Volver, volver: Pedro Almodóvar’s Restoration of the Mother

Pursuits of happiness: the Hollywood comedy of remarriage, Stanley Cavell, page 18

The relationship between absent-mother and daughter is explicitly confronted in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2006 comedy-drama Volver, [1] starring Carmen Maura and Penélope Cruz in the respective roles of Irene and Raimunda. The film begins with Raimunda, her daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), and her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), visiting Irene’s grave, followed by a visit to a senile aunt, Tía Paula (Chus Lampreave), who declares that Irene is in fact not only alive but also resident in her house.
The film’s thematic concern with the absent-mother figure is both poignant and exploited for great comedic effect. Tía Paula’s pronouncement is shown to be true, but being ‘officially’ deceased, the not-dead Irene is forced to move surreptitiously and inhabit the space of the film secretly. She helps Sole run her home-based hairdressing business, and yet is forced to hide every time a member of her family visits. Although she is eventually discovered by Paula, aunt, daughter, and grandmother conspire to keep the Irene’s vitality a secret from Raimunda, who, in any event, is preoccupied with disposing of her boyfriend’s, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), body after Paula kills him in self-defence.
Though Volver is not a romantic comedy, it nevertheless plays on conventions of femininity and female social roles in order to explore the repeating, inherited behaviours and transgressions that regularly form the basis of social/romantic comedies. Further, Irene’s absence is undeniably conspicuous and problematic to the surrounding main characters. Most overtly, Irene’s increasingly comedic attempts to remain undetected, whilst also being central to the spectatorial narrative, creates a diametrically polarised, almost pantomimic dynamic from which stems a lot of the film’s humour, as well as difficulties for Sole and also ultimately Paula. In terms of characterisation, Raimunda, Sole and Paula perpetuate the familial tendency towards toxic secret-keeping while they themselves remain poignantly ignorant of Irene’s own secrets. Further, Irene’s absence is echoed in the distance between Raimunda and Paula; they are only brought back together when the missing matriarch is restored. Terminal cancer patient, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), whose mother was Irene’s husband’s lover, and who has assumed along with everyone else that her mother is missing rather than dead, also only finds (a measure of) solace when Irene returns and assumes a quasi-maternal, caretaking role in respect her. Narratively, the steps taken by Raimunda to protect Paula by concealing her killing of Paco, appears morbidly incongruous to the rest of the narrative until it is revealed that Irene not only murdered her husband, but did so in order to protect Raimunda from similar sexual assault.

 

[1] Volver. 2006. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar. 

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