Memory and Desire

Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film has been widely characterised as an intervention – humane or political or both – an attempt on the part of Spain’s pre-eminent filmmaker to reckon with the legacy of Franco and the Civil War. The reasoning is clear enough. Parallel Mothers partly concerns the efforts of Janis (Penélope Cruz), a photographer based in modern-day Madrid, to exhume the likely burial site of her great-grandfather, a Republican who was arrested one night in July 1936. It’s certainly true that Almodóvar has never been this close to the fact of fascist violence, and rarely so far, at least in recent decades, from his dependable formula of reminiscing artists (Bad Education, Broken Embraces, Pain and Glory) and anguished or misfiring parent-child relationships (Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver, The Skin I Live In, Julieta). But Parallel Mothers, as well as exhibiting traces of these elements, is also continuous with Almodóvar’s temperamental pliancy, reflecting as it does orthodox and to some degree official Spanish attitudes.

There’s a striking belatedness to the intervention. What Parallel Mothers offers is not a portrait of the military uprising mounted by Franco in 1936 or the Civil War, the ensuing dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975, the subsequent decades in which knowledge of his crimes were suppressed, or even the historical-memory movement associated with interventions such as Javier Cercas’s novel Soldiers of Salamis (2001). Instead, it portrays that movement’s orchestrated second wave, as represented by PSOE’s 2007 ‘Law of Historical Memory’, which Cercas himself described as ‘embarrassingly evocative’ of the totalitarian recognition that ‘the best way to control the present is to control the past’. It was around this time that Almodóvar suggested that ‘we don’t forget that period’. Two years after the law was passed he announced that ‘a moment arrives when it’s impossible to renounce memory’, and it is telling that his contributions to this effort, as a producer (of the 2018 documentary The Silence of Others) and now writer-director have come at this advanced, officially sanctioned stage of the process and take the form not of uncovering the secrets of the past, but depicting tributes to the long-dead as a prominent feature of contemporary Spanish life.

For a long time, Almodóvar appeared unequivocal in his belief that history was less a nightmare than a nuisance. Born in La Mancha, in 1949, he moved to Madrid in his late teens, and started shooting in 8mm while working for the state-owned Telefónica. His breakthrough films, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) and Labyrinth of Passion (1982), emerged from la movida, the populist avant-garde cultural movement that developed in the years after the dictatorship, and celebrated the freedoms of which they were a product. Almodóvar’s early work, inspired by farce and noir, comic books and melodrama, might seem to be reclaiming fascist kitsch – nuns, moustached machismo – as liberationist camp, if it weren’t for an apparent fear of social or political comment. Omitting to mention the post-Franco pacto de olvido (Pact of Forgetting) and the related laws of amnistía, twin pillars of the culture of silence that characterised the transición to democracy (1975-1982) and beyond, Almodóvar presented his work’s indifference to the recent past as either tough realism, or the key to progress. In a 1983 interview with the Spanish film magazine Dirigido Por, he argued that ‘these are ghosts which half the country doesn’t share’. In 1988, he said, ‘I don’t want to let even the memory of Francoism exist in my films’, and again, ten years later, talking to the Argentine newspaper La Nación, he insisted that he preferred to act ‘as if in Spain we had always been modern and frivolous… as if Franco had never existed’.

The scholar Joan Ramon Resina has argued that the transición exploited the category of aesthetic to advance its ‘disremembering’ agenda, inducing the Spanish people to introject ‘political rule as a harmonious, imaginative, even critical projection’ of their own ‘creative acquiescence’. Almodóvar appeared all too eager to play along. As the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín once wrote, ‘his civil war had been with his father’ – a repressive Catholic – and the name of Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo (Desire), reflects the character of his horizons. (Compare, say, Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule, the terms of Sherman’s offer to pro-Union black families along the South Carolina and Georgia coast.) When Almodóvar’s films did allude to the Franco era – as, for example, in a 1974 flashback in High Heels (1991) depicting a Catalan doctor going into exile – it was not to explore the legacy of trauma or the residual Francoism of Spanish society, but to provide a source of contrast, a way to signal how far that society had come, modernity and frivolity abounding. If Almodóvar couldn’t quite expunge Franco’s thirty-five-year rule, he could at least promote the view that his influence died along with him.

This was the impression given even by rare moments of direct engagement. Live Flesh (1997) opens during one of Franco’s states of emergency (moved from 1969 to 1970) when Víctor is born to a prostitute mother on a city bus. It ends, more than a quarter of a century later, with Víctor’s partner giving birth in the back of a car against a markedly different backdrop. Paul Julian Smith, in Desire Unlimited, his study of Almodóvar, describes this as a ‘breath-taking’ volte face and a brave confrontation with the country’s history, but it seems instead a way of denying the past, or at least minimising its relevance. In the first scenes, the streets of Madrid are empty, and Víctor’s mother gives birth only because she is too uneducated to realise that her waters had broken. In the mid-1990s, his partner is better informed, but traffic, commercial activity and general urban good cheer slow their course. ‘You’re much luckier than I was’, Víctor says, addressing the nearly born baby. The people of Spain, he concludes, ‘stopped being scared a long time ago’. 

In reality, there remained plenty of cause for apprehension. Live Flesh was produced shortly after Partido Popular led by José María Aznar – a party founded by senior figures of the dictatorship – came to power after thirteen years of socialist rule. Víctor is married to a wealthy Italian and works as a volunteer at her nursery, but for many unemployment (then at twenty percent, high even by Spanish standards) was a problem. ETA, the Basque separatist group, were engaged in an ongoing campaign of violence, including attempts to assassinate Aznar and the King. But Almodóvar’s head-in-the-sand-ism didn’t only apply to the unfolding present, removed as it may have felt from the darkest days of Franco’s rule, but also the transición. In Bad Education (2004), a man blackmails a former priest who abused him at boarding school. ‘This is 1977’, he explains. ‘This society puts my freedom above your hypocrisy’. And so it proves – his scheme pays off. 

Yet for all Almodóvar’s apparent belief in the fresh start, 1975 as something like a Year Zero, he has also displayed a pronounced emphasis on the burden of inheritance. The key to continuing is to unblock the past. Of the seven films that he has made this century, five, including Talk to Her (2002) and The Skin I Live In (2011), hinge on a flashback structure, while another, Volver (2006), has recourse to a long expository speech, a device also used in Broken Embraces (2009), where a character whose past experiences are not encompassed by the flashbacks gives a blow-by-blow account of her role in the action, then adds – almost by way of justifying the contrivance – ‘I think the catharsis did me good’. While there’s a temptation to suggest that Almodóvar was seeking to allegorise repression, the events exerting power over the present have gone unmentioned on account not of a social contract to forget, or a legal injunction to forgive, but for internal narrative reasons – the clandestine or criminal nature of the activities, or their potential explosiveness. A more likely reading is that such structuring devices, hardly rare in drama, are indispensable to the form that this director has increasingly favoured, melodrama.

There is a fairly obvious example of a director who swerved from stories of the private or individual to the national or collective, a particular favourite of Almodóvar himself: Douglas Sirk. Born in Hamburg to Danish parents, Sirk worked in theatre and film in Germany before emigrating in 1937 to the United States. He established himself with a run of so-called women’s pictures starting with All I Desire (1953), and including All that Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), but then he made Battle Hymn (1957), in which a fighter pilot arranges the evacuation of Korean orphans, and adaptations of Faulkner’s Pylon, about the legacy of the First World War during the Depression (The Tarnished Angels, 1957), and Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), in which a German soldier turns against the Nazis. But Sirk’s films were always geared to public questions, and another filmmaker, though less immediately comparable, offers a closer and more damning – albeit inverse – precedent for Almodóvar’s progress and its relationship with Franco’s legacy.

Like Almodóvar, Alain Resnais, who was born one hundred years ago this month, had a strict Roman Catholic upbringing, was energised by American culture, especially comic books, experimented with 8mm, lived under fascist rule, and belonged to a movement associated with freedom and dissent – the group identified by the critic Richard Roud, writing in Sight and Sound, as the rive gauche branch of the nouvelle vague. The dozen films that Resnais made that coincided with Almodóvar’s career, between 1980 and 2014, among them L’Amour à mort and Smoking / No Smoking, exhibit a similar interest in theatricality and meta-theatrical tropes (a curtain rising on the action, etc), in old friends reuniting and old passions reviving, as well as a tendency to draw on a repertory company (skewing a little more male in Resnais’s case). The creator of Mélo – literally music but with inevitable connotations of melodrama – also shared a taste for Sirk, for surrealism (Cocteau as well as Dali and Buñuel), for Hitchcock and for Dennis Potter, whose influence can be detected in his lip-synced musical On Connait La Chanson (1998) and Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, in which a comatose woman is sexually abused, the notorious subject matter of Brimstone and Treacle (1982).

A chasm however exists between the way they have dealt with history. From the 1950s until the 1970s, Resnais made a series of documentaries and modernist experiments that considered the recent past as a collective phenomenon. The Statues Also Die (1953), his short documentary about African art, was commissioned by Présence Africaine, the Auschwitz record Night and Fog (1956) by the Committee for the History of the Second World War and Réseau du souvenir, which was devoted to the deportations. While his best-known film, Last Year in Marienbad (1961), produced during this period, might be seen as a study of a more conceptualized past along the lines of Almodóvar’s stories, albeit in a different idiom, the follow-up, Muriel, or The Time of the Return (1963), deals directly with the Occupation and Algeria, while titles like Guernica (1950), All the Memory in the World (1956) – a portrait of the Bibliothèque Nationale – and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)his fiction debut, indicate a frontal approach.

During what could be considered the historical-memory phase of Resnais’s work, he collaborated on two occasions with the Madrid-born novelist, memoirist and politician – and NLR contributor – Jorge Semprún, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War who fought in the French resistance and was interned at Buchenwald. La Guerre Est Finie (1965) told the story of a Spanish Communist planning a strike, based partly on Semprún’s experience. Their second collaboration, Stavisky… (1974), concerned the Jewish financier whose embezzling scheme prompted the 1934 riots in Paris, and begins with Trotsky arriving on the Riviera. (In the intervening period, Semprún had written a novel that touched on Trotsky’s exile, The Second Death of Ramon Mercader, winner of the 1969 Prix Femina, as well as the scripts for Costa-Gavras’s political thrillers and The Confession.) 

It was after Stavisky… that Resnais began to shift from what he called ‘virtuous projects, with grand, noble ideas’ towards divertissements. (Last Year in Marienbad, for all its apparent thematic overlap with Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel, had been a harbinger of his taste for play). He may have felt he had done his duty, or perhaps he intuited that an epoch was over, or a stage of a project complete. Historical memory was becoming a subject of study, especially in France. ‘Mémoire’ was the subject of work by Pierra Nora (Les Lieux de Mémoire, 1984-1992) and Jacques Le Goff (Histoire et mémoire, 1988), special issues of L’Écrit du tempsRepresentationsPsychanalystes and Communications, and one might add any number of related breakthroughs, from Deleuze’s philosophy of ‘the phantasm’ to his Bergsonian reflections, on Resnais among others, in his second book on cinema

The intention was not to impose an unfamiliar moral or intellectual agenda but to build on progress already made. Historians could look to an existing discursive tradition, particularly the work of the psychologist Maurice Halbwachs, who had theorised ‘collective mémoire’ and ‘les cadres sociaux de la mémoire’ in the 1920s. And the Pétain era had been immediately followed by an épuration légale – which curdled into an épuration sauvage – as well as a wider desire to take stock. The Commission for the History of the Occupation and Liberation of France was founded in October 1944, the Committee for the History of the Second World War the following year. In 1987, Henry Rousso, a member of l’Institut d’histoire du temps présent, published his monumental study, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, at one point presenting a chart – a ‘temperature curve’ – with only rare spots of ‘calm’ to emphasise the fervency of debate over what he considered a French civil war (‘guerre franco-française’). In Rousso’s account, De Gaulle, eager to promote his ‘certain idea of France’, helped foment the resistance narrative, which Rousso mocks as résistancialisme, but his eclipse at the end of 1960s, coinciding with the cultural energy injected by les événements, gave way to a ‘counter-myth,’ as embodied in Marcel Ophuls’s documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Robert O. Paxton’s book Vichy France (1972), the novelist Patrick Modiano’s Occupation trilogy (1968-72) and Bernard-Henri Lévy’s The French Ideology (1981), in which wartime France was painted as a nation of avid collaborationists and anti-Semites. (Stavisky…, with a Jewish central character, and set in the decade before the Occupation, was to some degree a product of this turn.) But while there was no consensus, few would have argued for the virtues of silence or forgetting.

Clearly a cultural movement or academic discipline based around remembering the past could have no equivalent in the Spain of that time. The Civil War had been followed not just by decades of Francoist rule but a succession plan – specifically a ‘transition,’ not a rupture or break – in which many of the same surnames dominated. Occasionally with the same forenames, too: Manuel Fraga, the politician who can be heard announcing the state of emergency in Live Flesh, was serving as the president of the Galician regional government when the film came out. (So much for Almodóvar’s chalk-and-cheese book-end structure.) Instead of immediate épuration, there had been decades of continuity, then olvido and amnistía. As Peter Burke once argued, history isn’t determined by the victors but forgotten by them. The counterpart in Spanish historiography to Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome was Paloma Aguilar’s tale of expedient forgetting, Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition to Democracy.

Since then, there has been a revolution in thinking. Yet even in a context where historical memory has become a cultural norm or obligation, Parallel Mothers reasserts Almodóvar’s suspicion of, or distaste for, anything but a personal past. As in Live Flesh, history is confined to the margins. Janis’s investigation takes the form of an encounter with an archaeologist from the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a couple of updates by telephone, and then, in the final scenes, a visit to a common grave. The rest of the film is dedicated to its engaging melodrama plot, in which Janis inadvertently takes home the baby of a teenage mother, Ana, who is sharing her room on the maternity ward, and then opts not to reveal the mix-up. Historical-memory processes are reduced to an essentially conceptual role, or as ballast for a story about an act of avoidance (also involving DNA swab tests). 

But while Almodóvar builds an analogy – a parallel – between kinds of behaviour or far-flung epochs, he appears uninterested in what might bridge them, not even the potential impact of familial or societal trauma on the character in whose emotional fate we are asked to invest. When Resnais called the Trotsky sections of Stavisky… ‘a subplot, parallel plot’, he was pointing to connections of a more than symbolic kind. Trotsky and Stavisky were not both merely ‘outsiders’, but Russian Jews, treated as ‘métèques’ in 1930s France, with the same policeman (Gagneux, renamed Gardet in the film) working their cases. Almodóvar’s approach instead recalls the critic Serge Daney’s observation, in the newly translated The Cinema Home and the World, that certain so-called political films command moral and ideological assent through appeal to a ‘metaphysical’ theme – e.g., the ‘abstract courage to resist in general’ – which rather than yielding insight about a concrete struggle, encourages ‘a kind of amnesia’.

But while Parallel Mothers realises this generic danger, being concerned with the kind of burdensome past familiar from Almodóvar’s overtly ahistorical work, it also succumbs to the pitfalls of the Spanish predicament as such. The story he has chosen to tell, in which a single victim of falange violence provides the backdrop, reflects a tendency identified by Cercas and others as a kind of resistancialismo. Nor does Almodóvar resist ‘the sentimentalization of memory’ decried by the novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina, any more than he explored the possibility of ideological coercion – as opposed to the exercise of free will or liberationist energy – in his insistence on forgetting all about Franco. Today he argues that engaging with the falange – it’s unclear where this leaves his earlier contrasting stance – is a necessary condition of finishing with it ‘once and for all’, a position also voiced by Janis in the film, a utopian aim even if it weren’t contingent on achieving an impossible task (‘knowing’ 114,000 murders, three and a half decades of social immiseration, two decades of collusive silence). Resnais, by contrast, elected not to use the customary closing title ‘fin’ in Night and Fog.

But then the story of Spanish collective memory since the end of fascism exists in stark contrast to how things unfolded in France, including the matter of reflecting on its own procedures. Rousso, squaring up to the Vichy syndrome, was eager to acknowledge the precariousness of his own position, as a French observer on a French battle, and aspired to something like the meta-historian’s equivalent of counter-transference, his self-consciousness enabling him to evade at least the more extreme existing forms of flawed thinking. But Parallel Mothers and its accompanying rhetoric show that Almodóvar, in so many ways the most distinctive and independent-spirited Spanish director since Buñuel, has been subservient to prevailing attitudes, moving in one more or less prescribed direction and then another, limiting his work to the status of epiphenomena all the while invoking a position of defiance.

Read on: Ronald Fraser, ‘Reconsidering the Spanish Civil War’, NLR I/129