Female Melodrama

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Pedro Almod

Pedro Almodóvar’s film noir “Bad Education,” featuring a gay femme fatale, was an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling experiment. The vanguard Spanish writer-director re-turns to fine form with the eagerly anticipated “Volver” (“To Return”), clearly reviving the strong female characters that defined his early career.

In Madrid, nubile teenager Paula (Yohana Cobo) fends off her father Paco’s (Antonio de la Torre) advances, inadvertently stabbing him to death. Her mother Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) sneaks the body to a freezer in an empty restaurant nearby. When a crew member of a film shoot drops in wanting food for the cast and crew, she ends up taking over the restaurant as a squatter, relieving her desperate poverty amplified by the loss of the family’s breadwinner.

Meanwhile, in Raimunda’s village, her aunt (Chus Lampreave) dies, and Raimunda’s sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) finds a rather unexpected blast from the past: their mother Irene (the dependable Carmen Maura), long thought to be dead in a fire.

Once again, as in “All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her,” Almodóvar follows in the footsteps of German-born American director Douglas Sirk with an unbelievable melodrama.

Sirk was infamous for the excess in his tearjerkers (“Imitation of Life,” “Written on the Wind”). In his later career, during the 1950s, Sirk made distinctive use of Technicolor and Cinemascope, which were becoming commonplace in Hollywood. “Volver” pays fitting homage to Sirk, the master of melodrama.

Almodóvar is already well known for his bright hues and widescreen cinematography. The gay auteur has long had a reputation for pushing the boundaries. He stamps “Volver” with his signature wackiness, although that’s been toned down lately, and I find that apparent restraint diminishes the energy of his recent work, including “Volver.” The newer films are not quite as delightful as his earlier work that was unabashedly over the top.

His breakthrough “All About My Mother” pushed him, a maverick with a raunchy reputation, into the mainstream—almost. At the screening for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Oscar’s voters—whose older demographics make them notoriously conservative, making the edgy art house film a long shot—who could forget star Penélope Cruz’s obvious delight when she coincidentally presented the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to Almodóvar, crying out, “Pedro!”

The flick certainly helped to make the excellent Spanish actress a household name. Wisely, Almodóvar brings Cruz back for “Volver,” giving her a juicy role that she never found during her foray into English-language films, where she often played a heroine in need of rescue.

In “Volver,” Cruz, along with Almodóvar’s other female characters, become real thanks to the efforts of his performers. At Cannes, where Almodóvar took home Best Screenplay, the jury can pretty much do whatever it wants to modify or even make up awards for those they deem deserving. As such, the female ensemble cast collectively received the Best Actress Award. Nonetheless, most of the action revolves Cruz, and she anchors the story quite well. Her primary role is not that of a sexpot, though much is made of her prominent chest in one hilarious moment.

At the European Film Awards, “Volver” cleaned up: Best Director, Best Actress (Cruz), Best Cinematographer, Best Composer, and the Audience Award for Best Picture. It has already won the U.S. National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Film, making it a leading contender for an Academy Award.

Volver (Spanish with subtitles; 121 min.; scope) Landmark’s E StreetCinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

‘Miss Potter’: Sweet Treat

Australian director Chris Noonan takes the helm of “Miss Potter,” his first film since 1995’s “Babe.” “Miss Potter” is equally as sweet, an easy treat for audiences to swallow.

American actress Renée Zellweger follows up her performances as Bridget Jones by playing another English “singleton.” This time, she’s the real-life Beatrix Potter, the writer-illustrator of popular children’s books. Not everyone will agree that Zellweger is totally convincing as a Brit, but she does put heartfelt energy into her role. She effectively portrays Beatrix’s difficult position living in her family’s upper-class society in the late 1800s.

A young woman’s sole objective in life back then was to obtain a suitable marriage to a wealthy husband, usually arranged, but Beatrix has found all the suitors unworthy. As an unmarried woman, even in her early 30s, she requires a chaperone at all times. Despite such constraints, independently minded Beatrix stubbornly shops her drawings and story pitches around to publishers in London. When a publisher shows disinterest, she preempts his statement, saying that she knows he’s turning her down. Surprisingly, the publisher’s brother and business partner tell Beatrix they’ll publish her work.

It turns out Beatrix’s book is intended to be a throwaway project to keep the duo’s younger brother, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), out of their way. But the younger Mr. Warne turns out to be creative and innovative, leveraging Potter’s creative talent to create a highly successful debut for both and encouraging Beatrix to create new books, which continue to be bestsellers.

Eventually, Norman proposes to Beatrix. She accepts to the chagrin of her parents, but will the proudly single Potter find happiness as a married woman? That’s for fate to decide.

Miss Potter (English; 92 min.; scope) Opens Sun., Jan. 5

4 out of 5 stars

‘Perfume’: Olfactory Obsession

German filmmaker Tom Tykwer’s made a distinct impression with his early films: the tense psychological thriller “Deadly Maria” and the visually sweeping “Wintersleepers.” He became famous—in the art house world at least—with the wide success of “Run, Lola, Run,” showing multiple possibilities of what happens. The dazzling film was designed to appeal to the global MTV generation. Powered by an energetic performance, a star was born in Tykwer’s muse and now ex-girlfriend Franke Potente.

In “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” adapted from Patrick Suskind’s bestseller, Tykwer once again envelops us in a completely different world, this time in 1766 in the slums of Paris. From the beginning, he gives the audience a visceral and often shocking experience—an explicit depiction of a grim world where life is a brutal experience for most of the characters. Their life expectancy is quite short, which Tykwer eagerly demonstrates to us.

The story centers around orphan Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who manages to beat the odds and survive past childhood. Grenouille (played as a young adult by Ben Whishaw) has always been different, marked particularly by his especially keen sense of smell. It makes him a wunderkind wasting away as a slave laborer who’s bought and sold. One day, his world changes when he makes a delivery to Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a master maker of perfumes for the upper class, who eventually pays his employer to release him. Grenouille then makes fine perfumes, but his olfactory obsession compels him to higher ambitions.

Like all of Tykwer’s work, the film works quite well both visually and aurally. (He also composes the scores of his movies.) Certainly, “Perfume” is hyper-realistic and has its moments, some of them grandly impressive. But it doesn’t take the breath away, as often happens in Tykwer’s previous work. Perhaps if we could only smell the lovely scents that drive Grenouille’s single-mindedness. Still, “Perfume” has been selling plenty of tickets in Europe, which has Tykwer enjoying the sweet smell of success.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (English; 148 min.; scope) Opens Fri., Jan. 5 Landmark’s E Street Cinema

3.5 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International Film Clips for detailed listings available at press time.

Freer: Iranian Film Festival 2007 Recent work by Iranian filmmakers, widely regarded as among the world’s best, make their way to the Freer Gallery of Art again. Be warned: The popular series often has crowds beyond capacity. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

AFI: Kubrick, Stanwyck, Coppola and Garland From Jan. 26 to March 1, catch “Stanley Kubrick: Selected Works” and “Barbara Stanwyck: A Centennial Salute.” Through Jan. 11, catch the retrospectives “Francis Ford Coppola Redux” and “Judy Garland Sings.” (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

New Films From Germany, Switzerland and Austria The Goethe-Institut presents the 15th Annual New Films From Germany, Switzerland and Austria Film Festival from Jan. 19 to 25 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Please see feature for details. (202) 452-7672, www.landmarktheatres.com

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 7, 2011