Love and Women in Almodóvar, Ovid, and sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (h2so4 18)
The seventeenth-century Mexican nun, scholar, scientist and feminist sor Juana Inés de la Cruz liked Ovid. No slouch herself as a poet, she was good on the work of all the classical writers, but it was Ovid whom she entitled “the Poet of Women.” And this is odd when you think over what gets said about women, oh, in the Remedia Amores, say (a handy little volume teaching 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover). But given sor Juana’s primary complaint about other classical love poetsthat they violate the very women whom they claim to celebrate, it’s even more surprising. Ovid’s most famous text, the Metamorphoses, takes it for granted that the major phenomena of the Mediterranean universe, from its climate to its monuments of culture, are the salutary outcomes of a number of juicy rapes, or near-rapes: Jupiter and Europa, Hades and Proserpine, Apollo and Daphne….
Poet of women? Qualify, please.
Sor Juana did, in her Ballad 43. Ovid’s texts are rife with women, she said. They cluster and bustle like pears on a tree. Moreover, these women are true-to-life, only better. The portraits Ovid draws are finally equal to what a woman would desire:
In fact, that’s the point for sor Juana. Rape doesn’t come up in her writing (although a mortal dread of marriage does; ergo, her early flight to the Jeronymites); the violation that drives her crazy is misrepresentation: “En Petrarca, hallé una copia / de una Laura, o de una duende, / pues dicen que ser no tuvo, / más del que en sus versos tiene.” (In Petrarch, I found a copy / of Laura, or maybe of a fairy, / since as they say, she had no being / beyond what she has in his verses; 34-37). In sor Juana’s view, artists seeking to represent the charms of woman end up grinding them into hollines y peces, or ashes and fishbones, an early recipe for ink. Thus, when faced with a request from her own beloved that she pull herself together and write a love-poem, already, sor Juana devises a neat circumlocution, and avoids representation altogether (thus besting Ovid, we might note):
Sor Juana anticipates by a good three hundred years the step back and the invitation that Emmanuel Levinas proposes as the ethical subject’s mode of relation to the Other, leaving off the task of objectifying her lady in order simply to love and offer. For good measure, she throws in an example of how a lady should be addressed: She’ll kiss the ground beneath them, but she refuses to represent the Countess’s self-evident feet.
Sor Juana was on my mind after watching Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent movie, Talk to Her. There’s an analogy here, I think. If I type out the sentence, “Pedro Almodóvar is a Filmmaker of Women,” your response may very well be, “So What Else is New?” This is the director, after all, who almost single-handedly revitalized the so-called “classical women’s picture” in the eighties, and I’d put what he managed to do with Victoria Abril in High Heels up for the Douglas Sirk award against Todd Haynes’ Julianne Moore any day.
But remember, also, that Almodóvar is a Filmmaker of Rape. Women get raped up a storm in What have I done to deserve this? (1984), in The Labyrinth of Passion (1982, the film that stars All About My Mother’s Cecilia Roth as shrink-progeny, movida good angel ‘Sexcilia’), in Matador (1986), The Law of Desire (1987), Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1990); in High Heels (1991), Kika (1993), etc. And now, of course, in Talk to Her. And women are virtually raped in a handful of his other films: Matador (again), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)…. I’m sure I’m leaving some out, but you get the point. Odd, then, that I am claiming that the treatment of women in Almodóvar’s movies would meet sor Juana’s quirky criteria for feminist clearance: Certainly, they are diverse beauties, unconventional. They appear in various ages and sizes (Rossy di Palma! Bibi Anderson! Carmen Maura! But also Marisa Paredes; and Chus Lampreave, who looked old in the early sixties. Then there’s Veronica-Forqué, the human rubberband, in knee socks, on a garbage dump, no less). And they can be ripe and juicy as it gets. Like I said, Bibi Anderson. Even skinny Forqué got plumped up and buxom for her trot through Kika.
And Almodóvar loves women. Rape aside, they get treated right. And like sor Juana, Almodóvar has a big stake in rape and representation. In Almodóvar’s fable-Spain, as with Ovid’s god-ridden Mediterranean, rape is presented as the nearly inevitable condition of lived female life in a culture that freezes male psychological development at about age three …eight if you’re lucky, or really smart, like Hephaestos, or Nacho Martinez. Rape, for both Ovid and Almodóvar, is a metaphor for the violation of women that is the fabric of western culture. And, as woven into the stories they tell, it carries with it the subtext that men (Almodóvar) or gods (Ovid) are all the same, while it’s women who are different …not from men (Almodóvar actually doesn’t trade much in sex difference), but from each other. Women have subjectivity. That is, they are unique and tempting as pears. Thus, for the bewildered boy-men in Almodóvar’s films (young Antonio Banderas, Santiago Lajusticia), horny curiosity about this particular woman, out of all the ones around me… but I’ll get to them in a minute …is the force that tips them out of reason and into the doglike, reflexive pumping that comprises almost all of their technique.2
In Almodóvar’s movies women tend to take rape in stridemoreso than Ovid’s women do. But what gets them is misrepresentation. “No te fies de las aparencias” (“Don’t trust appearances”) Matador’s María warned her lover Diego back in 1986. She was speaking for Almodóvar, for whom representation has always been a tricky business. He called Matadorwhich pairs a woman and a mana film about homosexuals, since both were necrophiliacs.
In Talk to Her, Benigno’s rape of Alicia takes place behind the scenes of the intercut silent film “The Incredible Shrinking Lover.” As Benigno narrates in voice-over, we watch a tiny man scale the breasts of his mad-scientist beloved, then make the long trek down her belly and between her legs. We learn only retroactively that at about the time the lover is stripping down and entering a womb from which he will not emerge, Benigno is entering the comatose Alicia. Say what you will about how the rape is validated in the movie disappointingly, critics are maintaining a hands-off stance on the issue (the childbirth that results is credited with waking Alicia up from a four-year coma)the scene sets forth this movie’s point of view about what constitutes love and what constitutes real cultural violence against women, and it’s one of Almodóvar’s most creative statements of the theme.
For Almodóvar, the most stable marker of difference is not gender or object-choice, it is who loves and who withholds love. Hence in the story, Benigno’s rape is the result of love, and it has the power to bring Alicia back to life (bad news for my conceit that he’s thinking more like Grimm than Ovid). However, Almodóvar doesn’t engage in the violation of Alicia that would take place were he to represent that love through regular filmic meansshot/reaction shot, Alicia’s rubbery body poked and jerked, Benigno’s no doubt awkward fulfillment. That story is personal, we’d never understand it (we don’t already, Almodóvar anticipates), and we are, by virtue of watching this movie at all, already in the position of crude voyeurs. So what we get is a substitute, a body double, shot like a stage set (only because this is Almodóvar and he likes to make jokes, the body in fact belongs to a live woman, Paz Vegarecognize that bush from Sex and Lucia?).
There’s something else, and this is what got me thinking about sor Juana: In the silent film, the tiny lover, when he thinks he may be able to get through his encounter with no more than a sullied suit, wends his arm through his lady’s tangle, reaching around to find the precise thing he’s looking for: What is it that lies in the center of a woman? What is this lady all about? This sequence is being dismissed as one of Almodóvar’s “bad boy” tricks, but I think he’s playing it straight here. The lover reaches high and finds somethingthe lady twitches and smiles, and his hand comes out drenched. But that’s not enough. He takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves and heads inside. The camera stays out. More pleasure on the girlfriend’s part, but still not enough. He comes out to take everything off, and then heads back in for good. What’s he doing in there? I think we have the answer: Kissing a thousand times that something which I do not know you have. •
1Quotations of sor Juana’s Ballad 43 are taken from Las Obras Completas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz I: Lírica Personal, edited by Alfonso Méndez Plancarte (Mexico: Biblioteca Americana. 1997), pages 123-26. Translations are my own.
2 The exception here would be Miguel Bosé’s acrobatic oral sex with Victoria Abril in High Heels, but as a famous and very “out” pop star in real life, half-dressed as a woman within the scene, he doesn’t fit the mold for a number of reasons.