A well-worn piece of wisdom is that death is the only guarantee in life. But this life presupposes another guarantee: you were born. Life, death, and birth are all present in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer and Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers. Both films address, in different ways, what the meaning of motherhood is.
Although at very different points in their career, Larraín and Almodóvar are united through being Hispanophone directors – the former is Chilean and the latter Spanish – whose work centres around women. Larraín’s breakout English-language film was Jackie, his 2016 biopic about Jackie Kennedy’s experience during and after her husband’s assassination, and despite the androcentric focus of his earlier work, his past four projects have all featured women as protagonists. Almodóvar has spent much of his fifty years in filmmaking making films about women, such as his Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Talk to Her (2002). Both directors, however, especially focus on mothers – a focus which has reached its best expression yet in their most recent work.
Parallel Mothers (or Madres Paralelas) features Penelope Cruz as Janis – a photographer in her late thirties. The film begins with Janis doing a photoshoot with a forensic archaeologist named Arturo. After the shoot, Janis asks Arturo if he and his foundation would excavate a mass grave in her village. She informs him that she believes that her great-grandfather, who was murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War, is buried there alongside several other men. Arturo agrees; they begin to sleep together, only for Janis to become pregnant. Arturo asks her to abort the child as he has a wife undergoing chemotherapy, a request that Janis rejects, citing her age and desire to have a child.
The film proceeds as a gradual revelation of the unity of these two, seemingly disparate, subjects: of death and life, past and future, the personal and the political. This revelation is mediated through a flirtation with melodrama that is characteristic of Almodóvar’s films. Janis gives birth alongside a teenaged mother-to-be called Ana, Arturo avoids Janis and their child Anita as he cannot recognise himself in her, Janis discovers that she is not the mother of Anita, she then finds out that Ana’s child died of crib death. After inviting Ana to become a live-in nanny for Anita, Janis secretly makes Ana take a maternity test, only for the results to confirm her suspicions that Ana is the mother of Anita, and that their children were accidentally swapped at birth. Janis does not tell Ana the truth – later saying that she could not bear to lose her child twice – but her guilt becomes overwhelming as the two begin sleeping together. Nonetheless, it remains only a flirtation with melodrama, because despite the twists and turns of the plot, Almodóvar’s deftness as a story-teller and director ensures that the tone is never melodramatic. Tragedy is never dwelt on more than it needs to, and at times scenes of an emotional nature are cut short in what might seem is a jarring way. This makes sense in the context of the film: these events are tragic, but they also become part of the background of the character’s daily life. As they move on, so does the film. The film ends with Janis telling Ana the truth, their painful reconciliation, and the excavation of the mass grave by Arturo and his team.
Spencer features Kristen Stewart as Diana Spencer and is set during the royal family’s Christmas holidays at the Sandringham estate. The film covers three days – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day – during which Diana decides to separate from Prince Charles. Like Jackie, Spencer presents an intimate portrait of an iconic woman whose interiority is lost (or perhaps neglected) as a result of her public persona and relation to tragedy. Both films are a reminder of the humanity of people who have been reduced to the status of celebrity or historical figure. Larraín and Stewart accomplish this through intimately representing Diana’s psyche: we see her struggles with depression and bulimia, but also the moments of joy she manages to have during her stay. Diana is almost driven to suicide – prevented by her hallucination of Anne Boleyn – and on Boxing Day decides to leave the estate with her two sons. The film ends on a bittersweet note: Diana looks over the Thames, confident in the knowledge that for the first time in over ten years, she has the opportunity to be happy as an independent woman and mother. The viewer knows, though, that this opportunity is eventually cut short.
That Spencer ends with Diana being accompanied by only her children is no coincidence. Throughout the film, Diana’s relationship with her children is presented as one of the only properly human interactions afforded to her. Diana’s interactions with the royal family range from stilted to actively hostile; her interactions with her children – which include silly midnight games and tender moments of comfort – are joyful and relaxed. Even when Diana is overwhelmed, she still turns to her children as people she can trust, despite their young age. Early on in the film, Diana asks her boys to let her know if she begins to act silly, as they’re the only ones she believes. There is an irony in Diana’s motherhood, what in more cynical terms could have put as her duty to bear children for the future king, offering her one of the only sources of reprieve against the suffocating royal family. When Diana leaves the royal family she takes her children, because being a mother on her own terms, rather than the royal family’s terms, is necessary for her to be herself – Diana Spencer, and not Princess Diana.
If Spencer is about a mother, then MP is about mothers and motherhood in general. The eponymous parallel mothers of the film – Janis and Ana – are mirrored in their own mothers. In an interview Almodóvar claimed that both women are orphans in their own way. We discover that Janis’ mother died of an overdose at 27; Ana’s mother, who is alive and features prominently, essentially abandoned her to her father so that she could pursue an acting career. The relationship of each woman to her own mother inevitably frames her own experience of motherhood, with both Janis and Ana attempting to be the mother their mothers either couldn’t or wouldn’t be. Their futures as mothers depends on their past as children.
The past asserts its presence in other ways too. Janis’ life has invariably been shaped by the trauma of her great-grandfather’s death. His murder marked an absence in her grandmother’s life which, like a black hole, came to refract and reflect on everything around it – a process which her own mother came to experience. That the grief was sustained across generations, was not a result of an unwillingness of the family to move on, but of an inability. This inability was caused by the brute fact that Janis’ great-grandfather remained buried in a ditch dug by his own hand. The absence of any proper burial or gravesite for Janis’ great-grandfather is what sustains his felt absence in the lives of his descendants.
What defines the difference in the treatment of motherhood in both films is the framework in which it takes place. In Spencer, motherhood is not a wider phenomena but rather a vital component in Diana’s life – one that sustains her during her time at Sandringham and one that gives her hope afterwards. Larraín treats motherhood as an intensely personal and individual experience. In Parallel Mothers, motherhood is inseparable from the wider structures of family and kinship, and these in turn are inseparable from the even wider historical and political context that shapes one’s life. We should not understand these as opposing perspectives, contrasting the personal with the political, but rather as two complementary perspectives that take different emphases on a single subject. It is only through taking these different perspectives, attending to variations in experiences and setting, that we can come to begin to appreciate through film what it means to be a mother.
Artwork by Wang Sum Luk. Image credit: angel4leon//Pixabay