Talk to Her

“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 risky dramatic feature due to its subject matter and form.

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 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 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 (Javier Camara), a young nurse, and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a writer in his early forties.

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. Cut to 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.

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”).

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.

“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 couples. The movie shows how monologues delivered to a silent partner can be just as effective as dialogues, even if they substitute 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 about the joy of narration, the use of words as weapons against solitude, illness, insanity, 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. 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 finally showed his detractors a transformation from a rude boy into a sophisticated interpreter of modern melodramas, while retaining gleeful willingness to affront conventional mores. An ode to platonic romantic love, “Talk to Her” is strange, creepy, and perverse, but it is also touching, finding humor in the most grotesque situations, and rays of hope in emotional devastation.