Who is Sacha Baron Cohen? We know that he is British, that he is Jewish, and that he studied history at Cambridge, where his cousin Simon is a professor of developmental psycho-pathology. Sacha has entered a no less delicate field. He is a squirmist: a master of SECS, or Socio-Ethnophobic Comic Simulations, in which he adopts fictional personae and then marches briskly into the real world with a mission to embarrass its inhabitants. His first coup was the invention of Ali G, a would-be rapper from the London suburbs, who inveigled celebrities—first in England, then in America—to trip themselves up on camera. He realized that, under the rules of international tolerance, they could not be seen to ignore the earnest entreaties of a young man in a gold tracksuit and wraparound shades. The definition of a clever stunt is one that tempts no less a personage than Noam Chomsky (or, as Ali G calls him, “my main man Professor Norman Chomsky”) to join the ranks of stooges—remaining thoughtful as the sexually bullish Ali inquires of him, “How would you like it if I called you bilingual?”
Next up, and more addictive still, was Borat Sagdiyev, the bony and wire-haired journalist from Kazakhstan. Unlike Ali G, who found only a televised niche, Borat is, as he would boast, becoming huge. Uncontainable on TV, he has swelled into cinemas, his wooing of America aided by the simple trick of filming him in America—on a coast-to-coast pilgrimage, with Pamela Anderson as his Holy Grail. The resulting film is titled “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” and it purports to be a documentary showing Borat lurching gaily from one instructive fiasco to the next. These include a driving lesson, a meeting of veteran feminists (“I could not concentrate on what this old man was saying,” he complains of one woman), a babble-tongued Pentecostal service, and a demure Southern dinner, at which one of the guests claims that, with a little training, Borat could be “Americanized.” Fat chance.
“Borat” is in part a feat of smuggling. The accepted view is that the Ali G phenomenon was bent on lampooning the piteous efforts of British white boys to sound and act black, but that was not the whole deal; it was also, at a subtler and less mentionable level, mocking some of the extremes of black culture itself. And so it is with Borat. On the one hand, he invites us to feel superior to the crudities of the Old World, as when he arrives in New York, mistakes the elevator for his hotel room, and pronounces himself quite happy with the accommodations. On the other hand, he sneaks in a volley of low blows against the America he claims to revere. Gasp as he incites a rodeo crowd to applaud his plan that President Bush should “drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child” in Iraq! Shudder as he boozes with a batch of true-life college boys, who share with him their modest thoughts on women!
This defense of Borat as an unwitting scourge of the reactionary—unearthing Midwestern beliefs no less parochial than those he left behind in Kazakhstan—is sound as far as it goes. But the movie goes further. It is equipped, like an F-15 Eagle, to engage multiple targets at once. If you can’t bear to hear Alan Keyes—whom Borat interviews, and who, like most of the participants, has no idea what he is dealing with—described as a “genuine chocolate-face,” then for pity’s sake stay home. As for the scene in which Borat smooches a blond woman before introducing her as his sister, the “number-four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan,” it is, like most of the film’s lavatorial gags, both daring you to gawk and forcing you to look away. What does Baron Cohen’s cousin, an expert in autism, make of all the retard jokes? And what game is Baron Cohen playing, exactly, when he shows mock footage of an annual Kazakh ceremony known as “the Running of the Jew,” in which children kick a giant egg to bits, to stop “the Jew chick” from being hatched?
Baron Cohen is one of the few British Jews to venture successfully into the comedy of shock. It was somehow both shameful and predictable that when Lenny Bruce was invited to appear in London for the second time, in 1963, he had no chance to perform before he was taken to the airport, deported, and banned from ever disturbing the British peace again. More recently, the case for disturbance has been made by the novelist Howard Jacobson, who has insisted, both within and beyond his books, that comedy is not just enfeebled but put to sleep, like an unwanted animal, once it discards its right and duty to offend. That is certainly the spirit of “Borat,” which may lack all narrative shapeliness, but which offers comfort neither to Baron Cohen’s onscreen victims nor to his audience; it is as if he were outraged by the business of our being human—as if, in laying bare our follies, he were just quickening the process by which we already make fools of ourselves.
So why send his characters here? Because America, to any filmmaker, is where the money is, but also because, to the connoisseur of hurt pride, it is where the sore spots are. When Borat laughs at the notion that you can be against cruelty to animals, you can hear, at his back, the snicker of Baron Cohen as he takes his cleaver to another sacred cow. His task is not so much to insult his fellow Jews, or the African-American community, as to register amazement at a culture that turns race relations into an article of faith—that seems to believe, against the run of history, in legislating our lower, more brutish instincts out of existence. In the mind of Sacha Baron Cohen, they are here to stay.
Listen to the kissing. That is my advice to anyone watching the start of “Volver,” the new film from Pedro Almodóvar. The director has outgrown his early, or “horny as a bullfighter,” period, so the kisses are no longer driven by lust. Instead, we have a gaggle of women, young and old, exchanging pecks on the cheek—the mildest of greetings, except that they sound like rifle shots. Close your eyes and you could be watching “The Wild Bunch.”
This small excess proves that Almodóvar is still crazy after all these years. His movies may have calmed down, or grown up, and they are fashioned with more structural nicety than those of any other current director, yet much about them remains not just larger but louder than life. Like Martin Scorsese (or, before him, Michael Powell), Almodóvar has a raging sweet tooth for the color red, which time will never allay. “Volver” is emblazoned with a scarlet reel of fire hose, a mopful of human gore, the slicing of red peppers, and a station wagon that appears to have been spray-painted with tomato soup. When the main character, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), answers the door to a guy who runs the restaurant next door, he points out a smear of blood on her neck. “Women’s troubles,” she says. She could be describing the whole film.
The particular trouble besetting Raimunda, and the source of that blood, is the body of her late husband. His name was Paco (Antonio de la Torre), and he was murdered, earlier that night, by their teen-age daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), at whose crotch he had been gazing, and on whom he eventually pounced. Instantly, almost proudly, his widow assumes responsibility: “Remember, I killed him,” she says to Paula. Whatever else, she will not let her daughter be punished for this high but excusable crime. I liked the moral fierceness here—the snap of Cruz’s voice and the glare of her eyes, lined as heavily as Tutankhamen’s. Raimunda stashes the corpse in the restaurant’s freezer—the owner has gone away—and without any training or experience she takes over the business, casually serving lunchtime feasts for thirty. This being Madrid, the food is largely pig-centric, although we are left to wonder whether she ran short of sausage one day, looked at the freezer, and made do with Paco a la plancha.
Raimunda and her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), who is as lonely as her name suggests, lost their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), in a fire some years ago. Now Irene comes back. There were already hints that she was caring for their aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who was old and forgetful; now, on the aunt’s demise, Irene becomes a free agent once more. Being technically dead should, by rights, obstruct her ability to get the most out of life, but Almodóvar would treat such objections as pedantic. He is a post-Christian director, and “Volver” displays a healthy, no-nonsense approach to the resurrection of the body. Initially, Irene opts for the full-on spectre look, complete with snaky white locks, but soon she sharpens up, gets a trim, and resumes her old, voluble, and flatulent self. The primary task of a Hollywood ghost is to spook, whereas Irene has returned on a more diplomatic errand—to explain, to plead, and, as she tells Raimunda, “to ask you to forgive me.” There are ancient sins, it turns out, jammed in the cracks of the past, which require expiation. As usual, they are the sins of the fathers.
“Volver” is as manless a movie as I have seen. There was a time in Almodóvar’s career—round about “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”—when the young hunk who visits Raimunda’s restaurant would have settled the check with a handsome tip, preferably over a hot stove, but this time he goes away unslaked. Raimunda prefers the friendship of a local whore, Regina (María Isabel Díaz), who says that “with your cleavage and my mojitos, we’d make a fortune.” Not until late in the story did I realize that Regina was a whore, since there is not a client in sight. At one point, Sole meets a gang of silent menfolk outside a house, but they are never glimpsed again. Compare the overhead shots of women, which might have been filmed by a guardian angel: Raimunda’s hair and bosom as she scrubs the murder weapon in the sink; or a swarm of women in black, clustered around the mourning Sole, fluttering their fans, against a tessellated floor. Sympathy, style, and order: one sex holds all the dice.
The question is not whether such imbalance is fair—the movies are crammed from week to week with misogyny, which demands a storming response—but to what extent “Volver” is attuned to the real. So much of it wants to feel rough and grounded, like the two women hacking at hard soil with a pickaxe, as they prepare to entomb a man. Yet the film, against my wishes, left me unmoved. There is a lovely scene in which Cruz sings (or lip-synchs) a plaintive ballad, with her tears brimming and the words laying forth the theme of return, but that is just the problem: you feel another cog being added to the film’s emotional engine, and something about the construction seems too efficient and pat. The fact that the heroines’ feelings are presented as open and raw does not make “Volver” any less of a concoction—a half-camp, half-noble dream of female solidarity, any grains of bitchiness tossed aside like salt. The climactic revelations, concerning which parent did what to which child, are both startling and unsurprising, and you sense that an alternative set of horrors would have made no difference. Almodóvar’s point is that the same injustices crop up from one generation to the next (note that the senile aunt and the molested youngster bear the same name, Paula); all that women can do is band together, like Spartans, and fend off the threat. I tried to imagine a policeman entering the stronghold of this movie and seeking to impose the law of the land. He would be set upon, like Actaeon, and torn apart.