Talk To Her

March, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Pedro Almodóvar

Starring:Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rosario Flores

Spanish director Pedro Almovodar, (Women On The Verge Of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, All About My Mother) serves an usual cocktail of sexual frankness, warmth and humor in his films. More importantly perhaps, his depiction of women arguably surpasses that of any other director in the medium with the possible exception of the early screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. 

Almodovar women are always fully developed individuals, with a comprehensive range of skills, passions and foibles. They like the men with whom they're connected by blood or passion, and often love them in courageous ways, but never to an extent that causes them to submerge their own individuality in the lives of others. These are strong personalities; full of life and eager to fully experience it, even when pain becomes the price to be paid for their appetites. The director manages this considerable feat with insight and compassion, and you come away from his best work with a much stronger (and more favorable) opinion of his female characters than their male counterparts. To the extent that any male film director can be said to understand the opposite sex, Almodovar can lay claim to that capacity.

In Talk To Her, the director sets aside his previous appetite for florid presentation, (he began his carrier as a cartoonist) and uses a subdued tone is this leisurely examination of two men who form an unlikely friendship when fate casts them in the role of care givers to a pair of comatose women. Benigno, (Javier Camara) comes to this task quite naturally; a rather asexual young man, Benigno cared for his invalid mother for more than a decade before her death, becoming a trained nurse in the process. After her death, he meets, (and becomes infatuated with) Alicia, a young ballerina who's subsequently injured in an auto accident; Benigno promptly offers to become her nurse at the clinic where she's being cared for under the watchful eyes of her psychiatrist father.

When Lydia, a popular female matador, is seriously injured in the ring and subsequently sent to the same long-term care facility, her journalist lover Marco struggles to accept her condition. He strikes up a friendship with Benigno that juxtaposes the latter's warmth and acceptance of his patient with Marco's refusal to believe his ministrations will have any effect on Lydia at all. In dialogue that's simultaneously touching and wryly amusing, Benigno authoritatively lists the attention both women need, giving special emphasis to his one-sided conversations with Alicia that give the movie its title. Benigno believes that his words and touch matter to his unresponsive patient and refuses to believe Alicia is beyond benefiting from his thoughtfulness. His confidence in the value of his therapy contrasts completely with Marco's revulsion at Lydia's condition and his existential conviction that she's now incapable, physically or mentally, of benefiting from his continued love and attention. While the doctors assure him that he's correct in his physiological assumptions, they also admit that, on extremely rare occasions, the inexplicable happens, and emergence from coma occurs. For Marco, ever the secular humanist, such faith in the seemingly impossible requires a belief in miracles, which he cannot muster. 

From these plot elements, Almovodar teases a complex story of unexpected male bonding, loving violation, death and rejuvenation that demonstrates a somber depth not evident in his earlier work. He retains great fondness for his characters and their foibles here, but also demonstrates their pain and the costs that result from a toxic mixture of obsession and loss. 

Visually, the picture is delightful, with skillful transitions that allow the story to move back and forth in time to thread these four lives together, along with a pair of dance sequences, serving as prologue and coda, which vividly depict Marco's emotional transition. And it wouldn't be an Almodovar film without some explicitly hilarious sexual content, delivered here via a pseudo-silent film subplot in which the male urge to deliver the ultimate in female sexual satisfaction gets carried to its logical, if riotous, conclusion.

Talk has already garnered enormous international acclaim and is the odds-on favorite in the "Best Foreign Film" category at the Oscars later this month. It's a wonderful movie, but I'm not sure it deserves quite the level of rapturous response it has received. This is a movie that revolves, unlike its predecessors, around Almodovar's male characters; yet Benigno's mental state, and the motivations which flow from it, tend to undercut the moral worth of his subsequent behavior and cause his emerging friendship with Marco to become increasingly implausible. And despite his obvious sensitivity, Marco's rather labored attachment to a previous lover provides an alternate rationale for his reluctance to become involved in Lydia's therapy, contradicting the director's stated motivations for the actions of this character.  

In sharp contrast to Almadovar’s earlier work, this is a film about women without much actual contribution from them, a fact the plot obviously requires. Nevertheless, both women are objectified here, with sympathy and affection to be sure, but just as effectively as if they'd been relegated to a macho Hollywood epic. The absence of Almovodar's typical frenetic style suits his material, but not necessarily his strength as a director; the results are warm and affectionate, but short on the startling exuberance that gives his previous work such vitality. These inherent weaknesses notwithstanding, Almovodar once again demonstrates superb storytelling skills, fresh characterizations, and yet another example of his genius in presenting sexual content with whimsical explicitness.

The Verdict?  If this isn't a great film, it's surely a damn good one.

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