Pedro Almodóvar's paean to womanhood, in particular motherhood and actresshood, is dedicated to three of the kind: Bette Davis, specifically for All about Eve; Gena Rowlands, for Opening Night; and Romy Schneider, for The Important Thing Is to Love. The title, quite plainly, derives from the Davis film, a Spanish-dubbed clip of which is included; and the traffic fatality outside the stage door, whereby our heroine (Cecilia Roth) loses her eighteen-year-old son, is lifted directly from the Rowlands film. (Schneider, apart from her role as a degraded screen star in The Important Thing, lost a child for real, shortly before she died of heart failure at age forty-three.) The first half-hour has a strong and a steady pull, straight through the heroine's arrival in Barcelona from Madrid to track down the boy's father, who has no idea he ever had a son, much less has one no more. Thereafter the complications and coincidences mount up to staggering proportions. The grieving mother's best lead to the father, who is now a transvestite prostitute, is a social-working Catholic nun (Penelope Cruz) who turns out to be pregnant and HIV-positive; and the source of both the fetus and the virus turns out to be the selfsame transvestite prostitute. While waiting for this man to surface, the mother lands a job as personal assistant to the lesbian stage actress (Marisa Paredes) whose autograph the dead boy had been chasing the night he was run down by a car, and whose touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire just happens to have wended its way opportunely to Barcelona. One night, when the actress's coke-head lover and co-star -- Stella Kowalski to her Blanche Du Bois -- fails to appear by curtain time, the mother goes on in her place, to great acclaim. (She had first met the boy's father, it so happens, in an amateur production of Streetcar, Stella to his Stanley.) There is more in the same vein. Almodóvar treats all of it with a straight face, but at the same time a strained face. The application of old-fashioned chest-heaving soap operatics to new-fangled kinky subject matter has an air of blustery rhetoric about it. It never quite worked for R.W. Fassbinder. It works even less for Almodóvar, who quadruples the kinks. (1999) — Duncan Shepherd
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