At the beginning of Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish film Talk to Her two men are seated next to each other at a performance of Pina Bausch‘s Café Müller, a modern dance piece from 1978 set to music by Purcell in which two women in slips move quickly but with somnambulistic helplessness across a café set while a man pushes chairs out of their paths. (The movie ends at a performance of Bausch’s 1986 work Masurca Fogo.) Benigno notices that Marco is moved to tears by the performance, which turns out to be symbolic of the movie’s own story.
Benigno is a nurse assigned full-time to the care of Alicia, a young dancer who has been in a coma for four years. Benigno seems gay, but is actually a virgin who became obsessed with Alicia before her accident; by luck he’s ended up with the job which includes intimate care to keep Alicia’s skin and muscles and eyes, etc., from deteriorating. (He learned these spa skills while taking care of his own inert mother.) As he works on Alicia he talks to her as casually as if she were awake and listening with total absorption. He tells her about the Bausch performance, which he attended because she would have been interested, about the silent movies he goes to because she loved them, about Marco, though we’re not exactly sure why.
Marco is a middle-aged journalist who sees Lydia, a female bullfighter, on a talk show, and asks to be assigned to interview her. His entrée is that she’s plainly desperate about being dumped by a male fellow bullfighter. Marco gets more than an interview, however, after he kills a snake in Lydia’s kitchen. It brings them together but also puts a space between them because it reminds Marco of a similar situation with his ex-girlfriend of ten years (whom he got off drugs by taking her back to her parents who then refused to let her see him anymore). Marco weeps at the memory, which Lydia registers. At the ex’s wedding Marco feels ready to commit to Lydia; she doesn’t get a chance to tell him she’s back with her own ex before she’s gored by a bull later that day and put in a coma, ending up on the same hospital floor as Alicia. The two men become friends, though Marco is resistant to the idea that there’s any point in talking to a comatose woman.
Up to a point Benigno the virgin seems to have the ideal relationship. His chatting while tending to Alicia, who remains totally silent and passive, is so much less messy than even the brief relationship between Marco and Lydia, with all its stormily confused sexual symbols–snakes, bulls and bullfighting, tears. One night Benigno tells Alicia all about a silent movie he went to called The Shrinking Lover (a stylistically sensational fake on Almodóvar’s part). In this movie a female scientist develops a potion for weight control; before she can test it, however, her portly male lover drinks it down to prove that he takes her seriously. Unfortunately it makes him shrink until he can fit in her purse, and other places. At the end of the excerpts we see, after the scientist has rescued him from his domineering mother and taken him into her bed, the tiny lover climbs up on her breasts and then down to her vagina where he experimentally sticks his arm in before heading on in for good. For Benigno and Alicia it seems the mess can be contained in a work of art.
Up to this point the movie appears to be a work of comic irony about heterosexual relationships. Benigno, whose name implies good intentions, comes off as an ideal lover if you don’t like drama. In a crazy way, he and Alicia are lucky. But Benigno has his issues as well, it turns out, and isn’t quite as harmless as we thought. The movie quickly brings us out of the suspended fantasy world in which we were amused by the conceit of Benigno’s devotion to Alicia with a page stolen from the great romantic ironist Heinrich von Kleist‘s 1810 novella The Marquise of O. Harmless Benigno harms Alicia, though to her ultimate benefit. Almodóvar doesn’t switch gears in an abrupt manner or with didactic intent; he just subtly reminds us that movies are movies and what we’re seeing isn’t (though of course it is). There’s no way around the mess in human relationships; our drives don’t permit it.
Talk to Her is a superbly crafted movie, both more particular and more elliptical in its storytelling than almost all American dramas. It makes something like The Hours, or worse, Far from Heaven, look very clodhopping indeed. The way those movies exemplify their themes, they’re like used textbooks covered with highlighter. Almodóvar’s integration of dance and music (including a haunting live performance by the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso of the song Cucurrucucú paloma) and design and movies has become extremely fluent since he burst on the international scene with his bad-boy lunacies in the ’80s. But I have to say, it’s the naughty poofter who made What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Matador (with Antonio Banderas as the pathetic, immature rapist), Law of Desire, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that many of us fell in love with. Those explosive comedies were so distinctive because they seemed to place no limit on Almodóvar’s access to his subconscious and yet they weren’t interior, hushed, private. He gave parties in his head and everybody came. But his style was so marked that he had a legitimate fear of imitating himself and so struck out in other directions. A decade before Todd Haynes tried to put some dramatic fiber into a Douglas Sirk movie in Far from Heaven, Almodóvar tried it. He hasn’t become earnest, going for settled prestigious “big” subjects in the manner of American entertainers like Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme (and George Stevens before them) who decide it’s time to win some awards. But he does lay out his themes in a slightly too-skillful manner.
Talk to Her does have some very funny-irreverent moments–in addition to that wild silent movie, which echoes the heterosexual bad boy Bertrand Blier’s 1976 sci-fi sex war comedy Calmos, there’s a little discussion about whom missionaries in Africa rape nowadays–but altogether it’s a very placid, controlled movie about the inevitability of emotional torment in relationships. Even a stunning overhead shot of the sleek back of a charging bull is a thing of beauty for our contemplation. Is it because the characters aren’t gay? Maybe aesthetic detachment would come less easily to Almodóvar if he were making a movie about drives he shares. (And between Benigno’s sexual immaturity, the dominant mothers, the reversion to the womb fantasy, Almodóvar by implication invokes many of the psychiatric tropes about homosexuality.) All the same, it’s easy to recommend Talk to Her but I hope it would lead people back to Almodóvar’s early work to see what he was like when he was less constrained by his own skill as a moviemaker.
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