Anything and Everything / Feminist Criticism

The Sound of One Heel Clacking: Performing Sonic Femininity in Almodóvar’s High Heels

Pedro Almodóvar consistently challenges his audience’s notions of gender and sexuality. His depictions of marginalized bodies and relationships outside of the heterosexual norm earn him critical acclaim on an international scale, and his attention to the power of the film sound track has not passed unnoticed. Almodóvar often employs music as a method of constructing characters and their identities, and there is further exploration to be done of the other aural elements in his films.

An investigation of 1991 crime farce High Heels (Tacones lejanos in Spanish), outlines the sonic indices present in the performance of femininity by Femme Letal, Becky, and Rebeca and their character development over the course of the film. The sounds associated with the traditional physical trappings that accompany performances of femininity (such as high heels clicking or jewelry rustling) deserve consideration when analyzing a film through a feminist lens. Examining the parallels Almodóvar presents between his homosexual male and heterosexual female characters allows for recognition of the nuanced sonic similarities apparent in their characterization of feminine identity. By analyzing the sound effects and Foley associated with their characters we can discover how Almodóvar’s particular brand of cinematic femininity sounds.

A highly stylized farcical melodrama, High Heels focuses on the relationship between Rebeca (a Spanish news anchor) and Becky (a famous singer and actress, and her mother). Rebeca is simultaneously obsessed with and resentful of Becky, who spent much of Rebeca’s childhood traveling. The plot is almost Shakespearian in its inclusion of outlandish disguises and absurd romantic entanglements. Rebeca marries Manuel, a former flame of her mother’s, and one who rekindles their love affair when Becky returns to Madrid. Meanwhile Rebeca, unhappy in her marriage to Manuel, has sex with Femme Letal, a drag queen who impersonates Becky. Though the three characters have distinct methods of performing their gender identity, both Rebeca and Letal’s identities are consciously constructed in response to, and as a reflection of Becky’s. In keeping with Almodóvar’s tendency to provide his characters with multiple iterations, each “version” of Becky presents a vivid characterization of the manner in which a feminine identity can be put on and just as easily taken off.

The heightened style of the film can be observed in the visual impact made by the bold and deliberate costuming of the three. Letal’s explicitly acknowledges her own constructed image by explaining to Becky that she “tried to copy [her] spirit, [her] style,” and that is specifically contained within “the wigs, miniskirts, platform shoes.” Complementing the sartorial specificity is the attention paid to the sound of feminine accouterment. The Foley that accompanies Becky’s heels, Rebeca’s necklaces, and Letal’s elaborate outfits is intrinsic to the representation of their individual portrayals of feminine identity.

From R to L: Becky, Rebeca, and Letal

Foleying the Feminine

One of the classic jobs of the Foley artist is to replace the on-screen characters’ footsteps, and in the case of the High Heels, the title suggests there was quite a bit of walking to be done on the part of the Foley artist or artists. Ironically, or perhaps fortuitously, the entire credited sound crew for the film was male; the sounds of all shoes in the film (whether heeled or no) were performed by a man. The biological sex of the Foley artists who worked on Almodóvar’s High Heels provides a fascinating extra-cinematic layer of gender performativity for analysis. When a male-identified Foley artist walks for the on-screen female character in high heels, he is simultaneously embodying and deconstructing gender performativity.

 A Foley Artist performing footsteps[1]

The Foley artist who walked in the high heels of Becky, Rebeca, and Letal achieved a dual result within the audience. He first provided their on-screen movement with added value by the sound and image working in synchrony to reaffirm the reality of the filmed scenario. Second, by enacting those on-screen performances of femininity he corporealized Judith Butler’s thesis regarding the performativity of gender insofar as the cinematic spectator believes the sound of their shoes to be inextricable from the performer on-screen. Butler’s remarks ring especially true in this circumstance: “Gender reality…is real only to the extent that it is performed.”[2]

Performed Sonic Identity

Butler’s ideas regarding gender’s social construction have moved into the cultural consciousness, as we can see from the ideology put forth in High Heels. She argues that gender is not predicated upon biological sex. Rather, it is the continuous and repeated rituals with existing social meanings that solidify the concept of what is feminine and what is masculine. In High Heels the bodies in question are those of two cis-gendered women, and one man in drag.

Deborah Shaw employs Butler’s theory in her own analysis of the performances of femininity in High Heels. She notes “Almodóvar represents femininity in as something entirely constructed…Characters in Tacones lejanos become archetypes, tragic heroines through their clothes, make-up, earrings, sunglasses, and high heels.”[3] While agreeing with her observation, I wish to expand upon Shaw’s thesis and note that the audience’s ear is drawn to the accessories associated with the feminine aesthetic through the exaggeration of their sound.

Throughout the film Rebeca’s clothing and jewelry are imitations of her mother’s and the sounds of her jewelry, purse or shoes become louder when her adherence to a gender norm is highlighted or exaggerated. Rebeca’s obsession with Becky plays out in the sound track of the film for the benefit of the audience. For example, in the dressing room following Femme Letal’s first performance at Villarosa, Becky assists her friend in undressing. The sounds of Rebeca’s strings of pearls rustling are amplified to a hyperbolic extent as she unzips and unbuckles Letal’s outfit. As Letal sheds the image of Becky, Rebeca’s sonic connection to her mother increases through the hyper realistic sound her jewelry makes. The connection here is highlighted verbally, as Rebeca says to Letal “I love your imitating my mom.” Rebeca’s entire identity is created in her attempt to be closer to her mother, whether that be dressing similarly, or befriending and ultimately engaging in a sexual relationship with a male who impersonates Becky. The sounds that accompany these physical signifiers of cultural femininity, and solidify the materiality of the sound in the diegesis are best described as materializing sound indices (M.S.I.). The M.S. I.s emphasized in the film are sonic indicators of femininity, and ultimately character identity.

It’s not until after she’s imprisoned for Manuel’s murder that Rebeca seems to develop sonic and stylistic differences from her mother. Rebeca confronts her mother as the film nears its climax, telling Becky how resentful she has grown by living her life in the shadow of the great Becky del Páramo. In this scene, the sounds associated with Rebeca are no longer based on elaborate clothing or fashionable accessories. The most prominent sounds emanating from her, apart from her dialogue, are ragged breaths, amplified to accentuate her heightened emotional state. The breaths also indicate that Rebeca’s identity at this point is reduced to a biological function, having been stripped of the material signifiers which connect her to her feminine performance and thus to her mother.

Almodóvar wrote the significance of these sonic indicators of identity into the script. During the film’s final scene, Becky lays on her deathbed, having finally reconciled with her daughter by perfidiously confessing to Manuel’s murder to spare Rebeca.

High heels…come to symbolize a daughter’s love for her mother and her fear of abandonment. In one of the most moving scenes, Rebeca recounts to her dying mother how, when she was a child, she could never fall asleep until   she heard the sound of her mother’s heels by the door.[4].

The poignancy of Rebeca’s anecdote is driven home by the inclusion of an anonymous pair of heeled feet in the top right of the frame. The lack of a specific body attached to them allows the heels to function as a visual metaphor, standing in for Becky’s maternal identity. At the same time, there is an activation of the aural sense in both Rebeca and the audience with the prominent clacks as the shoes move against the ground. Rebeca is draw to the sound and sight of her mother’s feminine identity, rather than remaining by Becky’s wholly unglamorous person in her final moments of life.

Feminine identity in Pedro Almodóvar’s High Heels is constructed through the material trappings associated with contemporary “womanhood,” but rather than disguise this convention, he highlights it, choosing to draw the audience’s attention to the artifice not only through visuals, but in the sound design as well. To this end, the title High Heels provides the viewer with a multisensory cue while simultaneously drawing upon the socially constructed concept of femininity. In the act of emphasizing the Foley and sound effects associated with Becky, Letal, and Rebeca, Almodóvar succeeds in hyperbolizing gender performance for the ultimate purpose of illustrating its separation from biological sex and its potential mutability.

 

[1] Colleen Patrick. Seattle. Colleen Patrick. May 22, 2009. http://www.colleenpatrick.com/blog/labels/Foley%20artist.html.

[2] Judith Butler. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.”  Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519. 527.

[3] Deborah Shaw. “Men in High Heels: The Feminine Man and Performances of Femininity in Tacones lejanos by Pedro Almodóvar.” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies 6, no. 1 (2000): 55-62. 56.

 

[4] Deborah Shaw. “Men in High Heels: The Feminine Man and Performances of Femininity in Tacones lejanos by Pedro Almodóvar.” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies 6, no. 1 (2000): 55-62. 57.

by Ashleigh Bowers

Ashleigh is a 20-something grandpa from Durham, North Carolina. If you make it past her fortress of books you might find her chatting endlessly (to no one in particular) about the sonic characterisations of women in film. To that end, she is currently pursuing a dual masters in Cinema Studies and Sound Design from Savannah College of Art & Design. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Centre Stage and Bring it On and consiers director Todd Haynes her queer spiritual soulmate. You can follow her music-making alter-ego Brett.Ashleigh on Soundcloud here, or read her irreverent tweets @13cupsofcoffee. 

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