Talk To Her

Lawrence Russell

Talk To Her (Hable Con Ella)(2002) writ. & dir. Pedro Almodovar cine. Javier Aguirresarobe edt. Jose Salcedo art. Antxon Gomez music Alberto Iglesias

star. Dario Grandinetti (Marco), Javier Camara (Benigno), Rosario Flores (Lydia), Leonor Watling (Alicia), Geraldine Chaplin (Katerina) et. al.

Almodovar's Talk To HerSony Pictures

they're bound to become friends

You're a journalist who writes for a publication in Madrid and who travels overseas to exotic locations writing travel brochures... and who cries easily in the theatre or when listening to music. Your excuse is that you're trying to get over a woman who was freaked out by a snake in Africa when you were having a romantic sleepover by an oasis. Sound promising? There's more: you replace her with an androgynous female bullfighter called Lydia who gets gored and ends up in a coma. Tabloid? Perhaps... but certainly not cheap, as there's lots of sub-text and mytho-symbolism in your unhappy situation. Your name? Marco.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's Benigno, another lonely guy who lives in an apartment just across the street from a dance studio... and who falls in love with one of the dancers, a girl by the name of Alicia whose old man is a psychiatrist. This is interesting as your behavior is a bit suspect, definitely obsessive. You break into her apartment, steal one of her hair clips... she discovers your unauthorized entry as she steps out of the shower but you assure her you're harmless. You make an appointment with her father for some counselling, although this is merely a ruse to get closer to Alicia. Alas, one rainy day she gets hit by a car and ends up in a coma... end of story? No. Fate is the hunter. You just happen to be a male nurse who works in a hospital that handles just such cases. The father, who believes you're a homosexual, hires you to look after her. A case-history gem? Perhaps... but certainly not cheap, as there's lots of sub-text and mytho-symbolism in your (unhappy) situation.

Two women in a coma, two men in attendance -- they're bound to become friends.

the shifts in fragmented Time

As the past is always trying to catch up to the present, more than half the film elapses before the action claims the future. Think of it as a breaking newscast story. In the casts, followups uncover information from the past. It's a montage narrative typical of the media noise of our era, although the artistic presentation makes it appear to be something else. It's an absolutely natural form of narrative; after all, when we remember the past, we don't necessarily recall events in linear Time.

The story starts at dance performance (Cafe Muller) which opens the film with the male principals Benigno and Marco sitting in the audience. The metaphor of blind women and custodial men is introduced. The idea of dancing through a world of obstacles is repeated throughout the action [Alicia's fated jay-walking most obviously], and the film concludes on a cyclical motif, once again at the dance theatre... although this time in the future at a different performance.

Benigno & Marco

The second stage [or "theatre"] is at the clinic where the two comatose women are attended by their devoted lovers. This is broken by flashbacks which show how the men (Marco and Benigno) meet their women (Lydia and Alicia) and the evolution of these relationships until the accidents that leave the women in comas. In essence, these flashbacks are a sharing of information between the two men as they become friends, united by a common dilemma.

Although the structure appears complex, it has a beautiful montage rhythm and is perhaps the only way to deal with the internal world of these characters without stopping the action for impossible exposition. The sense of personal loneliness on the existential scale is enhanced by the melancholy score of Alberto Iglesias, and helps guide us through the shifts in fragmented Time.

Some scenes, though, add little to the action except mood. An example would be the party/concert at the country villa, where the Brazilian tropicalismo singer Caetano Veloso sings a sensitive song as Marco, deep into his romance with the bullfighter, is once again moved to tears. It's a beautiful cameo in a beautiful setting [Almodovar's country retreat, apparently], although nothing happens here to advance the story. We already know Marco is a sensitive soul... and that Lydia hangs with the international Latino artistic elite. Directors often include their friends as extras in their movies... and no harm is done here, as the atmosphere is charming.

media noise and the meaning of art

We now have an entire generation of film makers whose idea of reality is a movie theatre. It's a behavioral reduction in both psychology and culture. They can't tell a story without the movies somehow being involved... and Almodovar is no different. But it certainly can be argued that movies are an integral part of today's reality and their celebration doesn't always signal a post-modern conceit.

The character of Benigno is certainly reminiscent of Adrian LeDuc, the cloistered cinephile in Donovan's Apartment Zero (1988) who lives with his sickly mother and spends far too much time at the movies. Both Benigno and Adrian have a distinct homoerotic posture in terms of infantilism and fantasy. In both situations a political symbolism coexists with a Oedipus complex. And both use a "double-figure" or doppelganger motif. For cultural purposes (Spain vs. Argentina), the comparison is intriguing.

Almodovar does a clever exposition of Benigno's mental state with The Shrinking Lover, the silent movie cut-in that serves as an analogue for B.'s rape of Alicia and which is also a lesson in symbolism. Cocteau... Dali... even Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man) and countless cartoons that use the shrinking motif come to mind. Benigno recounts the action of this silent film to the comatose Alicia like a patient confessing the sordid details of a mad dream to his shrink. It's far more effective than a documentary view of her rape, yet the surrealism is sexual voyeurism nonetheless. Almodovar is like a bad schoolboy whose crude graffiti of stolen images and neurotic symbolisms allow us to laugh in the darkness while retaining our sense of moral superiority.

apostasy and the make-over

Lydia's character is really a bisexual foil... can be viewed as a fantasy figure for straights and gays alike. The pure tabloid unreality of her character is established from the outset when Marco first sees her on a TV talk show trying to fend off a crude personal invasion by the host, which ends up with both women grappling like juvenile deliquents. A female bullfighter -- why not? That holiest of Spanish institutions is certainly open to sexual revisionism by the artist in search of revulsion. That Lydia should receive the bull who gores her on her knees is a sado-masochism worthy of a drag queen giving head to a homicidal potentate.

Sacrilege? Naturally. It's all prepared in the idle conversation before the fight as Lydia is dressed by her valet. Her sister is tending a small candle and photo shrine [of Lydia], asks if anyone read about the nuns being raped by their priests in Africa. Marco says that before AIDS, the priests raped the local women instead. A man says not all priests are like that. No, says someone, some of them are pedophiles. The sister is shocked. Another man shrugs, says, everyone enjoys fucking. Cynical, secular... yet absolutely true to the casual conversation of those who make money from the superstitions of others.

The parallelism of Alicia's father and Lydia's old lover El Nino (also a bullfighter, played by the actress' father) introduces a level of kink to this Freudian nightmare. The sexual chessboard that Almodovar likes to play on is typical of a graduate of a post-fascist state free to shock and scandalize... and luckily enough, all this passes as surrealism in other places like North America where the political context is likely to be overlooked.

he won't be the last warlock in the green room

This is a very funny film, often close to mockery -- people, situations, institutions. By default, it's Theatre of the Absurd, although in practice it's Life... a bit like tabloid TV perhaps but Life nonetheless. The situations constantly challenge convention and reality itself. The symbolism is always leading the observer into the more ambiguous aspects of gender, identity and societal function... at times it's a bit like following water down the drain into the hidden geography of the gutter. Role-playing... infantilism... apostasy and the make-over. Too weird to be practical? Almodovar isn't the first and he won't be the last warlock in the green room. Hitchcock has been diagnosed as a sadist for his "make-overs" of his leading actresses as if this is some sort of special crime, even when we know the make-over of the persona is central to the creation of art.

And art, of course, is civilization.

Almodovar's make-over of his actress into a bullfighter is less interesting as a political act than as mythic transformation. To say that art as he sees it is homosexual would be a simplification, although the sub-text often suggests it. Women made comatose by snake-phobias and abandoned men driven crazy by loneliness can only have a homosexual conclusion, unless some sort of mystical union beyond physical sex is possible. The unlikely friendship of Marco and Benigno is a case in point, and while they are never lovers, they become a doppelganger by the time B. is imprisoned. They are the reconciliation of opposites, which is what art is all about. Think of the conditions and implications of Lydia's pregnancy -- these are irrational and mythic. Think about this, and we see a Trinity shaping up. A bit unholy, yes, but who knows... in another life, Pedro Almodovar might be a Catholic theologian.

nothing is simple

Conceptually the script for Talk To Her is very good and deserving of the Oscar it received. The acting is great, and the direction is definitely audacious. More successful than its predecessor, All About My Mother? Yes... the level of heresy has been raised, the sadness refined, the pain exorcised.

"Nothing is simple" says Katerina (Geraldine Chaplin), the dance instructor. The last line of the film could be an oblique comment on the complex psychological paradigm that sits behind the story. Too complex for language alone, yet made accessible by music.

The finest passage in Alberto Iglesias' score comes at the conclusion. "Hable con ella" features some beautiful flamenco blanco guitar by Vicente Amigo... as the London Session Orchestra tangos softly. Some call-and-response between the violin and the guitar... and the animal lament of El Pele. The atmosphere is melancholy and lonely... hallucinatory, like the passing of a ghost.

Talk to her, Pedro.

© LR 9/11/03


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