Talk To Her
We've known and loved Pedro Almodovar's films for more than twenty years now. We first recognized the genius of his work through its ability to find in a melodramatic structure both the immediate joke and the larger, human comedy: In "Dark Habits" (1983), his nuns sell heroin from the convent in order to pay for their good works; the fact that they happen to keep a tiger in the courtyard is just another given in the film. His greatest comedy, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988), turned a life tragedy - the jilting of a woman by her longtime lover - into a breathtaking series of comic setpieces that include a taxi driver who keeps a whole pharmacopoeia of illegal drugs in his cab, an inadvertent bed-burning, and a climactic serving of gazpacho that saves everyone from prison. Almodovar's films were shameless in borrowing from and referencing the most awful Hollywood tearjerkers, turning them into delicious comic comments on film as an art form. But he didn't take them seriously; they were momentary stops along the way of his own creative work.
With the 1999 "All About My Mother," though, he opened his work up to a deeper concern with issues of how one lives a righteous life, how life can imitate art, even soap-opera art, and how death - real death - is everpresent and in fact looking over our shoulders each day. And now, with "Talk To Her," he has reached the kind of artistic maturity - which we might define as the ability to create a work of art with profound and healing insights into the way we live and die - that is given to only a few artists in any medium.
"Talk To Her" is the story of two men and two women. Benigno (Javier Camara) is a male nurse who cares for a young dancer, Alicia (Leonor Watling), as she lies in a coma in the hospital after a traffic accident. But she is not his patient; he simply cares for her, massaging her, cleaning her, and above all talking to her - incessantly talking to her, softly, calmly, sweetly, telling her everything that goes on around them, though she cannot hear or respond. He is with her every day, sometimes all night as well. Benigno had lived with his mother all his life, in an apartment across the street from Alicia's studio, and had cared for his mother until she died some months earlier. He is a man without friends or relationships other than the one we see on screen.
Marco (Dario Grandinetti), on the other hand, does have a life; he is a travel writer who happens to meet Lydia (Rosario Flores), Spain's most famous woman bullfighter. Though fearless in the ring, she is frightened of snakes, and is grateful to Marco for killing a snake in her kitchen. They begin a relationship, and he attends one of her fights. She is badly gored, and taken to the hospital in a coma. As he visits her he meets Benigno, who advises him to 'talk to her.' The film follows the two men and the two comatose women, and ultimately tells us a great deal about them. And since Almodovar is a remarkable artist it tells us a great deal about ourselves as well. I will not reveal the actions that lead up to the film's resolution, but Almodovar carries us with him in a way that takes us through love and terror and sadness and understanding, all the while reminding us of the ambiguities that complicate our lives.
If I've made the film sound depressing, I assure you it is not; it is endlessly fascinating, seamlessly written and paced and shot and acted. There are two amazing dance sequences, one near the beginning and one at the end, by the choreographer Pina Bousch, that seem at first to have no connection with the film, but then reveal themselves to be elegant comments on Almodovar's own intermixing of beauty and sadness. There is also a wonderful 'silent' film that Almodovar created for "Talk To Her," in which a scientist tests his new elixir on himself, and unexpectedly shrinks until he can revisit in person the beginning of his own life. We wonder at its inclusion here in this film, until we see the consequences on one of the actors of having seen the silent movie.
This is a remarkable movie, simple and profound, with implications of many kinds for those who wish to find them. It is assuredly the work of one of the great filmmakers alive today, and one of the most original and independent. We eagerly await his next film.