Talk to Her: Almodovar’s Oscar Winner

talk_to_her_posterAddressing the charge of many critics that his cinema is essentially female-driven, Almodovar decided to focus his next feature on men—two in fact, and straight. “Talk to Her” (“Hable con ella”), made in 2002, is considered by many critics (not by me), to be Almodovar’s most serious and emotional work, a dramatic feature that’s extremely risky due to its subject matter and narrative form and style. The film’s critical status was reflected by its nominations for the Best Director and the Best Original Screenplay Oscars, winning in the latter category. Showing Almodovar’s humanism at its fullest, this fourteenth feature is an intimate exploration of friendship between two heterosexual men brought together under unusual but strangely similar circumstances.

Stylistically, there are similarities between Almodovar’s last two works. “All About My Mother” ends with a theater curtain opening to reveal a darkened stage, and “Talk to Her” begins with the same curtain. The characters in “All About My Mother” are professional actresses and other women who play out their lives, on and off stage. Similarly, “Talk to Her” is about narrators who recount their own lives, men who can (and would) talk to whoever is willing to listen as most of the time there is no live audience for their performances.

talk_to_her_2_almodovarA curtain of salmon-colored roses and gold-fringing is pulled back to reveal one of the German choreographer Pina Bausch’s signature dances, “Café Müller,” a tension-ridden piece, in which the stage is filled with wooden chairs and tables, while two women, eyes closed and arms extended, are moving to the music of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen.” The piece is so moving that Marco starts to cry. Benigno can see the gleam of his companion’s tears in the darkness of the stalls. He would like to tell Marco that he, too, is moved by the spectacle, but for now he doesn’t dare. In this scene, playing with viewers’ expectations, Almodovar contests gender-induced stereotypes, such as the notion that ballet is a “feminine” art form that women like dance more than men, and that male spectators are not supposed to show overt emotions in public (“boys don’t cry”). Among the spectators are two men sitting next to each other by chance. They are the film’s protagonists: Benigno (Javier Camara), a young nurse in his late twenties, and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a writer in his early forties.

talk_to_her_3_almodovarBenigno’s apartment overlooks a dance studio run by Katerina (American actress Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie). Day after day, Benigno is watching voyeuristically one of Katerina’s students, Alicia (Leonor Watling) with whom he becomes infatuated and then fatally obsessed. When Alicia is injured in a car accident that leaves her in a coma, she is admitted to the hospital where Benigno works. Coincidences of this kind abound in Almodovar’s work.  In an earlier scene, Benignio follows Alcia down the street, and when she drops her purse, he is quick to retrieve it and give it back to her. Their next meeting is at the clinic, where Alicia is in coma, unaware that the man who gives her extra attention and erotic massages is no other than Benignio.

Going beyond his duties as a nurse, Benigno spends a lot of time caring for a woman he is deeply in love with but has barely met. He volunteers to take over nightly shifts when his female colleague has domestic problems and needs to be replaced. Some of the staff members staff notice, first with curiosity, then with alarm, how he caresses her thighs, going higher and higher, or how he sensitively washes her body (including bleeding vagina) with a white towel that turns red.

Meanwhile, Marco is assigned to interview Lydia (Rosario Flores), a well-known bullfighter whose on-the-rocks romance with the noted toreador El Niño de Valencia (Adolfo Fernandez) has made the tabloids. Marco first notices Lydia on TV while he exercises. She is being interviewed by an aggressive female anchor that literally won’t let her go until she opens up about El Nino, who walked out on her. Intrigued, Marco requests to do an in-depth profile about Lydia for the Sunday section of El Pais. Their first encounter, during a trip to Madrid, doesn’t go well, and she is reluctant to collaborate. However, when Lydia runs out hysterically out of her house after seeing a snake, the gentlemanly Marco kills the snake and brings he purse back, she becomes considerably softer, and soon they fall in love. Marco treats Lydia kindly and she responds to his attention. Unfortunately, during a bullfight that he attends, Lydia is gored by the bull. Her state of coma send her to “El Bosque,” the same clinic where Benignio works.

talk_to_her_4_almodovarMonths later, the two men meet again at the clinic where Benigno works. Marco walks by Alicia’s room, staring curiously through the half-opened door as she lies naked and gets treated by Benigno. The second time he engages in voyeurism, Marco is caught gazing by Benignio, who invites him in. Finally pulling courage, Benigno approaches Marco, telling him exactly how and when they met. While Benignio recalls every small detail, including the tears in Marco eyes, Marco doesn’t remember a thing about the chance encounter.

This conversation serves as the “beginning of a beautiful friendship,” to quote Bogart’s declaration to Claude Rains at the end of “Casablanca.” It’s an intense friendship between two men, containing some tensions on Benignio’s part but devoid of explicit homoerotic overtones. While Marco is a sensitive, romantic, sensual male, capable of crying on more than one occasion, Benignio’s sexuality is more troubled and complicated. Living with his mother (and taking care of all of her needs, including doing her hair and make-up), initially, he is a mama’s boy, claiming to be a sexual virgin despite his age. When Benigno visits a psychiatrist, who happens to be Alicia’s father, he states preference for men rather than women, but we never see him engage in any encounter—social or sexual–with other men. When the psychiatrist insists on knowing if he has a partner, Benigno simply says, “more or less.” At first, Almodovar constructs him as a type, an effeminate male, with a manner of speaking and gestures to match, who knows how to aestheticize his female patient. Gradually, he is revealed to be mentally disturbed, capable of raping Alicia in coma, for which he is sent to prison.

Unlike other Almodovar films, “Talk to Her” does not show the rape, but it’s implied that there may have been several rapes. While in jail, Benignio, who is not allowed to communicate with his colleagues, is eager to know if Alicia gave birth. Later, learning that the baby was born dead, Benignio realizes that his only way to escape is to commit suicide, informing Marco of his intention. Rushing to jail, the alarmed Marco arrives too late.

talk_to_her_5_almodovarMost of the narrative, however, depicts how during a period of suspended time between the clinic’s walls, the lives of four characters flow in various directions–past, present, and future–pushing the quartet towards an unknown destiny, while keeping the viewers in a state of anticipation and suspense. The names of the four characters must bear some significance: the first couple is A (Alicia) and B (Benignio), and the second couple is L (Lydia) and M (Marco). The goal of the text is to get rid of B and L, so that A and M (Amour?) would be able to form a new couple, free of past constraints and looking ahead to a brighter future. Thus, Lydia dies and Benignio commits suicide (not uncommon for Almodovar’s obsessive lovers, as seen in “Labyrinth of Passion,” among others)

Almodovar brings the physical aspect of the relationship between the two men to a closure in a brief but touching scene set at the cemetery. Standing in front of Benignio’s grave, the grieving Marco places the hairpin that Benigno had stolen from her and cherished all his life. The hairpin belongs to Almodovar’s large gallery of physical objects infused with symbolic meanings.

“Talk to Her” is a quiet, poignant meditation about aloneness and loneliness and the long convalescence of wounds provoked by passion. In a session with his psychiatrist, Benignio declares, “I’m not alone anymore,” and from his subjective P.O.V. he is not, due to his passion for Alicia and the full-time job of tending to her needs and misperceiving her desires.

It is also a film about the varied and shifting nature of communication between couples, from the explicitly verbal to the sexually gestural to the scary and ominous silence. The movie shows how monologues delivered to a silent (non-communicative or physically disabled) partner can be just as effective as dialogues of real encounters, even (and especially) if they substitute for live interaction. Almodovar dissects the notion of silence as an “eloquence of the body,” providing an Ingmar Bergman-like reflection about film as the ideal medium for conveying rich human relationships in minutiae detail. He shows how film can bring time to a standstill, affecting the lives of the persons who are telling, the narrators, and those who are listening, the characters in the film and the spectators in the movie theater.

talk_to_her_1_almodovarLike other Almodovar works, “Talk to Her” concerns the joy of narrativity and narration, the use of words as weapons against solitude, illness, insanity, and death, all of which recur in this picture—and in the rest of the director’s oeuvre. You might say that the characters’ lifestyle of solitude borders on madness. But there is also sensitivity and tenderness in these experiences that they are not readily noticeable and thus do not deviate much from ordinary states of normalcy. Self-reflexive, “Talk to Her” comments on the film medium’s unique properties, capturing the essence of monologues and dialogues, especially when they are shot in close-ups. Benigno and Marco develop a powerful bond in their deep love for–and shared devotion to–women who cannot talk back (even when they open their eyes) or return their affection. Here too, Almodovar contests Western values of masculinity and femininity, specifically the notion of males as “men of few words,” and females as “non-stop talkers.”

In defiance of mainstream cinema, Almodovar shows women to be capable of initiating contact, verbal and sexual, with men who are sensitive. The film’s last scene is particularly evocative, both fateful and coincidental. It stresses the symmetry and circularity of the text, which begins and concludes with a performance piece, and how chains of a haunting unhealthy past can be broken.

Almodovar has acknowledged that of the four characters, Alicia is the least developed—by design: “I know very little bout Alicia. Only what is seen in the film. At times, the writer knows the characters’ past and their future, far beyond the ending of the film. In this case, I have the same information as the spectator. Alicia’s real film begins in the theater, when she meets Marco.”[ii] Marco and Alicia meet during the intermission of Pina Bausch’s ‘Masurca Fogo.” It’s the first time that both are aware of the other’s presence, though they had actually met before. Alicia was in a coma when Marco first saw her in the hospital. Later, Alicia is not conscious that Marco is staring at her through the window, just as Benignio had, after Marco moved in while Benignio is in jail.

In the interval of Bausch’s dance, Alicia recognizes the man seated just two rows in front of her; there’s one empty chair in the row that divides them. In the lobby, they sit on matching red couches. Alicia stares at him, as if expecting a look back from him. She holds his gaze, as he collects himself and sits on a sofa. Initiating talk for the first time, Alice asks, “Are you all right?” “Yes,” Marco says, then quickly adds, “I don’t know,” indicating his fragile state and lack of self-confidence. “I’m much better now,” Marco says in a whisper, almost to himself.

Alicia, after four years in coma confined to bed, is like a magical creature, an angel moving freely and talking. Her gaze suggests strong desire to interact with Marco. She and Marco finally occupy the same space to which they belong physically and emotionally. Almodovar accords each a close-up before slowly panning, rather than cutting, as they look at each other intensely.

With this picture, Almodovar finally showed his remaining detractors his transformation from a rude boy into a sophisticated interpreter of modern melodramas, while retaining a gleeful capacity to affront conventional mores. Like other works, for every death there’s birth, here in the shape of couples formation. Alicia and Benignio’s bond must be terminated so that she can form a new bond with a more suitable male, Marco.

An ode to platonic love between two men, “Talk to Her” is by turns strange, creepy, and perverse. But it is also touching and poignant, finding humor in the most grotesque situations, and rays of hope in the most emotional devastated conditions.