Film Review: Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar

Talk to Her, Directed by Pedro Almodovar
This was originally written and published in Smalldoggies Magazine, Februrary 25, 2003

Immediate Opening Digression: Don’t Talk Directly to Her

If Aimee Mann is the new version of Joni Mitchell, then David Gray is the new and improved version of Neil Diamond, and Beck, not Jacob, is the new super-sized version of Bob Dylan. There are other comparisons of this nature to be drawn in our lives, with music, and elsewhere. Why do we do it? Surely, classifying things, bringing a kind of order to what we know, there’s a measure of sanity in that — it’s one way we get through this whole thing (the life bit, that is). But in cases like these, to what lengths of make-believe are we actually going? (Don’t Worry — The Film Review Comes Eventually…)

In a time of total consumerism, it’s not so suspect to think that the repackaging of any successful cultural thing (hero, icon, movement, album, tee-shirt, saying, etc.), by the powers that be, is merely the current overriding principle of marketing. They say, “It worked the first time: a tried and true solution. So why not? — when we see the same thing come around again, capitalize on it and throw it back out there?”

We see it every week with movies, and they keep making the (same) garbage, and we keep going to see it. It’s the kind of logic that gave us so many “Rambo II’s” after meeting John Rambo in the first place, and “Shanghai Knights” after the “Shanghai Noon,” and “The Incredible Hulk” after we already dealt with “Spiderman,” and the remake of every sure-fire classic this side of “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I never should have said that last bit there. You know someone’s got to remake both of them now. Do it over. Do it all over. So where are all the real writers? Like the original ones, I mean. Where are the rebels anymore in the film world? I know there are bottom lines, but when the Olson twins are like forty movies deep at this point and quickly running out of European countries to visit, can’t the schlock just go straight to video and leave the theater releases to the true mavericks?

* * *

A rather long diatribe which, in time, brings me to a film I saw recently, that being Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her.” Admittedly, I was not initially looking forward to this. When I saw the near-silent trailer some months ago, laden with whatever music floated along underneath the visuals, I was thinking about how some movies get so rushed to release, that the trailer gets out before they’ve even mastered the sound. I was dismissive, at best: another Spanish-ish version of the “new European genre” story, one told so sappily well in recent years, whether it’s “Amelie” or “Il Postino.” So it’s safe to say, I was surprised.

Talk to Her. Theatrical Poster.

Talk to Her. Theatrical Poster.

Almodovar’s treatment of several seemingly mundane topics, all of which permeate the fabric of one’s life, is careful, complete, and sensitive enough to offer a kind of conclusion about these basic things being, in totality, a kind of essence for living. Let me draw broad circles around three such categories, which at times, in overlapping each other, become how the plot of this story moves forward.

To first very loosely lay out the characters:

1) Benigno is the effeminate hospital nurse / caretaker who has fallen deeply in love with the comatose patient in his care, who is

2) Alicia, a very young, very beautiful, former ballerina whose hospital room is very near the bed of

3) Lydia, a gored and trampled comatose female bullfighter, who is simultaneously the subject of two lovers’ attention, though principally

4) Marco, a passionate writer and producer of newspaper stories and traveler’s guides to various countries of the world.

And so the stage is set in many ways, and our players share it repeatedly in combinations bordering on the mathematical…

Talk to Her

Benigno & Marco in Talk to Her

I’ve read a lot lately, in others’ analyses of the film, that central to the director’s motive is this “story of men and how they relate to women,” or “how men share feelings,” or even “men dealing with melodrama and the expression thereof.” Though I do find these elements to be present in the piece, I took to task other ideas. Ritual, performance, and movement seemed to me the three central means of categorizing action and emotion in the work, and further, this notion that somehow, directly or indirectly, we are all somehow implicated in each others’ lives, all the time, whether we know it or not.

If this film exists as a fabric, and certainly that idea is alluded to in several ways, then the idea of our implication in one another’s lives is obvious: but what Almodovar bothers to tell in his story, the subtleties of this obvious fact, makes manifest the intriguing side to every ordinary life lived. Scene after scene, rich colors move across the screen, be it in the bullfighters’ costumes or the hospital walls and signage, serving to bracket the moments when exchange and interplay between characters seems inevitable, completely by chance, and yet, somehow entirely necessary and destined. Perhaps even written beforehand.

From the very outset of the film, when we are shown the faces of two men, at this point strangers to each other, sitting side by side at the performance of an expressionist ballet, we know several things. (These are the characters we will come to know as Marco, the writer, and Benigno, the nurse at the hospital.) We know that here, men absorb and emote completely, we understand the elements of performance and spectatorship are key, and we get the idea that bodies ritually and performatively moving through the world exists as a backdrop to the more closeup and intimate action taking place.

Lydia, lady bullfighter in Talk to Her

Lydia, lady bullfighter in Talk to Her

Months after this initial meeting, the two men again come across each other in the hospital. By this point, we know that Marco was attempting to write a piece about a lady bullfighter, Lydia, who, though glorious in her skill and profession, has been recently dragged through the media for her more unceremonious break-up with her bullfighter lover and boyfriend.

In the process of his attempt to get to know her, Marco taps into his former love relationship, establishes a bond of love or emotion with Lydia (in dream and in reality), comes between she and her former lover, and watches as Lydia is gored and trampled in her final moments as bullfighter, only to end up comatose in the hospital where Benigno is working. Benigno is taking care of a comatose patient, as well. His behavior allows us to navigate the very ripe emotional territory between his overwhelming concern and the apparent preciousness of the patient in his charge (Alicia) on the one hand, and the often times creepy self-determined thoroughness of the make-believe narrative he plays out with her on the other.

As the men emote and play the feminine, so too, the females are allowed to play the masculine. From the very moment we see Lydia, she is severe, manly in her features and stature as an athlete, and strong willed. This is not without interruption, however, as we learn of her deathly fear for snakes. Further, Alicia, though comatose, maintains the stiff upper lip and emotionally impotent posture of the masculine in so many Hollywood dramas. What to make of the role reversals?

It strikes me that Almodovar, through his playing out of love and emotional interaction, wants to point to the fact that we are, in reality, very close to being the same one thing. Like it or not, masculine or feminine, we all share in “being,” which represents neither the male nor the female parts completely. He wants us to think of ourselves as, foremost, surrogates and stand-ins for each other. We are all everyone else….

Benigno wants a way out of loneliness, a state of mind and being that keeps him imprisoned in his own personal illusions (much the same way that Marco’s estrangement from his past lover’s graces has left him imprisoned in an interstitial moment between living and pausing). After watching Alicia’s balletic performances in the dance studio across from his convalescing mother’s apartment, he goes out to meet her, establishes conversation and friendship with her, and eventually, begins his process of becoming (in love with) her.

Almodovar wants us to believe that we are each uniquely composed of wants, desires, loves, wishes, talents, stories, and habits. Alicia is motivated, when she is alive, by her passion for dance, silent films, and traveling, which she is perhaps afraid of, and therefore, never does. When she becomes comatose, and falls into the care of Benigno, who is in no small way in love with her, he becomes her “loves” for her, in the absence of her being able to do anything. He retreats to the quiet halls to watch the ballet and silent films, things he has never before done, things that made Alicia who she was in her waking life. Similarly, Benigno won’t travel. He is likewise afraid.

Marco, on the other hand, finds Lydia, who replaces his former lover Angela in that she allows him to open up to an actual life once more: she frees his mind to experience. This moment is allowed to happen for him through his experience with Lydia and the snake, a moment that takes him backwards in memory to an experience he once had with Angela. In order for a displacement to occur, one thing literally needs to pass on to the next: the baton exchange in the great relay race of Almodovar’s emotional narrative.

Alicia and Lydia's Comatose Conversation in Talk to Her

Alicia and Lydia's Comatose Conversation in Talk to Her

Further, possession is the manner in which one is allowed to love another: a completeness. In the miniature film (a silent film that Benigno watches for Alicia), a doctor’s assistant is mortified when the doctor swallows a potent concoction which accidentally shrinks him beyond the small. He retreats to the home of his mother, where she eventually finds and rescues him.

Back at her home, in a moment which is alternately funny and completely metaphoric (and therefore engaging somehow, beyond its humor), the fully grown woman sleeps in the nude. The lilliputian doctor, comforted in his love but fully aware of the enormity of the walls between them, allows his lover the experience of himself, and disappears inside of her vagina, we assume, forever. In order for consummation, there must be complete consumption. One loses one’s self to the other.

Lost in Love in Talk to Her

Lost in Love in Talk to Her

If you haven’t already, see the movie. It’s a writer’s paradise. Netflix it.

Film Details for Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her

Spain, 2002 U.S. Release Date: 11/22/02 (limited) Running Length: 1:52 MPAA Classification: R (Nudity, sexual content, profanity)

Cast: Javier Camara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Mariola Fuentes, Geraldine Chaplin

Director: Pedro Almodovar / Producer: Agustin Almodovar / Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar / Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe / Music: Alberto Iglesias / U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics / In Spanish with subtitles

Copyright 2009 Matty Byloos


One Response to “Film Review: Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar”

  1. Never really got to see this, but your review sounds great so maybe now is the time to revisit!