Talk to Her: Almodovar’s Oscar Winner

“Talk to Her” (“Hable Con Ella”), made in 2002, is considered by many critics (not by me), to be Almodovar’s most serious and emotive work, a dramatic feature due to its risky subject matter and form. The Time magazine critics included “Talk to Her” in their 2005 list of the All-TIME 100 Greatest Movies. The film is Almodovar’s biggest commercial success to date, grossing $9.3 in the U.S. alone, and $41.7 in foreign markets, with an impressive global take of $51.0 million.

The film’s critical status was reflected, among other things, 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 and most explicit, this fourteenth feature is an intimate exploration of friendship between two heterosexual men, brought together under unusual but strangely similar circumstances.

Stylistically, there are continuities 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 opening 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, since there is no live audience for their performances.

In the beginning, a 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. Among the spectators are two men sitting next to each other by chance. They are the film’s protagonists, Benigno Martin (Javier Camara), a young nurse, named so because he is “benign” or “harmless” (in Spanish) and Marco Zuluaga (Dario Grandinetti), a writer in his early forties. On stage, which is filled with wooden chairs and tables, two women, their eyes closed and arms extended, are moving to the music of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen.” The dance 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 he doesn’t dare. In this scene, playing with viewers’ expectations, Almodovar contests several gender-induced stereotypes, such as the notion that ballet is a “feminine” art form, that women like dance more than men, that many dancers are gay, and that male spectators are not supposed to show overt emotions in public (“boys don’t cry”). The story unfolds in flashbacks, offering details of two relationships that become intertwined.

Benigno’s apartment overlooks a dance studio run by Katerina (American actress Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie). Benigno is watching one of Katerina’s students, Alicia (Leonor Watling), with whom he becomes infatuated. When Alicia is severely injured in a car accident that leaves her in coma, she is admitted to the hospital where Benigno works (coincidences of this kind abound in Almodovar’s work). Going way beyond his duties as a nurse, Benigno spends a lot of time caring for a woman he is deeply love with but has barely met.

Marco (Daro Grandinetti), a journalist assigned to interview Lydia (Rosario Flores), a well-known bullfighter whose on-the-rocks romance with another toreador, “El Nio de Valencia” (Adolfo Fernndez), has made the tabloids’ focus. During Marco’s interview with Lydia, he treats her kindly, and she responds to his attention. Unfortunately, during a bullfight that follows, Lydia is gored by the bull, resulting in a state of coma.

Months later, the two men meet again at “El Bosque,” the private clinic where Benigno works. Lydia, Marco’s girlfriend, is in coma, having been gored in the ring. Meanwhile, Benigno is looking after another woman in coma, Alicia, the young ballet student who’s become his object of obsession. When Marco walks by Alicia’s room, Benigno finally pulls courage and begins talking to him. It’s the start of what would evolve into intense friendship, but one devoid of any homoerotic overtones. The ensuing narrative 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.

But for those who cherish the film, is the intricate plot and its details that count. How did this bizarre and perverse quartet meet? A travel journalist, Marco sees a TV interview of Lydia González, a famous matador. As an article about her sounds intriguing, he contacts her. Lydia relates how she broke up with her boyfriend-matador “El Niño de Rivera,” which became a big media event. However, Marco’s revelation that he is a writer angers Lydia and she abruptly leaves him. As he drives off, Marco hears Lydia’s screaming–she asks him to kill a snake in her house. (Did Almodovar brrow this element from Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and its lobster sequence?) With trust established between them, Marco and Lyida become friends and then lovers.

Attending a wedding in Toledo, Marco is surprised to see Lydia there. The wedding is of Marco’s former fiancé who, like Lyida, “happened” to have the same phobia to snakes. Marco was in love with her and went through hard time getting over her. As in “All About My Mother,” Lydia promises to tell him something important after the bullfight that afternoon, but she is gored and becomes comatose. Marco does not leave her hospital, where he befriends Benigno, who recognized him from the dance recital. Marco is told by the doctors that people in coma never wake up–unless miracles happen.

Benigno is a personal nurse and care-giver for Alicia Roncero, a dance student in coma. For him, she is still alive, and so he talks his heart out, even brings her dance and films mementos. We know that Benigno had been obsessed with Alicia long before she went into coma.

Benigno takes care of his possessive, immobilized mother; which is the reason why he became a nurse in the first place. After his mother’s death, free to move around, he pulls courage to approach Alicia on the street. They talk about her discovery of black and white films and dancing. Benigno notices that she “happens” to live in the house of Dr. Roncero. He makes an appointment with the psychiatrist, presumably to talks about his grief over his mother, but it’s an excuse to gain access to her apartment, which he does, just like other aggressive males in Almodovar’s film (“Tie Me Up!,” “Live Flesh”), and steals not panties but a comb. That night Alicia is run over a car and become comatose, and by “sheer chance,” Benigno is assigned to Alicia.

Benigno tells Marco that he should talk to Lydia—he claims that, despite the coma, women are sensitive and can react to men’s problems. Marco then learns that Niño de Rivera and Lydia had decided to rekindle their affair. Meanwhile, alone again, Marco goes into Alicia’s room looking for Benigno, but instead opens his heart out to her despite his skepticism over Benigno’s theories.

Benigno tells Marco of his plan to marry Alicia, but Marco is taken aback, telling his friend that Alicia cannot express her will. During a visit, the hospital’s supervisors notice that Alicia has missed several periods, but since this is common among women in coma, they disregard the fact. Alicia is indeed pregnant and Benigno is the main suspect.

Meanwhile, Marco has left Spain to write a travel book, during which he learns of Lydia’s death. When he searches for Benigno, he finds out that the latter is in prison for raping Alicia. Staying in Benigno’s apartment, while visiting him, Marco realizes that Alicia has awakened but her baby is stillborn. He decides not to tell Benigno about Alicia’s unexpected recovery. Desperate to reunite with Alicia, in this or other world, Benigno ingests pills and dies of drug overdose. Meanwhile, Alicia has begun rehabilitation to recover her ability to dance.

The film ends in the same theatre where it began, where Marco and Alicia meet “by chance”—and a new potential relationship may begin.

“Talk to Her” is a quiet, poignant meditation about loneliness and the long convalescence of wounds, provoked by passion. It is also a film about the varied nature of communication between hetero couples. The movie shows how monologues delivered to a silent partner can be just as effective as dialogues, even when substituting for live interaction. Almodovar dissects the notion of silence as “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 a film told in words can bring time to a standstill, affecting the lives of the persons who are telling (the narrators) and those who are listening (the spectators).

Like other Almodovar works, “Talk to Her” is also about the joy of narration, the use of words as weapons against loneliness, illness, insanity, grief, and death, all of which recur in the director’s oeuvre. 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, perfected by the director Ingmar Bergman.

Benigno and Marco develop a powerful bond in their deep love for, and shared devotion to, women who cannot talk back, 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.”

With this picture, Almodovar showed his detractors a transformation into a sophisticated interpreter of modern melodramas, while retaining gleeful willingness to affront conventional mores. An ode to romantic love, both platonic and carnal, for me, “Talk to Her” is strange, creepy, and perverse. But many other critics find it touching, singling the humor that Almodovar seeks in the most grotesque situations, the rays of hope in loneliness and emotional devastation, and the persistence of love beyond loss.