If haven't yet viewed Pedro Almodóvar's latest masterwork, Parallel Mothers, don't read on. Just skedaddle to your nearest art house and bathe in a thrilling blend of deceit, lust, love, and a tale of two unwed "heterosexual" women, Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), who meet while in a pregnant state, give birth simultaneously, and whose lives and sexual identities are then forever transformed when the duo start sharing the same mattress.
"But what are their sexual identities?" some might ask. Others might note that's a dead question nowadays fraught with minefields for those trying to settle on a label.
Paul Smith, in his Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar (1994), notes the director’s consistently "scandalous hints of sexual heterodoxy" throughout his work and life. Smith notes how the outrageous Spaniard filled in the void created by the deaths of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pier Paolo Pasolini, cinema's other gay bad boys who loved to shock both on and off the screen.
But what can shock us anymore? Men kissing on-screen hardly earns a shrug any more, even by the guys who ran out of Brokeback Mountain screaming, "Nurse! Nurse! My masculinity needs resuscitation." Now TV ads for AIDS drugs and life insurance show as much as what happened in that infamous tent.
Then there are those close-ups of a talkative erect penis streaming into our living rooms thanks to Hulu's quite addictive series, Pam and Tommy (2022). There's a mushrooming pecker that can strangle its victims on Amazon Prime's The Boys (2019). In the documentary Seahorse (2019), a transman decides to cease his intake of testosterone so he can give birth, which he does. In Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta (2021), which takes place during the Plague -- the 17th century one, not our current one -- a lesbian nun masturbates with a wooden dildo featuring the image of a crucified Christ. And, let's not forget Titane (2021), where the serial-hatpin-killing, gender-swapping female lead gets impregnated by a car.
Yes, there was a time where Almodóvar was seemingly one of the most audacious voices around. In What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), a mother, high on amphetamines, murders her husband with a leg of ham and then serves up the weapon to the investigating officers for dinner. She also sells off her younger son to a pedophile dentist.
In The Skin I Live In (2011), a surgeon abducts his daughter's rapist and transforms him, vaginoplasty and all, into a beautiful woman whom he has sex with. Meanwhile, Bad Education (2004) tells of a murdered transwoman drag queen who was subjected to the perversions of a pedophile priest as a child, who then wrote a short story about a transwoman who was subjected to a pedophile priest, that might now be made into a film, which her brother wants to star in. Believe me! It's more complex than that, but definitely worthy of the unravelling it takes.
But then, Almodóvar, who's transformed himself from a John-Waters-esque helmer (Dark Habits (1983)) into one of the most respected of the world-class directors, confronts a modern sexuality in Parallel Mothers by having his two main female characters fall in love only to build a family that isn't exactly easy to define. To find out how he, Oscar-nominated Pelope Cruz, and her co-hort Milena Smit felt about labeling this union, CultureCatch asked that very question at the last New York Film Festival, "Lesbian or hetero-flexible or . . .?"
"Yes, you could, of course, label the relationship as a lesbian relationship," Almodóvar admitted, "but I really think about it as something more fluid and more broad than that. Gender is not so much a patch, but just about one half of sexuality. It's something that happens more naturally, almost spontaneously at times."
"And, so for example," he adds, "I like to think from the very first scene where in the hospital when they are both pregnant and about to give birth, that from the very first moment there is an inkling that Ana has been struck by Janis's beauty. . . ."
“And things have changed profoundly a lot over the last thirty years. In Spain, yes, traditionally perhaps with the sense of a Catholic family. Really what has happened is that the family structure is one that is really based on love. So you can have a family with one mother or two fathers or two mothers. Right. It's more about the love . . . than anything else," Almodóvar concluded.
Penelope Cruz added: "I try not to think of labels especially when I'm working with Pedro. When you are with him there are no labels anywhere. That is one of things I love the most about the way he creates . . . and the way he sees life. And I really identify with his way. I wasn't raised like that. I didn't have to find the label [hetero-flexible]. It goes beyond that. If you think about it when Ana kisses Janice the first time, it really catches me by surprise. But my character is in such a survival mode, that I could feel . . . I could hear the thoughts of my character."
"I have very good memories of that scene because I feel like you were really not there. It was only . . . it was only only the characters. And I could feel the thoughts of Janice, and they were like. . .I could not share them with you now. It’s not like I could remember the words, but I remember the feelings of this actually is right as an extent of survival."
"Of course, Janis has that connection with her boyfriend in that way, but it's not just about sex. It's a desperation. She always wanted to have a family. She never could. And is again. Maybe this is the way. But maybe this is the next step for her not to lose what she loves the most. And is again, [circumscribed] by her loss. Actually, it's not that she's forcing it or she will go to bed with her if she didn't feel something, but it's beyond that. It’s like almost unconsciously, she's protecting her family, so I think all of that is in that shot. When you see the face of the two of us, and what everyone is thinking. 'Let's go! let's go!' because the alternative is I'm not going to be alone again. I'm not going to lose this family again. So it's so many things are going on in my head in that scene that the last thing I was thinking was how would we label this."
"I really agree with Penelope" notes Milena Smit, "because, of course, in the case of my character, what really makes sense is that she is lacking love. That she is lacking a kind of affective connection given her situation with her parents and also the traumatic situation she has been through. Suddenly she finds herself in front of someone who is giving her more support and more presence than her own family. I think we make a large mistake when we try to place a label on this situation. For Ana, it is truly an act of love what happens between them. I think we make a large mistake when try to place a label on their love."
I haven't seen this movie yet, not was I looking necessarily for a Pedro Almodavar movie, (not really a fan of foreign films) but after reading something about it, I can hardly wait to see it now. I just hope it has subtitles. 🤔