Interrelations Between All About My Mother And A Streetcar Named Desire
All About My Mother (1999) by Pedro Almodóvar is a film that follows the grief and growth of Manuela, an Argentine nurse from Madrid. One night, Manuela meets her son, Esteban, at the theatre to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire for his birthday. After the play, Esteban and Manuela wait to ask the leading actress for her autograph. Because the actress leaves in a hurry, she does not have time to give Esteban an autograph. Esteban runs after her car and is struck and killed by another vehicle. Through the loss of her son, Manuela is able to revisit her old home, Barcelona, to confront old memories and use them to help her through her trauma. All About My Mother is an intertextual and transnational film, bringing together cultural references from around the world to enhance the meaning and relatability of a storyline. Almodóvar makes significant references to A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) by Tennessee Williams, All About Eve (1950) by Joseph Mankiewicz, and Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1932). Almodóvar also uses intertextual references from further afield, such as ‘Tajabone’ by Senegalese artist Ismael Lô. Utilising these references in his own narrative further develops Manuela’s story and helps the viewer understand the pain she experiences when she loses her son. Almodóvar’s use of transnational intertextual references comments on the structure of Spain’s national identity, producing a new definition of what it means to be ‘authentically’ Spanish. In this essay, I will examine how transnational and local intertextual devices transform and strengthen the meaning of All About My Mother.
When Manuela and Esteban are watching All About Eve at the start of the film, Esteban points out an error in the Spanish title. He says Todo sobre eva is a more authentic translation than Eva al desnudo, which translates to Naked Eve. This is a representation of transformation as a theme, and ‘suggests a certain tension surrounding the concept of authenticity.’ Almodóvar transforms the plot of both A Streetcar Named Desire and All About Eve, which adds a familiarity to his own film. Transformation is also visible in the transgender lives of Agrado and Lola. At the theatre, Agrado, who is Manuela’s friend, says ‘It costs a lot to be authentic… and one can’t be stingy with these things because the more authentic you are, the more you resemble what you’ve always dreamed of being.’ Almodóvar uses transgenderism to suggest that authenticity comes from creating your own ideal self, just as Agrado and Lola do. Agrado defines authenticity as a personal choice; the truer you are to who you want to be, the more authentic you are. Agrado chose to change herself through transplants; however, this is the very thing that makes her more authentic because she embracing the person she wants to be. Almodóvar uses Esteban’s Spanish translation of All About Eve in conjunction with his own film title to link a theme of transformation to credibility, and to condemn the social taboos that can be closely related to transgenderism and authenticity.
At the end of the film, Manuela watches Huma Rojo – the theatre’s leading actress – perform a piece from Lorca’s Blood Wedding. A mother is describing the pain of finding her son dead in the street, which mirrors Manuela’s situation. This is an example of the film’s theme of ‘art… imitating, or repeating, art.’ Huma is an actress reading through a theatrical piece; however, the content of the scene is one that Manuela experiences in her life inside of the film. The film frequently depicts a rotation between Manuela’s life within the film and the theatrical works that are portrayed in All About My Mother. After Esteban’s accident, Huma becomes a living link to Manuela’s dead son. Because of this, Manuela becomes attached to the theatre’s performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. She goes to watch it often, and eventually befriends Huma. She helps her backstage, just like Eve Harrington in All About Eve. When Huma’s co-star Nina misses a performance, Manuela steps in to play Stella, similar to Eve when she acts as an understudy for Margo Channing. The difference between Eve and Manuela is their intentions. Eve wants to be the new Margo Channing, and tries to do so maliciously. Contrary to Eve, ‘the good-hearted Manuela will not betray the star whose life she infiltrates’ because she has a connection to the play that goes beyond a desire to be a part of it. Although Streetcar reminds Manuela of her son, it also reveals a similarity between her and the main character, Stella. Stella is a woman who liberates herself from the clutches of an abusive husband to raise her child alone. When Esteban was born, Manuela fled to Madrid to protect her son and conceal the identity of her husband, Esteban, who is now a transgender woman named Lola. Lola is not aware that she has a son and Esteban does not know anything about Lola. Esteban’s loss of identity through paternal displacement transforms the meaning of his project. It has the same name as the film and is supposed to be all about Esteban’s mother. In reality, it is all about Esteban wanting to know who his father is and how his father’s concealed identity has affected him. In his project, Esteban recalls the half-torn photograph that his mother showed him. Assuming that the other half represents his father, Esteban admits ‘[his] life is missing the same half.’ The similarity between the contents of Streetcar and Manuela’s experience explains her attachment to the play and reveals her motivation to find Lola. Manuela’s visit to Barcelona becomes more than coming to terms with her past; it is a way to carry out the wishes of her son by allowing Lola to know who he was.
As Manuela travels to Barcelona, the viewer is greeted with familiar sights, such as La Sagrada Familia, while the unfamiliar melody of ‘Tajabone’ by Ismael Lô accompanies Manuela’s journey into the city. Lô is an African singer, specifically from Senegal. ‘Tajabone’ is sung in the Senegalese language, Wolof. Even Almodóvar was unaware of its context, but its meaning reflects a common theme in All About My Mother. ‘Tajabone’ represents the ‘Muslim celebration for children’ that is observed at the start of the Muslim New Year. Traditionally, children and adults perform as the opposite gender through clothing and engage in festivities, such as the sharing of sweets between neighbours. The song encourages a connection between the Senegalese tradition of becoming the opposite gender and the lives of Agrado and Lola – they both identify as transgender and have transformed themselves in order to fit their identity. The comparison between a well-known Spanish landmark, La Sagrada Familia, and an obscure African melody epitomises what Almodóvar is trying to communicate: Spain is growing into a nation that is not strictly Spanish, but multicultural and transnational. This is also represented by the important placement of African-Spanish citizens throughout the film. When Manuela and Rosa go to the hospital after Rosa tells Manuela she is pregnant with Lola’s child, there is a pregnant African woman behind them in the waiting room. Like the African woman, Rosa’s child will be of multiple cultures, because the father – Lola-Esteban – is Argentine. The presence of Rosa and the African woman highlights the multicultural identities of the children they will give birth to; the woman in the waiting room will have a child of African descent with a Spanish nationality. Almodóvar uses this scene to signify a changing attitude in the national identity, which loosens the definition of authenticity within the national spectrum and moves further away from the racism that spread after the increase in African immigration to Spain beginning in the 1980s. In her speech, Agrado explains authenticity as being true to who you want to be. Like Agrado, the Spanish-African child is encouraged to choose their identity in a way that remains true to themselves because of the changing views of the new Spanish society that is hinted at in the film. Almodóvar portrays a Spain that is more welcoming and accepting of a multicultural society.
All About My Mother uses intertextual references in order to enhance the meaning of the film. A new definition of authenticity is revealed through Esteban’s reworking of the Spanish title for All About Eve, which Agrado addresses in her speech. Manuela’s attachment to A Streetcar Named Desire reveals the similarity between Stella and Manuela’s experience. This highlights the absence of Esteban’s paternal influence and the pain he feels from it, which is Manuela’s motivation for finding Lola after Esteban passes. The use of Streetcar also emphasises Manuela’s connection to Huma, which exists primarily because of Huma’s proximity to Esteban’s death. Huma also acts in Blood Wedding, which mirrors Manuela’s experience with her son. ‘Tajabone’ is a device that holds hidden meaning within its context; it introduces a theme of becoming a different gender, which reflects a part Agrado and Lola’s transgender lives. ‘Tajabone’ also brings forth a new definition of Spanishness, one that is shrouded in the embrace of multiculturalism, instead of the archaic and racist view that being Spanish and of another culture is not truly ‘Spanish’. Almodóvar utilises intertextual devices from around the world to bring a new meaning to All About My Mother and to guide Manuela through her grief by encouraging different artforms to connect her with her past.