Parallel Mothers (2021)

Pedro Almodóvar | 2hr

A young woman fearing motherhood, a middle-aged woman embracing it, and a mix-up of babies at the hospital – Parallel Mothers might at times look like a setup for an all-out farce, especially given Pedro Almodóvar’s familiarity with the genre from a handful of his earlier films. He at least doesn’t shy away from the comedy of the situation, particularly as Janis, the older mother, goes on denying her baby’s Asian appearance in spite of her and her sexual partner’s very non-Asian heritage. But above all else, Almodóvar is a lover of melodrama, and humour is simply one tool in his arsenal to draw out the expressiveness of such rich, colourful lives, letting the joyous peaks and devastating dips in these characters’ emotional journeys speak for themselves.

And where else would Almodóvar’s style of melodramatic pop art fit better than within an examination of motherhood itself? A sequence of playful intercutting between both Janis and Ana giving birth early on in the film sets up the two polarities of their attitudes, and indeed in certain areas the two might seem like opposites, but this is about as tidy as it ever gets in drawing distinctions between them. Once these women actually hold their babies in their arms, their lives and behaviours begin to shift. For Ana, her child signifies a way she might be able to break free from a traumatic past, and prove that her own mother’s self-admitted lack of a “maternal instinct” was not inherited. Meanwhile, Janis’s growing doubts about her baby’s parentage threatens her own desire to prove she can be a successful single mother, much like her own.

Colourful green, red, and yellow interiors a fitting choice for this expressive melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk.

Many of the truly disturbing directions that Parallel Mothers moves in threaten the very foundation of motherhood for Ana and Janis, as for all of the differences between them, there is a shared suffering in the disconnection they feel with their babies. Penelope Cruz, Almodóvar’s long-time muse, is trusted with a great deal of emotional weight here, and in bringing such an affectionate maturity to Janis’ maternal pride and struggles she delivers one of her best performances in years.

Beyond her characterisation as a mother though, Janis is also a woman intrigued by her own ancestry, and thus Almodóvar ties Parallel Mothers into a larger examination of heritage, how we relate to those who came before and after us, and the inevitability of those connections surfacing over time. Although this subplot bookends the film thematically, it doesn’t always feel as integrated with the rest of the narrative as it should be, especially since there is a long stretch of time spent in the middle without so much as a mention of it.

While Parallel Mothers does briefly set its sights beyond the confines of domestic spaces in this counterpoint, it is within its contained, homely realms that Almodóvar allows himself to indulge within his colourful filmic artifice. As a long-time devotee of those masters of melodrama from before his time such as Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Almodóvar isn’t afraid to adopt their delicate sensibilities into more outrageously gaudy set pieces, using the pretence of bright, block colours in his mise-en-scène to bring to life these feminine worlds which, by more conventional cinematic standards, might be considered dull.

Domestic spaces like these have often been considered inherently uncinematic, but Almodóvar’s eye for set dressing vividly brings them to life.

In a hospital room that would be entirely white in the hands of any other director, Almodóvar renders its walls in pale greens and yellow. Back at home, there is a distinct feel of a soundstage to the interiors, as he matches costumes to the curtains, couches, and walls in loud block colours. And then beneath it all is a perky, playful strings score, rising to our attention in what is a fairly dominating mix with the dialogue, matching the plot in its sheer ludicrousness. Absurd as Parallel Mothers may get at times, the pathos which spills forth from its comedic setups is sincere, as the Spanish auteur with a love of colourful femininity delivers his own personal ode to all those wide-ranging, meaningful, and unpredictable experiences of motherhood.

Pale green walls in the hospital – only Almodóvar would make a stylistic choice like this to underscore the artifice.

Parallel Mothers is coming to theatres in Australia on January 27th, 2022.

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