Talk to Her (2002) was the first Almodovar film I reviewed for the Xpress, and while since then I have come to a far greater appreciation for his other works than stated in that review, my enthusiasm for Talk to Her as a magnificent and daring film has not lessened. With this film, Almodovar pushes the envelope in ways that few filmmakers have ever dared — both stylistically and thematically.
It’s typical Almodovar in its soapy plot line, but it goes much further in its taboo subject matter than any of his previous films. After all, Talk to Her is — at least in one respect — the love story of a man and a comatose patient under his care at a hospital. Typical of Almodovar, he doesn’t judge this, but he does observe it with a wry sense of humor (as when the man explains his relationship with the patient as being like any other couple except that they “get along better than most”). The shocking thing is finally less the relationship than the fact that Almodovar makes the man sympathetic. For a much more detailed assessment than space allows here, I again direct you to the Xpress movie archives.
Pedro Almodovar has long been rather hit and miss with me. His early films like Matador and Law of Desire were striking, complex and fresh. And then he seemed to start repeating himself and guying his own material to a point where it was hard to take him entirely seriously. I’ve never seen him be less than entertaining, but sometimes the entertainment was ultimately less than met the eye.
But that is happily not the case with Talk to Her — one of the strangest, most heavily layered and assured films that Almodovar has ever made. It is, in fact, possibly his masterpiece — sly, funny, incredibly convoluted and, ultimately, almost devastatingly moving.
The film opens with a red curtain rising — rather like one of Baz Luhrman’s “Red Curtain Trilogy” films. Almodovar, somewhat like Luhrman, is presenting life as theater, but the approach here is very different. Luhrman’s three films all operate in a fairly straightforward dramatic fashion — as highly charged depictions of life and love and dreams. The stories are simple or so well-known (Romeo + Juliet) that their very familiarity makes them seem simple. By contrast, Almodovar’s Talk to Her utilizes a story that is not only the opposite of simple, but so strange that it seems even more convoluted than it is.
Almodovar nails his life-as-theatre in one scene at the very beginning, presenting a ballet that encapsulates his main characters’ lives — the life of Benigno (Javier Camara) as it already is, the life of Marco Zuloaga (Dario Grandinetti) as it will soon become.
Benigno notices Marco because he sees the other man is moved to tears by the action on the stage — where a man moves chairs and other obstacles out of the way of a woman who blindly staggers around in an uncomprehending fashion. For anyone who knows the plot of Talk to Her, the action on the stage is clearly a reference to the film’s own story of two men in love with and devoted to women in comas. Less clear on a first viewing is the irony that while the ballet reflects Benigno’s current life (he leaves the theater to go tell what he’s seen to his comatose love), it is Marco who is so touched by the performance. But the ballet as yet has no special relevance to his life.
The two men do not actually meet until their circumstances become similar. Benigno works as a nurse — the primary caregiver for Alicia (Leonor Watling), a young ballerina in a coma. Marco is a travel writer who becomes fascinated with — and finally falls in with — a female bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores) who is gored by a bull, ending up in a coma in the same hospital as Alicia.
Benigno considers his occupation and his fixation with Lydia so normal and average that he immediately assumes Marco has the same kind of devotion. And that’s the key to understanding Talk to Her — that Benigno (who spent his earlier life caring for his lazy but decidedly non-comatose mother in a similar manner) thinks all this is normal. He sees himself and Alicia as a typical couple — except, as he later argues, that they “get along better than most.”
At first, Marco is resistant to it all, but he slowly gives in — until his position is usurped when Lydia’s ex-boyfriend arrives on the scene, revealing that the lady had been about to tell Marco that she was returning to former lover. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is the plot of Talk to Her. In the words of Cole Porter, it sounds like pure soap opera. And in some ways it is. Much as Todd Haynes took the glossy soaps of Douglas Sirk to new heights in Far from Heaven, here Almodovar stands such films on their heads. Haynes merely made the ultimate Sirkian soaper; Almodovar has made a film that’s more like Sirk on acid.
A lot of not wholly convincing (to me at least) analysis has been written about Sirk’s films having a subtext that makes them subversive satires of their own overheated genre. Whether or not that’s true, Almodovar’s film turns such a subtext into text with a film that is unquestionably subversive — and in more ways than one.
Even for Almodovar, Talk to Her is extreme in crossing the boundaries of human sexual and — more importantly — romantic involvements. Benigno at least offers the appearance of being gay: his mannerisms suggest it, and his attachment to Marco (even to reading and re-reading the man’s travel books) furthers the impression.
Late in the film, Benigno even says that he stopped short of referring to Marco as his boyfriend for fear of offending him (to which Marco says he wouldn’t have cared). At the same time, his attachment to Alicia suggests otherwise, and he denies his homosexuality at another point in the film. Similarly, Marco appears completely heterosexual, but then evidences a degree of devotion to Benigno that seems to go beyond the boundaries of mere friendship — even to the point of their identities becoming blurred when he sublets Benigno’s apartment and starts taking on the other man’s obsessions in a plot development that suggests both Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Polanski’s The Tenant more than it does Sirk.
For Almodovar, sexual identity — identity at all — is not easily assessed and seems largely dependent on circumstances. The film is also stylistically subversive. What other filmmaker would — for all intents and purposes — stop his narrative dead in its tracks for nearly 10 minutes in order to present a black-and-white silent movie that foretells Benigno’s fate? The silent film — called The Shrinking Lover and admirably crafted by Almodovar in perfect imitation of a genuine silent movie — is itself daring, concluding with the depiction of an event (obviously inspired by a similar, but more comedic, moment in Ken Russell’s Lisztomania) that surely pushes the envelope of an R rating. It all adds up to a wholly remarkable film, and one that is most extraordinary for its unsettling ability to make incomprehensible — and even repellent — actions both sympathetic and understandable.
It’s rare that a movie of this beautiful complexity comes along, so don’t miss the chance to see it. The film has garnered Almodovar well-deserved Oscar nominations for direction and screenplay (and it just snagged BAFTA awards for original screenplay and best film “not in English”), but was curiously overlooked by the Academy for best foreign language film.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke