A contemporary picture of an artist and his muse is a complicated one. We can acknowledge, with hindsight, the parasitic, destructive nature of the dynamic Pablo Picasso had with Françoise Gilot or the one Jean-Luc Godard forged with Anna Karina—how these men mined those women’s lives for inspiration and profited from their torment. Still, it is possible to imagine a mutually empowering artist-subject relationship. While no one knows the exact specifics of the creative bond between director Pedro Almodóvar and his periodic star, Penelope Cruz, their work together at least hints at the prospect of a mutually respectful collaboration, bringing out the best in both of them.
Parallel Mothers is the eighth film Almodóvar has made with Cruz. It has some of the absurdity of their first project together, Live Flesh, which featured a scene-stealing turn from the star as a wailing sex worker giving birth on a bus. Cruz has been a striking presence in every Almodóvar film she’s appeared in, but her Oscar-nominated turn as Raimunda in Volver is often cited as the finest acting of her career, and maybe the greatest showcase of the filmmaker’s talent for crafting rich, complicated roles for women. That film now has competition in both departments, however, thanks to the sensual and devastating performance Cruz delivers as Janis in Parallel Mothers.
Janis is a glamorous photographer living in a snazzy, colorful apartment in a smart square in Madrid. She embarks on an affair and becomes pregnant with the child of Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a debonair forensic archaeologist with an ailing wife. Beyond their intense sexual connection, Janis hopes to gain his help disinterring the mass grave that lies on the outskirts of her childhood village; buried there are the bodies of 10 men, including her great-grandfather, who were murdered by the Filangists during the Spanish Civil War. True to form and right from the start, Almodóvar establishes the clash between Spain’s wider cultural trauma and interpersonal melodrama.
Resolving to raise the baby as a single mother, Janis finds herself in labor alongside the teenage Ana (Milena Smit), who has the air of a woman who’s been in incalculable pain for much longer than she’s been experiencing contractions. While Janis is keen to seize this opportunity for motherhood, Ana deeply regrets her pregnancy, though thankfully her family has the means to support her, financially if not emotionally.
Though Ana feels she has limited prospects as an unwed teen mother, both women occupy a certain social class which comes with perfectly highlighted hair and a steady stream of household staff. Ana’s fantastically self-involved mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), struts delightfully into each scene in coordinating autumnal tones that whisper wealth. Her attempts at making it as an actress, her delusions of artistic integrity, and her continual shortcomings as a mother to Ana vacillate between hilarious and harrowing, without the movie ever feeling contemptuous or sneering.
As the film progresses from that initial meeting, the bond between Janis and Ana shifts, their power dynamic tilting back and forth. Parallel Mothers plays yin and yang with them in the frame, sometimes depicting them as mirror images of each other, sometimes as shadows. This being an Almodóvar movie, there are twists and turns, the best of which turn subtext into text.
Outwardly, this is a film about motherhood, but it only grazes the loving bonds and crushing responsibility that experience brings. Almodóvar is more interested in wider ramifications, in questions of identity, inheritance, and womanhood; he skims over the logistics of childrearing to focus harder on the impact giving birth has on Janis’ other relationships and her moral compass. Parallel Mothers is also about building a sense of self—personal and national—atop the lingering inherited trauma of Franco’s regime, and how that trauma is passed down family lines, with no real hope of resolution.
The film is at its most powerful, however, when Almodóvar relies on his muse and intensely fixates on her character as Janis silently absorbs waves of devastation or allows herself to confess, the words rapidly, cathartically tumbling out of her. In those moments, Parallel Mothers becomes a beautiful tribute to their enduring, working relationship and the trust the director regularly puts in Cruz, whose performance he never surrounds with flashy flourishes. The two really do elevate each other’s game—the mark of a collaboration that benefits both participants.