to their women; they hurt them. Irene says they are an unlucky family; in effect they are a family whose core strength lies in the women.

Sole and her mother singing together (a still not in the film)

It is a consoling fairy tale which confronts mean behaviors and insoluable problems in men and women’s sexual and social relationships with Hitchcock-like violence and indifference.

We learn flowers are tougher than you think:


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. From Fran:

    "Glad you liked Volver, Ellen.

    I thought the opening scene in the cemetery with its cleaning frenzy very funny and ironic, too. It’s as if it is an extension of the homes the ladies clean with similar energy, pride and an eye to the Jones’,pointing up, too, how much life and death are intertwined in this place, with a robust

    You mentioned ‘volver’ meaning to return. Almodovar was revisiting his own roots and coming to terms with his own unhappy childhood in an ultra-conservative, bigotted and macho La Mancha that was intolerant of difference. The positive experiences were those he associated with the multi-generational community of women in his family who raised him – a fact he celebrates in this and many other of his films, while exposing the male weaknesses and vices that are transported through the generations, as you also point out.

    It’s the women, too, who passed on the stories, ghost stories and local superstitions to him, which helped fire his artistic imagination and which he would later weld into this film, not only in the form the pseudo-revenant mother, but also the local wind that can madden in its intensity: ‘volver loco’ means ‘make crazy’.

    The film is not only a reverence to the strong women of his own family, but also a further showcase for the considerable skills of an ensemble of players, largely actresses, he’s repeatedly used in the past and who form his own film community, such as Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz: another side to the word ‘volver’.

    Interestingly enough, he got the initial idea from another of his ensemble actresses, Marisa Parades, when they were filming ‘The Flower of My Secret’ together, also in La Mancha. She told him about a man who went off to murder his mother-in-law so he could get back into contact with his estranged wife at the funeral(!), leaving his restaurant to be tended by neighbours, as Cruz does in this film.

    It seems Almodovar also wanted the Cruz role to be a hommage to other strong actresses such as Loren and Anna Magnani (you remember the direct excerpt from Visconti’s ‘Bellissima’?), whose gait she seems to copy in that street scene, while he took her hairstyle from a Claudia Cardinale role.

    I made a note of a comment in a Spiegel review of this film I thought I’d pass on to hear what other people think. The male reviewer wrote (my quick translation): Volver is the kind of women’s film that could probably only have been made by a gay man, one who loves, but doesn’t desire, women. Only then can somebody celebrate and display female beauty without degrading women to objects, not even in the most risky and delicate of camera shots’. He then cites the scene in which the camera celebrates Cruz’s feminine charms during the otherwise mundane task of chopping vegetables in example – though the knife is later put to a less everyday use …

    The reviewer doesn’t mention it but the plot of ‘Bellissima’ is interesting in this context, the ruthless creation and marketing of beauty and image in the ‘dream world’ of the cinecitta and the accompanying manipulation and subsequent destruction of expensive illusion, which doesn’t stop short of children, would-be child stars.

    This is already very long, but I thought you might like the full, bi-lingual text of the 30s tango song Cruz ‘sings’ (she was dubbed) in the film: Gardel’s eponymous ‘Volver’

    Music by Carlos Gardel
    Lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera
    Translation by Coby Lubliner

    Yo adivino el parpadeo
    de las luces que a lo lejos
    van marcando mi retorno…
    Son las mismas que alumbraron
    con sus pálidos reflejos
    hondas horas de dolor..
    Y aunque no quise el regreso,
    siempre se vuelve al primer amor..
    La quieta [vieja] calle donde el eco dijo
    tuya es su vida, tuyo es su querer,
    bajo el burlan mirar de las estrellas
    que con indiferencia hoy me ven volver…
    Volver… con la frente marchita,
    las nieves del tiempo platearon mi sien…
    Sentir… que es un soplo la vida,
    que veinte años no es nada,
    que febril la mirada,
    errante en las sombras,
    te busca y te nombra.
    Vivir… con el alma aferrada
    a un dulce recuerdo
    que lloro otra vez…
    Tengo miedo del encuentro
    con el pasado que vuelve
    a enfrentarse con mi vida…
    Tengo miedo de las noches
    que pobladas de recuerdos
    encadenan mi soñar…
    Pero el viajero que huye
    tarde o temprano detiene su andar…
    Y aunque el olvido, que todo destruye,
    haya matado mi vieja ilusión,
    guardo escondida una esperanza humilde
    que es toda la fortuna de mi corazan.

    I can almost see the flicker
    Of the lights that in the distance
    Mark the way of my returning…
    They are the very ones that lit up,
    Their reflections pale and misted,
    Many hours of deep pain.
    Though it was not what I wanted,
    First love makes one always come back again.
    The quiet [age-old] street where once the echo told me:
    Her life is yours, her love is yours to earn,
    Under the stars that mockingly look on me,
    And now in their indifference see me return.
    Return… with my forehead all wrinkled,
    My temples turned silver by time’s falling snow…
    To feel… that one’s life is a twinkle,
    Twenty years hardly reckon,
    And two fevered eyes beckon,
    In shadows forestall you
    And seek you and call you.
    To live… with the soul firmly clinging
    To one sweet remembrance
    That makes me weep so.
    I am frightened of the meeting
    With the past that is returning
    To confront my life all over.
    I am frightened of the nighttimes
    When my dreams are linked and fleeting
    And old memories come to stay.
    And yet the traveler who’s fleeing
    Sooner or later must stop on the way…
    And though oblivion, which destroys all being,
    Has killed my old hopes, ripping them apart,
    Yet I keep hidden a humble hopeful glimmer
    That is the only fortune there is in my heart.

    Sylvia    Jan 31, 10:36am    #
  2. Dear Fran,

    I was struck by how Cruz resembled Loren (and I’ll now add by extension and similarity of phenotype and cultural poses, Magnani). Cruz held herself in the same square sort of way. I put it down to both obeying some icon, but it may be Magnani began it. (One of the greatest films I’ve ever seen is Bitter Rice but I think it’s another actress in the same Italian mould).

    Thank you really very very much for the lyrics of the song Cruz sang. I did want to have them; I couldn’t remember them but vaguely but yet knew they were articulating some central concepts of the film. You might say it’s Proust in reverse or at an odd or woman’s angle.

    I want to mention another characteristic I’ve noticed across these art films made by women. Compared to men’s films (particularly those where women are marginalized) where sexual aggression dominates and is central (say Alan Bennet’s History Boys), in the heterosexual women’s films like Friends with Money, Lovely and Amazing, The Quiet, Water, Since Otar Died, House of Sand, except in later teenagehood or maybe early twenties, the women may dress up sexily in ways that please men, are competitive for men, go to beauty parlors, exercise on bikes, make-up, but their lives are not dominated by sexual aggression (nor competition) in the way of men’s films. I see this in the costume-historical dramas we might say "disguised" as film adaptations of high status novels. Sex is at the margins, something they must do with their partners. I suggest this is true of Volver.

    I think also we must distinguish heterosexual from lesbian women’s films; and what for the sake of shorthand I’ll call black women’s films from white women’s films (I use white in the largest sense to include European and middle eastern genetic or phenotype appearance as opposed to African and Asian). The codes & archetypes are different.

    Sylvia    Jan 31, 10:45pm    #
  3. Fran quoted me:

    "’Cruz held herself in the same square sort of way. I put it down to both obeying some icon, but it may be Magnani began it. (One of the greatest films I’ve seen is Bitter Rice but I think it’s another actress in the same Italian mould).

    "It is a remarkable film – its stark pictures often come to mind when we are crossing the Po delta where there are still quite a few paddy fields producing arborio rice – hopefully under better prices and working conditions.

    The actress you are thinking of is probably Silvana Mangano: that film helped launch her career, though it was never the world-wide one of Loren or Magnani to a lesser extent.

    There was a film documentation on Bitter Rice a couple of years ago, and it was suggested that though the film was the absolute artistic high point of the Neo-Realist movement, it also helped see it off as far as the film industry was concerned since it brought home the fact that more money could be made with sex bombs than with social realism – udiences seemed more taken by the sight of all those loosely clad women showing leg in the paddy fields than by the critique of their exploitation as rice workers.

    I think the Magnani films most often seen on the box over here are the later American productions such as The Rose Tatoo with Burt Lancaster, but I preferred her earlier Italian films with other Neo-Realists like Rossellini. ‘Roma città aperta’ made in the last year of the war is particularly memorable here. You probably recall she (in)famously lost her film and private partner Rossellini to that other film icon, Ingrid Bergmann, together with her foreseen role in Stromboli.

    To get back to the fact of re-creating Cruz in their visual image for Volver, one of the other things they did was to give her these ladies’ more voluptuous curves: she had to wear hip and bottom padding.

    Sylvia    Feb 1, 8:44am    #
  4. Dear Fran,

    Thank you for these remarks on Bitter Rice and remembering the actress’s name. I half-thought it was Silvana Magnano, but wasn’t sure how to spell it.

    For years I’ve loved this film and find hardly any Americans have ever heard of it. If I wanted to see it, I’ve have to buy it on the Net or join Netflix.com. It’s not in my local video store; yet, like La Strada, it’s a profound and important film.

    I bring up La Strada for while it made Anthony Quinn’s career, I cannot remember the name of the great actress who played the wife he beat continually into working for him as a clown (much Pucini remembered here—Cry, clown, cry). La Strada is in my local video store.

    It’s dismaying but not surprising to be told that the film was mainly remembered because Magnano appeared so sexual to 1940s eyes used to the formal trussed-up costumes of women, and thus neo-realism had an in with audiences. The people who make great art can’t help how the mass audiences use it.

    I’ve not seen the other three you mention, though I know I could find Stromboli mainly because it was such a "scandal" Ingmar Bergman had an open affair and lived with Rosellini—whenever she is brought up someone will talk about this, and if you protest this narrow nonsence, the reply is ever, "yes but she played a nun, you see!" So I turn away because I don’t know where to begin again as so much stubborn stupidity is kept up in insisting the sign (to use Todd’s word) in the movie is to be taken literally on any level.

    It’s frustrating to live in the US. We cannot be but strongly impressed by the real phenomena about us, and the attitude towards sex in particular remains resolutely somewhat child-like (that’s where Disney has his tenacles). The hullabalo over Clinton’s allowing an ambitious young women to perform fellatio on him (jerk him off), a junior high stunt comes out of this. The Return of Martin Guerre shown in the US left out some of the most significant stills of sex between Gerard Depardieu and the women playing the wife (again the actress’s name escapes me, is partly forgotten in media). They were deemed shocking in the US (she openly displayed herself on her knees at one point I read).

    Actually Cruz’s body did look at little funny. The skirts looked odd on her legs. Well this false body structure is better than Jane Fonda who had breasts implanted (and thus ruined herself and her immune system for the rest of her life).


    P.S. I mean to watch Now Voyageur in the next few days, like Diary of a Country Priest, and Bringing Up Baby, a must-read for film studies essays.
    Sylvia    Feb 2, 10:22am    #
  5. Fran responded again:

    "’Ellen (who means to watch Now Voyageur in the next few days, like Diary of a Country Priest a must-read for film studies essays).’

    At least they are films that profit from re-viewing:)

    Though I’ve admired a lot of her films, I knew practically nothing about Bette Davis’ life until I happened to see part of a TV biography a couple of weeks ago. Amongst other things, it was suggested she was so convincing in her role in Now Voyager because she’d had a similarly difficult relationship with her own dominant and rapacious mother to that of her film character. You’d have a better idea of the truth of that, I expect. It came as a surprise because the image Davis projected was not one of somebody otherwise easily managed or controlled.

    She must have felt close to her regardless since the docu also showed her buried in the same plot as her mother and sister. After seeing the bio, I thought the inscription chosen very apt: ‘She did it the hard way’.

    Another quote I quite liked was about her infamous feud with Joan Crawford. She was apparently still bitching about her on the set of The Whales in August and when told to can it already as the woman had been dead for ten years, she supposedly replied, ‘Just because she’s dead, doesn’t mean she’s changed’. Witty, but probably not a nice tongue to be on the receiving end of.

    It’s been a while but I don’t remember anything even half-way offensive in the love scenes between Depardieu and Nathalie Baye in The Return of Martin Guerre, just some very finely nuanced acting to show the development of a relationship and passion with a man Baye’s character knows, and yet doesn’t want to know, is not the insensitive, drunken clod of a man she married. I’ve seen it in French, too, so I imagine it was the uncut version I saw.

    Cuts were evidently not enough for the American market, they blurred its edges even more in the remake, Sommersby; I remember more social criticism in the French version.

    The same thing happened with another remake Depardieu himself starred in, Green Card, with Andie McDowell. I presume this was based on the French-Canadian TV film I have on video, Les Noces de Papier, starring an excellent Geneviève Bujold and Manuel Aranguiz in the main roles. Though still a romantic comedy in parts, there is a political aspect in this film almost completely lacking in the Hollywood remake: Aranguiz’ character is a traumatised South American ex-torture victim in need of papers.

    I almost forgot, the tiny actress with the huge heart in La Strada was Giuletta Masina, director Fellini’s wife of many years. I thought she was still great in the much later Fellini film, Ginger and Fred, opposite Mastroianni, yet another film that didn’t work as well in American remake:)

    Sylvia    Feb 3, 8:33am    #
  6. Dear Fran,

    Well I watched it, and now have to think about Now Voyager for a bit. I realize why it’s so often discussed. It’s not just the acting and production values (all high and good), but the issues brought up, one of which is the dominating mother.

    There’s a problem with that one though: she’s too much a witch; it’s too over-the-top; she makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh (P&P) and so many of the cruel-tongeded remorseless domineering harridans who haunt later 18th century fiction by women just cake, no problem at all in comparison: one by Sophie Cottin I put on line, Amelie Mansfield comes to mind. The 18th century monster women usually don't have control of money too.

    A real life dominating mother does it more subtly: through tenacious nagging and insinuating comments which reinforce fears and anxieties and hold out impossible wishes (which are falsely glamorized somehow). Yes I do know about this.

    I then had the brains left to read one article, and in a way it disappointed me for it didn’t go into the values and ways of life and choices the movie was wildly swirling around. Now Voyager is like Clarissa: unless you know the rooted realities it’s highly improbable (raving mad) melodrama comes from, it will seem weird, crazed, not making sense. But in Maria LaPlace’s "Producing and Consuming the Woman’s Film: Discursive Struggles in Now Voyager, reprinted in Home is Where the Heart is, LaPlace does go over just the material Fran has summarized. LaPlace asserts the biographical image familar to us about Bette Davis is partly or largely a "sign" (false), and concocted to back up the films in ways that make her a figure women can identify with. LaPlace quotes from several other sources than Fran mentioned the depiction of Davis as a fighter, a ruthless speaker, and the kinds of suggestions that she understands her roles because they are close to her in life.

    LaPlace has no evidence to suggest Davis wasn’t that way, but the repetition of the claims, each time somewhat changed for each picture casts doubt. For Now Voyager Davis said the book "came home to her," and claimed to have helped with the screenplay. Maybe she did. Altman was frank about how shooting scripts emerge from the interaction on the set. The point was to make the woman film-goer identity with the real actress and see her role as something about their own lives unashamedly.

    LaPlace also went over what bothered me. It’s so obvious that glasses, no make-up and dowdy clothes are meant to stand in for misery and domination. Get the right makeup, buy the expensive right clothes and you’re life is happy; you can be a star too. Just get yourself over to where such clothes and make up are sold. It bothered me that plainness was made so horrible. The movie was selling consumer goods that are expensive, an image of upper classness.

    There was also a moment where it was repeating Brief Encounter. The two people (Johnson and Howard) met at this train station; fell in love, have one night and hen she returns to the stultifying boring life. Well there were Davis and Henreich (he was box office stuff in the 1940s; it was he who beat out Bogart in Casablanca; he got Ingrid Bergman) on the train station, bidding adieu forever. And then she would have his child by bringing it up. Ahhhhh. No sex of course.

    The film is one which enforces a sublimination of sex and endless self-sacrifice. It may have the heroine throw off the mean mother, but what for? by no means is the prudential, pro-social, pro-family, pro-hierarchy capitalism at all questioned. People who read a lot are seen as desperately frustrated and it’s implied not normal.

    Not that I didn’t like it. At moments I too was overcome with emotion. They managed to pull me in on the high romance moments of Heinrich and Davis. I did think he lit her cigarette with his maybe once too often. One can have too much of a good thing :)

    Thank you for naming the actress in La Strada. Yes her type baggage is sweetness, pathos, smallness.

    One place I find myself suddenly drawing up and realizing I’m in a child-like kind of response to sexuality is (of all places supposedly) the New Yorker. How American is its outlook, and when it comes to sex, how wholesome finally all always is. More than its recent throwing off and erasure of feminism, anything kinky and out of a narrow norm of sexuality as ever so fulfilling and somehow good for us, is swept under a rug. They’ll talk of the perniciousness of class, yes, and lately torture (and the chicanery of lawyers and fallibility of, but not the bullying by, doctors), but wholesome sex (Tom Jones movie style) is not to be examined.

    Sylvia    Feb 3, 8:57am    #
  7. I said I needed to think more: Now Voyager is also about good mothering. Charlotte Vane (Bette Davis) has learned what cruel bullying, what indifference (the nurse at the sanatarium) and what real independence is about and how to nurture it. At the end of the movie she has replaced her mother; she is running the house (fires in the grates), no superficial phoniness in terms of manners (you can fry weenies over the fire in the fireplace), and she is a good mother: kind, loving, looking to see what the girl herself might want in a given moment, not withholding affection.

    Charlotte Vane (the name echoes of Henry James’s women characters’ names) becomes an ideal mother and in mothering achieves deep fulfillment. She's no longer the fashion plate she was in the ship too: so many heroines at the end of the films end up dressing and looking plain (e.g., Cher at the end of Clueless.

    And Charlotte does it without sex! She takes over Jerry’s daughter. Indeed she can only hold onto Jerry’s daughter if they don’t go in for adultery.

    This is of course establishment values. Alas, one way she shows this (shades of resentful daughter novels) is she is teaching Jerry’s daughter how to enact beauty according to the stereotypes. She is teaching her how to be social (though there is no slack given to why one would not want to be social and why people do opt out).

    The contrast I think of is Washington Square where Catherine Slope, the child nearly destroyed by a haterful father ends up alone. She goes to houses in the city to help the poor, but she is not a falsely Lady Bountiful, for the ending of Now Voyager is improbable. Children are not that easily won over at all; they are not worshipful and loving the way Tina is presenetd) as there was a witch at the opening. Other women do not give up their children and husband’s the way the absent Isabel does.

    James says Catherine finds peace in turning away and simply somehow carrying on, holding out.

    Also Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth Bennet replaces her mother (in effect) acting out the mother figure in the "right" way. So we see why Austen may be coopted in the service of establishment values.

    Anyway there are if you think about as many impossibly good women as there are viciously cruel and weak—Jerry’s wife, Isabel, is a suffocating clinger we’re told. We never do get to see Isabel.

    Sylvia    Feb 3, 10:42am    #
  8. Fran:

    "Thanks for sharing your impressions of Now Voyager, Ellen. It’s been absolute ages since I last saw the film myself. It wasn’t part of the short run of
    Davis films the TV bio introduced and which included All about Eve and Jezebel, for example.

    I’ve never quite understood Paul Henreid’s popularity as an actor at that time – he always seemed so pale and insipid compared to the people he starred with.

    What you said of the other-the-top portrayal of the mother figure reminded me of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, especially since control over clothes and appearance is one of the battlefields of choice and weapons of domination there, too.

    Jelinek also fits in with the theme of careful manipulation of biography and image to sell the product, too.

    Sylvia    Feb 4, 12:38am    #
  9. Dear Fran,

    The actual centrality of the mother-daughter story in Now Voyager and Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher fits in with most of what I’ve been reading these past weeks: women’s memoirs. The mother is just a central figure repeatedly. Yes there are memoirs where there is no mother in sight, but these too fit a sort of pattern: the woman is often moorless, rootless, somehow radically able to remain detached from social life.

    This latter case is that of a notorious memoir printed in Smollett’s dark comic picaresque novel, Peregrine Pickle. Fanny, Lady Vane appears to have had no mother. Sadly she was also sick (what of I can’t tell) and each childbirth was either a still birth or the baby died soon after. The memoir by George Anne Bellamy shows a continuing relationship with the actress’s mother from the time her father basically abandoned her around age 13 and her mother introduced her to acting, to near her own death: her mother predeceased her by only a few years and had lived with Bellamy all Bellamy’s life or been supported by her and taking care of Bellamy’s children when they were young.

    I find this in Oliphant and Martineau and other 19th century memoirs by women too.

    I have never forgotten All About Eve. I saw it when I was in my teens: there was a channel in NY city which repeated the same old movie for a week, twice a day 5 days a week, and 4 times on Saturday and Sunday. I must’ve seen it almost every day. It’s powerful and unforgettable. Especially Addison’s voice.

    Heinrich played the type Ronald Colman did—only Colman did it more satisfyingly to my mind because he seemed so much more vulnerable, poignant, noble. The brother-type, the man who won’t hurt you, who is not aggressive sexually, gentle. I guess his blonde hair and "foreign" accent appealed to English-speaking audiences. I’ve seen him in pirate pictures from the later 1930s and ‘40s. He doesn’t turn me on either :).

    Sylvia    Feb 4, 12:48am    #
  10. "The other examples you quote seem to be of supportive mother/daughter relationships, Ellen, whereas in both the Davis film and Jelinek’s novel, the relationships are extremely negative and destructive.

    Looking back, most of Davis’ well-known films seem to have shown female relationships in general in a pretty dire light, full of envy, rivalry and potentially murderous intrigue. The sister film What ever happened to Baby Jane? is a case in point – completely over-the top again, but frighteningly disturbing withall.

    I think they got a lot of publicity mileage in that film, too, from the intense off-screen rivalry between Davis and co-star Crawford, who also specialized in melodramas, usually as the man-eating and women-despising vamp.

    It’s a pity Hollywood preferred seeing Davis cast as the bitch – she made a few romantic, family films as well where she showed some really good comic timing, The Man who came to Dinner and June Bride for example.

    While looking for more biographical info just now, I saw she had even put this bitch image to good use in service of her country: the wikipedia bio reports that she threw herself into war bond effort after Pearl Harbour and weedled and harangued crowds into buying 2 million dollars worth in just two days, plus selling a photo of herself in Jezebel for 250,000 dollars.

    I was also interested to read she was the only white star who toured with Hattie McDaniel’s troupe to entertain black soldiers during the war.

    Seems odd to be fighting a war against against fascist racism and imperialism and still encouraging racism and segregration at home – Hattie McDaniel, the first Black Oscar winner for her role in Gone with the Wind, apparently couldn’t even go to the Atlanta Premiere for fear of repraisals, sit with the other stars at the awards ceremony or even be buried in the cemetery she wished when she died in Hollywood in 1952.

    Sylvia    Feb 5, 12:58am    #
  11. Fran’s right: the examples I cited were of good mothers. A quick survey of any set of women’s autobiographies and films, would easily bring up just as many, perhaps more cruel and dominating or harridan mothers, to say nothing of powerful female authority figures who may not be the heroine’s mother but who manage to do what they can to destroy her and her chances at a fulfilled life. In women’s novels I find just as frequently intense female antagonism and especially the portrait of the harridan dragon woman as supportive female friendship and communities.

    I do tend to find Mommie Dearest books unpleasant and probably shy away. I am much more comfortable with the sort of thing one finds in George Eliot or Elizabeth Gaskell or Austen too: the send up and intensely angry presentation of the superfical socialite who outmaneuvers the exemplary heroine. I can hate Rosemary Vincy perfectly happily along with Eliot, see the failures in Cynthia in Wives and Daughters. The matter about the cruel Mrs Gibbon is harder for me to take—in Austen she enables me to laugh at the mother-type as she’s so crass and also in the end is rendered harmless.

    A couple of the books on women’s psychology that I have in the house say that the typical theme of women’s betrayal is so stong in women’s books precisely because women need other women so much, grow close and intimate, and so a betrayal means more than say to a man when he’s working in the commercial marketplace and his colleague undercuts him or in a club of men and a mate outmaneuvers him—though if the man tries to take or seduce the other man’s beloved, this is cause for murderous behavior.

    I like Davis too and find her powerful. I didn’t watch her movies after All About Eve though. To me she as witch was humiliating. I never could like Crawford; I don’t know why but the type just didn’t appeal at all.

    US racism remains strong. It’s unspoken. I wrote a blog about my experience in the Library of Congress recently.


    The plantation 2007

    A small thing but it’s indicative of what goes on a great deal everywhere. IN the US racism is no longer institutionalized, but that doesn’t make it any less virulent under the surface; it’s supported by the right religious bigotry where people identify black people as those who are "on welfare," go to prison (they do go to prison and it’s very unjust—they then lose their right to vote forever). That prejudice is as accepted as ever can be seen in the new laws against homosexual people; what’s happening is the institutionalization of injustice towards gay people and those who vote for this are not in the least ashamed as they were not when what welfare for poor women and children existed was destroyed (by the Clinton administration). The recent voting to support no relationship but heterosexual marriage is beginning to pan out as denying heterosexual couples who don’t marry equal access to health care and pensions, and of course millions of Americans have no health care insurance whatsoever.

    Sylvia    Feb 5, 1:13am    #
  12. Leslie Roberton replied too:

    "Yes, the whole self-sacrifice thing is irritating. When she finally stops sacrificing herself to her cartoonishly horrible mother, one hopes that she’s gotten past such things, but instead she just moves on to a more acceptable recipient—a child."

    I added:

    And the idealization of the child is superficial and unreal. We are to believe the child looks up with simple-minded adoration, not a smidgin of jealousy, resentment, competitiveness, no feeling for her own biological mother whatsoever. One of the realities of life is how ungrateful most people are when you decide to devote your life to them: you then "own" them they feel, and stifle them. None of this is even hinted at, and of course not the criticism what favor is Charlotte Vane doing the child teaching her how to appear sexy and attractive to men.

    The movie is a display of consumer goods. Each new scene aboard ship Bette Davis wears a new exquisitely feminized sexy outfit, all very expensive. There’s a famous article about women’s films called something like "Carole Lombard in the shop window."

    Sylvia    Feb 5, 8:38am    #

commenting closed for this article