The plot follows Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a single mother in Madrid. When her teenage son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) dies in a car accident, she heads to Barcelona to find his trans father (with whom she has had nothing to do in the intervening time), 'Lola' (Toni Canto). But in Barcelona, she becomes entangled with Agrado (Antonia San Juan), another trans and an old hooker friend; the actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Peredes), whose autograph Esteban was pursuing when he was killed; and Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun who works with prostitutes and the homeless.
Every major character in this film is either a woman, or is attempting to be one. Almodovar's take on women (in his later, more 'serious' films) is fascinating. His characters are rich and complex, light years from typical stereotypes of the female by the male; but at the same time, the cinematic gaze seems to objectify these bizarre and all-too-human creatures in an uncomfortable way. While there were moral ambiguities (as there should be), however, AAMM doesn't have the same level of sexual problematics as TTH (in which we sympathise with the rapist of a woman in a coma). But Almodovar forces the viewer, or at least this viewer, to forgive him his trespasses through the nuanced picture he represents, the compelling characters, and the sheer visual gorgeousness of his films.
The narrative of the film itself is bound up with two meta-narratives; All About Eve (which Manuela and Esteban watch together in the opening moments) and A Streetcar Named Desire (in which Huma Rojo performs on the fateful night of Esteban's death). And these reveal to us the theme of the story - that is, the nature of identity, as expressed in: the roles we play to hide the masks beneath and to recreate them in our own idealised image, and the role of narrative in doing so; the contorted nature of sexual/ity and gender identification; the inestimable and sometimes unexpected effects and affects of loss, whether past or anticipated; and the in/escapable ties of biology; honesty and trust, betrayal and bitterness, and the weird mixture they all form which we call a relationship (not necessarily of a sexual nature).
I had a few, relatively minor issues - particularly, I was almost disappointed to finally meet the mysterious, treacherous, gorgeous, insufferable Lola. And I didn't find the emotional impact hit me as deeply as it did in TTH (the only other of Almodovar's later work that I've seen); there was just a skerrick of the irreverent 'surface-ness', cartoonish or kitsch emotional tone, which suffuses his earlier films. But overall, the film was a joy (and a sorrow), a richly rewarding examination of the knowable-ness and the creation and destruction of identity, our own and that of the Other/s, and the relationship between the two.