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Grief’s Testimony: On Almodóvar’s All About My Mother

Fiona Jenkins

[I]f we require that someone be able to tell in story form the reasons why his or her life has taken the path it has, that is, to be a coherent autobiographer, we may be preferring the seamlessness of that story to something we might tentatively call the truth of the person, a truth that, to a certain degree, might well become more clear in moments of interruption, stoppage, open-endedness – in enigmatic articulations that cannot readily be translated into narrative form. (Butler 2005:64)

As soon as intrusion occurs it multiplies…[I]dentity is equivalent to immunity, the one identifying itself with the other. To reduce the one is to reduce the other. (Nancy 2002:9)

All about…

In an early scene in All About My Mother (1999), we see Manuela and her son sit down together to watch All about Eve (1950) on television. The Spanish translation is Eva al desnudoEve Stripped Bare. The son, Esteban, complains that this is mistranslation – the title should be Todo sobre Eva, and he writes down in his notebook the title that has apparently just come to him for an entry into a short story-writing competition – Todo sobre mi MadreAll About My Mother.  His mother objects that “todo sobre” sounds odd and, indeed, that she doesn’t much like his writing a story about her. Yet his desire to know about her will lead her to agree to his birthday request to observe her at work the next day as co-ordinator of an organ transplant programme. He takes notes as she plays the role of a bereaved wife so that doctors can practice their request to relatives of the brain-dead to consider the donation of organs, thus witnessing a version of a scene we will later see played “for real”. Second time around, the detached, note-taking observer is now the one under the doctor’s discussion after being fatally injured in a car accident. And we might begin to consider how death in this film interrupts the equivocal desire to know “all about” another.

There is another side to that desire, however, such that this film meditates not only on the limits of knowing but perhaps even more fundamentally on the difficulties of telling, especially where the telling involves death or loss, and thus bears a kind of mourning at its heart. It is the telling of difficult news that we see the doctors rehearsing and rehearsal is a crucial vehicle of this film’s interest in the anticipation of painful events. Indeed, Manuela has also rehearsed or play-acted loss, though without this in any way forestalling the grief that is to come; for the representation or play-acting of loss will throughout contrast with what occurs when loss directly addresses and implicates us. Difficulty also attends the intimate telling we see Manuela invited to perform by her son, and in Manuela’s hesitation before her son’s request we encounter the first of many cognate scenes that convey its agonies.  I want to propose, then, that we might usefully begin to consider this film through a series of questions that it opens up and explores: How do we give an account of ourselves? How does our exposure to loss figure in this telling, even if only through what is partial or absent? And what is it that makes such telling difficult or even inevitably thwarted and displaced?

We can gain some feel for this set of problems by considering how Manuela answers her son’s desire. She is led by his new interest in her to show him an old photo of herself as an actress. Already bearing all the enigma of a mother’s much younger self, this is moreover a photo from which the half has been torn away that once showed his father. Running his fingertip along the broken edge, the son is inspired to write in his diary that he feels as though his life is also missing that half. On the night of his death, perhaps again indirectly pursuing the desire to know all about his mother, he asks her to tell him “all about his father”; and she agrees that she will do this, “though it is not an easy story to tell”. Just moments later he is killed. The signs of absence and loss, as well as uncertainty over the exact object of the desire to know mark this sequence.  Moreover, in the to-ing and fro-ing beween mother and son we have seen Manuela’s unease before Esteban’s request, her oblique modes of answering it; and we gradually learn in the ensuing narrative how much this story remains one of pain, disappointment and betrayal for her. Significantly that pain is marked when she weeps over Stella’s fate in Streetcar Named Desire: Stella, whom Manuela once played opposite her soon-to-be husband as Kowalski, and a character who, like Manuela, finds herself forced to take her child away from its father, as if this play-acting and staging had been a rehearsal of events to come.

The subsequent narrative is propelled by Manuela’s efforts to indirectly accede to the son’s last desire by going in quest of a father whom she will tell of the death of a son he did not know had been born: an unconventional father-figure, for, in classically Almodóvaresque fashion, this Esteban is now “Lola”. Further extending the film’s interest in such problematic organisations of identity and relation, on her journey Manuela becomes the adoptive mother to another Esteban, the child of the same father as her own son. She promises his dying mother, Rosa, a former nun, not precisely that she will “tell all” to this son but that at least she will keep nothing from him. In this commitment to narrating another difficult story - in effect the story that the film has just told - we might imagine that the son’s original desire finds some kind of redress. Crucial to the openness promised here is that a commitment has been made to a form of telling that is and remains difficult; and not simply because it is not easy to describe improbable beings and unlikely couplings, nor only because what it relates transgresses conventional boundaries of the acceptable, but also because what it must share revolves around a dark heart of grief.

Throughout the film, forms of disclosure that bear at their heart profound loss are conveyed with a privileged sense of intimacy that extends beyond these specific scenes of sharing to suggest a crucial dimension of the film’s ability to address its audience. I shall say more about this shortly. Yet already in this brief account of the film we encounter another order of difficulties in telling what it is “all about”, difficulties that from the perspective of any discussion of the film are entailed by the repetition of names and the intertextual play within it, explicitly and implicitly evoking resonances between the “life” and characters we see on screen, various scenes of “play-acting” and two privileged texts, All about Eve and Streetcar Named Desire with which the film seems to be in productive conversation. This structure has lead to a reading of the film by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit (2004) that highlights its modes of repetition as deconstructive of rigid identities. They read the film as promising, through its play between the imaginary and the real, to offer a kind of liberation from the oppressive sense that a fate of gender plays itself out in the melodramatic relationships portrayed in Streetcar and All about Eve and thus as embracing a future freed from unnecessarily restrictive conventions. Difficult telling, on this account, is crucially to do with overcoming ontological presumptions whose gravity is alleviated as the playfulness of imaginary spaces comes to disrupt the seriousness of given proprieties.

For Bersani and Dutoit, then, the key aspect of the film is a form of repetition in which we constantly move between “what is for real” and what is acted, in which scenes from “life” (or at least, adding a further twist, life as it is shown in the film) are duplicated in theatrical or filmic scenes and vice versa. Moreover, since internally to the film, characters tend to replay one another (so that, for instance, the fate of the young nun Rosa who falls pregnant to Lola and gives birth to a son she names Esteban, to some extent echoes Manuela’s, and so forth) they suggest that in this film “everything happens more than once, but not in exactly the same way each time” (2004: 110) drawing from this the point that

repetition, far from certifying the reality of what is repeated, undermines the very category of the real (at the very least, as a category to which the imaginary might be confidently opposed). The relation between the imaginary and the real will become one of exchange, not of opposition. (2004: 100-1) 

The non-serious repetition of melodramatic scenes (their reframing as imaginary) is held to be the means of resistance to the sense of inevitability that attends what Bersani and Dutoit call the fantasmatic “real” (a “real” based in a projection of inevitability that limits the sphere of possibility). This is linked in psychoanalytic terms to the “Law of the father” whose symbolic authority to secure identities is also ruptured in the impossible father-figure of Lola. In the constant movement between life and art, art’s privileged role as a site of the imaginary remains important, at the same time as its status as a scene of the “may be” or what they refer to as “potentialized” being freely leaks into the wider world. On this account, then, life works a critique of the appearance-of-inevitability of fantasmatic-realist art in so far as it takes up its themes and leads them towards new conclusions in a “repetition-otherwise”. Art, meanwhile, is conceived as a space of play informing the sense of possibility in life - as well as periodically being freed from its own tendency toward rigidity; and this is how All About My Mother would intervene in the norms of identity and relation that structure the narratives of Streetcar and All About Eve as violently hetero-normative texts.

This is an understanding of the film’s trajectory as one in which predictable identifications and relations are left behind in favour of new prospects for a sociability among women that only becomes possible through the film’s demonstration of the absence of any ultimate referent supporting identity. For Bersani and Dutoit that absence is also marked in the film’s ambiguous title. Given the film’s structure of repetition and citation between identities and scenes, they argue, “there is no single (or proprietary) subject to support “My”” (Esteban? which one? Rosa -who “adopts” Esteban’s mother as her own? Almodóvar - who dedicates the film to his mother?). Consequently:

“Mother” has no clearly identifiable referent… “Mother” is both present and lost everywhere; its presence is its lostness, the unlocatable and unsettled nature of its referent and its attributes. Repeatable being - being that continuously fails to be unique – creates a hospitable world of correspondences, one in which relations, no longer blocked by difference, multiply as networks of similitude (2004: 117).

The thought is intriguing and seems to capture something essential in this film’s interest in the multiple transgressions of identity, whether between life and art or in the body animated by the donated heart of someone’s seventeen year old son. But if the referent of “my mother” really fails to be unique in this film what does this have to do with repetition and multiplication as opposed to an ongoing engagement with certain “serious” or painful tensions: between the singularity marked in grief and the real threat that might seem to be posed to it by various forms of adoption and substitution (Rosa’s desire to “adopt” Manuela; Manuela’s adoption of Rosa’s son; the adoption of a transplanted heart)? Or between an identity defined by relation (as a mother takes on this identity through relation to a child) and the fate of that identity through the loss of its “other”? And indeed, is it true that we have not at the end of this narrative been given a story that is in some powerful sense the answer to the desire expressed by the dead son – albeit deferred, displaced, incomplete, a kind of testimony to relationship that is written in the mother’s grief, as well as in her own desire and need to live on?

Bersani and Dutoit’s reading differs from the one I shall begin to develop here insofar as my account will suggest that the limit of knowing in this film lies not primarily with the absence of some underpinning truth of identity, but rather in acknowledgment of an order of relationality that disrupts the narrative powers of the self and conditions the mutual exposure central to the film’s exploration of intimacy and grief. This difference might initially be illustrated by considering its implications for the theme of testimony to loss that I have highlighted as central to the film. Manuela’s grief is treated by Bersani and Dutoit in terms that conform to what is proposed on their reading as the virtue of abandoning settled identities; it is read allegorically as a “mourning for the relationality she, like the film, will leave behind” (2004: 108).This remark intends to make a point about how her son’s death forces Manuela to embark on a journey in which she will free herself from the conformism that had in effect marked her unwillingness to reveal the identity of the trans-gendered father to the son (a faltering before the difficulties of telling that follow from conventionality). Yet this seems to radically downplay the sense in which Manuela’s grief is not allegorical but rather addresses the film’s audience as a manifestation of pain. In a crucial sense what we are shown is simply a heart-rending grief for the son, a grief that continues to testify to their bond. The rawness of this emotion which often resurges in a choking pain is at the heart of the film’s experience.

Where then does this sit with the more “playful” elements of the film? In what follows, I challenge the terms of Bersani and Dutoit’s reading by suggesting that although the film runs very close together a difficulty in telling that follows from social norms and conventions (the difficulty of narrating to one’s son that his father is a woman, or that his birth-mother died of AIDS) and a difficulty that follows from pain and the isolation created by grief, it also, and importantly, distinguishes them, maintaining a certain incommunicability of singular loss that the film nonetheless places at the centre of scenes of sociability. Bersani and Dutoit are right to point to the importance of the generous sociability of women portrayed in this film; yet my emphasis would lie as much upon the mode of acknowledgment of loss expressed among them as the convivial hilarity of certain scenes. One issue at stake here is how the inscription of identity in repetition threatens to become something dark rather than generous; how it borders upon and yet avoids becoming a form of substitution that would annihilate the gaping hole that is left in Manuela’s world by her son’s loss. This threat is marked in the motif of organ donation (ambiguously figuring the singularity of gift and substitutability of exchange) as well as in the various ways in which Manuela is invited to become mother to others. I shall suggest that crucial to the maintenance of the singularity of Manuela’s loss are the scenes in which Manuela addresses her sorrow to those best able to receive it (notably Huma) and I seek to develop this thought using Judith Butler’s account of the relation of address.

But second, this emphasis on address might also extend to considering the audience’s reception of this often very moving film, a film which does not only represent grief and loss but convokes their affects. The film itself seems to foreground this very relationship as bound up with the sense that artworks sometimes address us intimately. In an early scene we see Manuela weep at Streetcar named Desire, a play she later remarks has “marked her life”. This marking has to do with her identification with the character of Stella as well as elements of coincidence surrounding the play; coincidence that now must seem like fate. It is the aspect of fate as a necessary unfolding of pre-scripted relations that Bersani and Dutoit most wish to oppose with what they describe as the potentialising of being. Yet this risks also setting aside an aspect of fate that I find important in this film to do with what one might call both the singularising address and the “intrusion” of events, partly recognised because we have anticipated them as concerning us, but that yet remain strange – intrusive – to the extent that they arrive and remain as unsettling forces for which there is no narrative place (the “uncanniness” of coincidence). It is in this “no place”, a place of partial, but necessary and lived responses to that of which we could not hope to render a full account that I would situate a mode of the performative inscribed in the order of address special to art, and distinct from the re-citational function stressed by Bersani and Dutoit.

There are multiple figures of intrusion in this film: Thus one might speak of the intrusion of Eve Harrington into Margo Channing’s dressing room; repeated by Manuela with Huma (and leading to identical charges of the wrong of seeking to substitute for another); the intrusion of the son Esteban, banging on the windows of the car in the pouring rain as it rushes the quarrelling couple, Huma and Nina away from the theatre (Huma later devasted by the mistake she made here in not being available to this intrusion, in observing and repelling it with a coldness that Margo Channing also expressed for her fans); the intrusion of Manuela on the law of privacy that was supposed to protect the transfer of her son’s heart, shrouding it in anonymity; the intrusion of Manuela into Rosa’s relationship with her mother (Manuela seeking and failing to avert her position of surrogacy); the intrusion of death alongside pregnancy into Rosa’s un-nunlike body. Intrusion arrives, disrupts, claims; in a variety of ways it ruptures what is closed, private and fixed, to undo identities. Intrusion is uninvited; it violates at some level the subject of consent; it has something to do with our being-captured by events. The force of an intrusion can sometimes be rejected, sometimes not; in either case it poses a lingering question about the security or integrity of that which it intrudes upon. To ignore its question is to risk complacency, to refuse to acknowledge the importance of our being-addressed by something or someone in excess of what we can manage or master.  In this way, Almodóvar often figures love as ambiguously mixed with the greatest intrusions of violence. He seems fascinated by the question of our availability to and of our attempts to negotiate the experience of intrusion. 

If there is something allegorical here it could as well follow from the way in which these scenes of intrusion - or indeed the spectacular disturbances of symbolic identity that the transsexual characters in the film paradigmatically present - might serve to figure the disturbance to identity presented by our encounter with intimate loss. It is hard in Almodovar’s work to separate out dark and light elements, for playfulness and mourning would seem to nudge up against one another. But in effect, what I would like to suggest here is that neither will be given their proper significance if the film’s modes of creating and examining relations of address are overlooked: the address of a story, told to someone, in and through which the intrusive agony of intimacy is conveyed.

Grief’s Testimony

So let us say that All About My Mother is “all about” the testimony of grief and loss - the story not easy to tell, the story that, in dramatic terms, lends itself to translation and thence to a certain betrayal as melodrama. Indeed, to take up the suggestion of Butler’s remarks, quoted as one epigraph to this essay, this is the sort of story that, if it is to avoid becoming melodrama, will present a “truth of the person” only by avoiding the “seamlessness” of narrative that would make what is inherently difficult to tell into something coherent and readily assimilable (a disruption that is partially staged in this film by the features Bersani and Dutoit highlight).

The difficulties of “telling” what this film is about – difficulties we have seen linked already to questions of identity, of naming, of intertextuality, of unconventionality and improbability – might all be read as elements in its presentation of a certain order of testimony that make it impossible to respond in any unequivocal or wholly transparent way to the other’s desire for an account of oneself, as the son desires to know all about his mother. Insofar as this is a testimony of grief and loss, moreover, it works at the limits of a selfhood that, as Butler also richly explores in recent work, finds itself to be “undone” by the loss of an intimate other. Here Butler argues that one essential aspect of the choking, faltering character of grief’s testimony reflects the impossibility of “constituting myself in such an instance as a detached narrator of my relations”:

What grief displays, in contrast, is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide… I might try to tell a story here about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very “I” is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with the signs of its undoing (2005: 23).   

The difficult “telling” must then mark its own simultaneous condition of possibility and impossibility in the survival or living-on of one who existed only by virtue of relation to another. That finds particular poignancy in the question of what becomes of a mother when she has lost her only child; for “Mother” is a relational term that can linger on for Manuela only on condition of its interminable conjuring of loss. Clearly such telling faces a difficulty that is at once that of the subjectively painful and also of the inadequacy of words to what pains us. But moreover, it must encounter the problem of how pain is distributed between the singularity of its bearer and its capacity to be shared, taken up in sympathy, or encountered as something that implicates us too, as Manuela’s pain would implicate her son. The telling of what is intimate and painful involves the difficulty of accepting that the conditions of reception of our words must lie beyond us in a relation Butler elaborates as paradoxically at once constituted by and conditioning the telling. Once again, we might well explore these thoughts via certain scenes of the film.

Notable amongst the film’s scenes of intimate disclosure is one that takes place in the actress Huma’s dressing room. Manuela, accused of being an “Eve Harrington” who has wilfully deceived her way into taking over the role of Stella from Huma’s lover, Nina, relates the story of her son’s death as, in the pouring rain, he chased the car in which Huma and Nina sped away from the theatre, ignoring his impassioned request for an autograph. Manuela’s story, told in a fashion that entirely escapes its potential to become violent accusation, exemplifies the difficulties of telling grief that almost chokes the capacity to relate it. We know that Manuela’s story is true; but more than this knowledge, we are shown the truthfulness of a mode of narration that bears the un-assimilability of intimate death at its centre. Huma’s response richly honours that “gap” in narration. She is clearly profoundly moved but neither focuses her attention on the mourning mother nor takes on the narrative’s potential to become an implication of guilt. Instead, she honours the loss itself through her direct address to the dead son, handing to his mother the very next day the dedicated autograph she never wrote, the autograph that might have averted tragedy but now can only mark the point of death’s inscription in the on-going address of mourning.

In intriguing ways this scene echoes but transcribes the moment in All about Eve, when Eve arrives in the great actress Margo Channing’s dressing room bent on acquiring a sympathetic interest that is in part premised on the tale she relays of herself as tragic war-widow – a story we subsequently discover to be false. It is Eve’s exposure as a liar that gives a crucial sense to the title “All about Eve”, preserved in the Spanish translation to which Esteban objects. His version of “all about…” already seems to seek to go beyond this version of telling-as-stripping bare, toward a more indirect grasp of the person, one perhaps in which a lie might itself not merely expose the liar as such but constitute a kind of testimony to desire. His more subtle response to the question of narration seems already to turn around a sense of the importance of what is absent, not said, indeed what cannot be reduced to the order of the propositional, for his interest has been engaged by the silence of his mother on certain subjects. We do not know what his unwritten narrative might have made of this. But we do know his desire begins in the wish to complete the half of a picture that is missing or lost, not the desire to undo the sort of silence that would mark deception.

Whereas Eve’s deceptions are premised upon her success in relaying a seamless narrative, Manuela’s intimate self-relating is better described via the thought that certain kinds of accounting for persons must follow the negative path that succeeds in marking “interruption, stoppage, open-endedness… enigmatic articulations that cannot readily be translated into narrative form.” (Butler 2005: 64). We have already seen how this indirection marks Manuela’s response to her son’s request - a request that is itself motivated by a sense of the enigmatic and absent. But what sense might we make within this, of Manuela’s quasi-parallel with Eve as an actress who presents a threat of substitution, a threat averted in Manuela’s case by the truthful resistance of her story to a fully narrativised form?

In All about Eve, acting is synonymous with deception and with the threat of substitution that makes Eve such an enemy for Margo. Insofar as Margo is surrounded by a loving group of friends who constantly profess to “know her” so well that they may forgive her many foibles, she maintains a status exempted from the actress’s appearance of deceit. Yet it is clear that Eve as an outsider and intruder threatens this intimacy and presents a complex risk to Margo. Eve’s intrusion generates anxiety through the rupture presented to this little circle’s capacity for supporting Margo’s sense of self-identity distinct from her talent for acting – an identity that requires bolstering in the face of her awareness that she is losing her youth. From Margo’s own rage and grief there derives something violent in this film that lies not only in Eve’s deception but also in Margo’s over-stated reaction to it. Eve stands thoroughly judged, accused and punished by the end, while Margo has warded off the grief she is undergoing at the loss of her youth by making Eve, the actress as deceiver, the cause of all the pain associated with beauty’s disappearance. In a “seamless” resolution of the problem of the truth of persons, the circle of intimacy re-closes via Eve’s exclusion.

Yet within this, and despite Eve’s status as deceiver, Margo would seem to have been addressed by Eve’s desire to be like her more intimately than she cares to allow. A relation of address, Butler suggests, exceeds the terms of encounter provided by what is already known of our socially identifiable selves, and this in and as it interrupts every narrative function. It signals the movement toward another in speech that exceeds every content of the utterance (in Levinas’ vocabulary, it is the Saying that is manifest in the Said). As such, it is central to what Butler describes as an ethics based on “our shared, invariable and partial blindness about ourselves”, whereby the impossibility that the way in which one presents oneself should fully coincide with one’s sense of who one is also entails that the non-self-coincidence of the other be admitted (2005: 41-3). Although such non-self-coincidence may be interpreted as the ground of all deception, it is also what disturbs the seamless narrative of self-hood on which such deception would rest. Butler argues that to claim to know the other – to believe, for instance, that one could say “oh now I know all about you” (as in effect, Eve is “made known”) – is to ignore how in this remark a reduction or attempt at isolation of “I” from “you” is being staged within a relationship that belies it. Part of the point here is that the knowing “I” cannot simply lift itself out of the relation proposed in the desire to know as if this self occupied the position of an ideal observer. The corresponding point is that the “I” emerges only in response to the address of others and in the address to others. Who I am and who you are is something that emerges between us.

This is Butler’s latest version of the “performative” self in which, one might say, the element of “citationality” that characterises the subject of normative life (and stressed in Bersani and Dutoit’s reading) has been de-emphasised in favour of capturing a certain disorienting exposure to the other:

to tell the story of oneself is already to act, since telling is a kind of action, performed with some addressee, generalized or specific, as an implied feature. It is an action in the direction of another, as well as an action that requires an other. The other is thus within the action of my telling: it is not simply a question of imparting information to an other who is over there, beyond me, waiting to know. On the contrary, the telling performs an action that presupposes an Other, posits and elaborates the other, is given to the other, or by virtue of the other, prior to the giving of any information (2005: 81-2).

On this account, that element in telling which asks the other for a response is irreducible to judgement (including the judgement that the other threatens us with deceit). Moreover, it undercuts the very possibility of judgment insofar as it fails to respect the distance between the “I” and the “You” (2005: 45). Its intrusion is already an assault on identity; and conversely its condemnation and expulsion, such as we see Margo perform against Eve, is an attempt to preserve identity at any cost.

There would be much more to say than is possible here about the ethical displacement of judgment in many of Almodóvar’s films, often inviting from critics a degree of moral outrage. Here this characteristic displacement of judgment finds illustration by way of All About My Mother’s quasi-commentary on All about Eve, though equally relevant and perhaps more obvious would be the scene in which Manuela first angrily rebukes Lola but then shifts to an intensely shared grief through which she seems to relinquish or dissolve her judgment of her/him for the death of Rosa from AIDS. What is perhaps essential here is the way in which a movement takes place to a space of sharing, a space “between” identities in which each becomes radically available to the other. For if a relationship of judgment would forestall acknowledgement of the another’s capacity to intrude upon us, the experience of grief witnesses it: “maybe when we undergo what we do something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us…. When we lose [them]… we do not know who we are or what to do” (Butler 2004: 22). So too, Manuela is exemplary of Almodóvar’s interest in the “woman on the verge” (compare the film of that name and also Flower of my Secret) whose disorienting grief initiates an implication in events that are premised on her being at a loss over who she is or what she should do.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1: Manuela runs to son

But rather than develop such thoughts here, let me now try to return this discussion to some of the places from which we began. In their reading of the film, Bersani and Dutoit stress how scenes of grief are constantly repeated as aesthetic construction and artifice. As they correctly point out, Manuela does not always weep “for real”. She weeps as Stella when she takes over this role in Streetcar; she wipes tears from her eyes as she plays the role of the organ-donor’s wife in the constructed scenario at the beginning of the film, tears, one might say, that are later replayed as her son’s death is confirmed. “In more ways than one” Bersani and Dutoit remark, “Manuela’s tears are an aesthetic construction, and yet, perhaps because it is impossible to dissociate tears from genuine feelings, we can’t but be moved by them” (2004: 109). Such a reading places the film’s emotional life very close to melodrama’s willingness to jerk tears – with only a certain “knowingness” or reflexivity separating the two. In these examples the emphasis falls upon the way in which one scene is “for real” and another “play-acting” with the suggestion that these two interfere with one another to suspend the weight of seriousness. On my reading, however, the difference between the two remains crucial, insofar the stakes of the film’s critical relation to melodrama relies not on knowingness but on an emotional truthfulness that in turn is premised on a mode of address capable of rupturing narrative closure.

The film’s articulation of a difference between address and narrative play-acting is evident in certain crucial scenes. Thus when Manuela howls in anguish on stage, playing Stella going into labour, this is all she does, and is carried from the stage by Kowalski. All takes place within a representational frame. When Manuela runs towards her dead or injured son lying in the pouring rain on the road, she is screaming – “my son, my son” – calling him, imprecating. To confirm this sense of an address, we see her howling, face on one side from the perspective of the ground, that of the mortally injured son, or equally, a sign of the world radically awry. In what might appear as a highly artificial gesture, the sounds of her words are out of synch with the movements of her mouth; yet I think we experience this not as artifice but as though all the world is coming apart. It is one of the most anguishing moments in the film. When it is reinvoked later by the actress Huma playing in Lorca, her monologue which begins – “When I found my son he was lying in the road. I soaked my hands in his blood…” – also addresses us. That is to say, it performs a function that disturbs and interrupts the narrative function, and does so this time precisely by not being “real”, but bearing an uncanny congruence with the earlier scene. Despite its evident status as play within the film, the scene is again, agonising. Even as Huma distances herself from the role of mourning mother and complains to the director that she has a cold, the words she has spoken linger, conveying the “hole in the world” of a loss that continues to exceed the one who remains, the one who is now living on, only in and through the address of mourning.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: Huma in Lorca

It is also worth comparing the scenes in which the doctors rehearse what they will say to the wife of a potential organ donor with what they later say to Manuela “for real”; the first scene is marked by a demand for explanation – and the inability or refusal to hear it. – “I don’t understand” she insists “…So you are saying that he can receive a transplant” – “No, the other way round…” The problem for the doctors here is precisely that in failing to grasp the specificity of the scene of address, they convey a sense of substitutability; who gets to die? who lives? This appears as ultimately a matter of indifference to them. Such a failure of address returns us to a difficulty in telling that tracks the unintelligibility of being told of an intimate other’s death, as information through which the very self receiving it becomes “undone”. The difficulty here is exacerbated by the doctors putting something in the very place of the gaping hole of loss, the body that might be re-used, the substitutability of life. Earlier we have seen Manuela as nurse recite the statistics of a body that might be used again; Weight? Age? (questions, we might note, that are also repeatedly posed by Rosa’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father, who has all but entirely lost touch with the singularity of connections). The figures are efficiently relayed as a match is looked up on the system.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: the doctors playact

But in the wake of Manuela’s son’s accident, all the events surrounding the business of transplantation are reconfigured. The doctors who inform her are not faced with a woman to whom they must explain but with a woman who understands the full implications of their first words and howls in grief. The nurses and administrators must admit that this is not a statistical death but one that confronts and addresses them directly as the death of Manuela’s son, whose own undoing now enfolds them. They will still perform what is necessary for the transplant. But it is not just any heart that we see carried in an esky to Coruña; it is the son’s heart, Esteban’s heart, and as Jean-Luc Nancy suggests, writing of his own heart transplant, we have entered the realm of what is no longer representable (2002: 2).

Fig. 4

Fig. 4: the doctors tell Manuela

The sense of pain communicated by the one set of scenes engages in its audience a kind of anticipation of being-implicated by events – or being-addressed by them – that differs radically from the efforts at the rehearsal of grief we see conducted at the transplant institute. The latter retain a “flat” quality that leaves us in the position of the impartial observer; they do not intrude upon us. Intrusion marks an order of exposure to the world that is at once the point of our connection to it and our risk of being undone by it.  Thus to give an account of oneself or to perform the difficult telling I have suggested as a central theme of All About My Mother, paradoxically requires an ability to act in a sense that I have tried to elaborate here as a way of entering the space of address in which we are at once exposed and intruded upon; the tale must act to bring us into an experience that is shared, dis-appropriating, and prior to judgment.

Thus one might give a slightly different sense than that perhaps intended by Butler in the lines cited earlier: “to tell the story of oneself is already to act”. What will be crucial to this account is that we do not depart from the broader sense of Butler’s comment by positing such acting as play-acting (a representational form, congruent with the kind of lying we see Eve undertake). Indeed, what Butler is elaborating as address is prior to any representational function; it is, moreover, what “mocks the position of narrative control” (2005: 81). My suggestion has been that what discombobulates the narrative function in the son’s unfinished story, “all about my mother”, is the inscription of relationality that is marked in grief as well as living on. This is in excess of each subject who would say “I am this” or “you are that”. As testimony, the essential element of such a story is not reducible to information; and as bearer of grief and loss it exceeds a narrative function that would speak “about” such things in a detached fashion. Manuela’s way of taking up the desire of her dead son paradoxically testifies to the singular being between-us of what is aimed at, which would be travestied in the relation of subject to object, or by a purely representational function. And similarly, the film’s way of telling Manuela’s story foregrounds the importance of address as the “gap” in any narration.

Indeed, all this might be conjured by the closing gesture of a film titled “All About My Mother” whose final dedication reads “To my mother” – exemplifying how narrative gives way to address. For at the very end, behind this dedication, an opening appears. The theatrical curtain - against all expectations - does not fall, but rises, as if a story can never quite be fully told but must begin to make its intrusion felt again and again.

For Havi.


Bersani, L. & Ulysse D. (2004) Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity, London: British Film Institute

Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Life, London/New York: Verso

Butler, J. (2005) Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University Press

Nancy, J-L. (2002) L’Intrusin The New Centennial Review, vol 2. no.3, pp. 1-14

Image Credits

Todo sobre mi madre/All About My Mother, directed by Pedro Almodóvar, El deseo/Renn Productions/France 2 Cinéma, 1999. DVD Columbia Tristar (US, 2000)