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Talk To Her / Hable Con Ella (R)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director/Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Producers: Agustín Almodóvar
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Javier Cámara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Mariola Fuentes, Geraldine Chaplin

Rating: out of 5

Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar succeeds where many American directors repeatedly fail: He can treat transgression not with condescension, but with affection, while providing ripe, often hilarious social observations. American directors like Todd Solondz, Neil LaBute, and Quentin Tarantino virtually specialize in transgressive representations. The results are often very smart and extremely funny. But the films’ supposed irony, often unconvincingly excused as “black humor,” masks deep ambivalence, an extensive disgust with the human body, and, ultimately, an inability to deal with transgression. In fact, such films are neo-Puritantical. They ultimately invite you to feel cleaner and safer as you rise above their characters’ edgy situations. What audiences really get—and often gleefully participate in—is Social Darwinism disguised as a filmic fashion statement.

Almodóvar’s characters regularly include drug-addicted or pregnant nuns, transsexuals, rapists, AIDS victims, and serial killers. His films repeatedly skewer conventional myths of romantic love and obsession, religion, feminism, machismo, sadism and masochism. All the while, his exquisite cinematography, flamboyant and fearless set and costume design, and superb actors allow the besotted viewer to guiltlessly mainline cinematic pleasure to his/her heart’s content. Paradox, not cheap and easy irony designed to deflect fear, rules Almodóvar’s world. Audiences may squirm at some very discomfiting subject matter, but we never get the chance to use his films to assert our superiority to the characters in them. What saves his films every time are their genuine compassion and humanity.

Almodóvar’s films are by nature controversial, and critics have had a tough time placing him. Many recognize his talent, but see his subject matter as the tongue-in-cheek stunt of a gifted enfant terrible. How can you possibly root for the male and female serial killers in Matador (1986), who fall in love when they discover that each of them becomes sexually fulfilled only in the act of killing someone else? They opt for the orgasm to end all orgasms—having sex together and killing each other off at the moment of mutual climax! The ultimate romance or the ultimate joke about romance? Better yet, is their gesture art? I think so: Rent this movie immediately and see it with someone you love.

What is astonishing is how these and other Almodóvarian characters make their own kind of sense and draw you to them until you’re hopelessly hooked. They’re human and so are you. In Almodóvar’s films everyone, including the audience, is ripe for parody. And everyone can still somehow be loved.

This being said, Talk To Her is one of the toughest and most demanding Almodóvar films I have seen in terms of challenging its audience’s capacity for flexibility and tolerance. How much transgression are we willing to take?

Consider the movie’s plot, which seems irreverently designed to make anyone’s blood boil. Benigno (Cámara), a sheltered male nurse, cares for Alicia (Watling), a beautiful young ballet student who has tragically fallen into a coma. He washes her exquisite limbs and talks to her as if she is still wide awake, his intimate companion. Numerous scenes feature Alicia topless, being dressed or washed. In one showstopper, she gets washed between her legs when her period starts, as we are again invited to voyeuristically consume her unconscious body.

Marco (Grandinetti), a man who cries at theatrical performances of any kind (perhaps Almodóvar’s dream and send-up of his ultimate audience member?), mourns his lover Lydia (Flores), a bullfighter who is gored in the ring and tragically falls into a coma, just as her relationship with Marco reaches a possible crossroads. “I have something I need to tell you after the bullfight,” she says, before her coma-inducing rendezvous with a raging bull. She wanted to talk to Marco, but about what?

Thus, both Alicia, the ballerina who fulfills the conventional stereotype of femininity, and Lydia, the bullfighter who breaks it, become interchangeable, unconscious and incapable of self-expression or response, while creepy, frustrated men, who may have hidden agendas, are left in charge of their lives.

Benigno has more of a history with Alicia than anyone realizes, having spied on her for months before her accident and fallen secretly in love with her. Now, he has complete access to her gorgeous, conveniently helpless form, and as he talks to her, undresses her, washes her, he is getting increasingly hot under the collar. The movie reveals his twisted history. He grew up fatherless, taking care of all his invalid mother’s physical needs! Can we sympathize with this potential budding psychopath? But he takes such good care of Alicia, doesn’t he? He loves her! “Our relationship is closer than most married couples!” he exclaims. What is really funny and awful is that there is truth to be found in his perversity.

And Marco gets a flesh-and-blood tragedy he can really cry over in the form of Lydia’s broken body. Perhaps theatrical representations were somehow not enough to fulfill his talent as the film’s representative, weepy “sensitive man.” The film reconstructs his troubled love story with the vigorous Lydia in flashback—maybe on some level he is not entirely sorry that she has wound up helpless and dependent. But he is at her bedside every day! He loves her!

Something’s got to give with these men.

Benigno and Marco meet and become friends at the hospital, and their stories begin to disturbingly and often humorously intertwine over the bodies of their comatose women. When Alicia mysteriously becomes pregnant, each man’s life is movingly, and often hilariously, transformed through the other’s.

Talk To Her really should be entitled Talk To Him. Almodóvar’s All About My Mother was dominated by vibrant, verbally expressive female performers and dedicated to women everywhere. Talk To Her is both a salute to and a takeoff on male bonding and friendship, and on some uncomfortable level, it feels like a movie that answers the prayers of men who secretly wish women would just shut up.

Incredibly, due to Almodóvar’s extraordinary genius for what we might term “melodrama,” it is possible to be horrified and deeply sympathetic to the men’s relationship, even as the film takes male fantasies of controlling women’s bodies and self-expression to shocking levels, asking us to not to condemn them and to recognize the absurdity of such fantasies at the same time. Almodóvar’s later films lack the cheeky brio of Matador or Dark Habits, or even Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. They favor more somber moods and conventional “big” themes (life vs. art, loss and redemption). But even in a toned-down and more classical mode, they still pack a surprisingly emotional punch. They are truly films during which you can both laugh and cry and be unexpectedly startled, if you are willing to have the heart for it.

Still not convinced? Just how transgressive is Talk To Her? As Benigno gives Alicia a sponge bath, he tells her about The Shrinking Lover, a silent film he went to see because Alicia always loved silent movies. In a moment of high-risk playfulness, which I wish filmmakers would dare far more often in the movies, Almodóvar inserts a silent film of his own devising into the proceedings, his version of The Shrinking Lover.

A female scientist creates a potent potion, which her boyfriend rashly samples to prove that he is “not as selfish” as she thought he was. Unfortunately, this ill-advised fooling with the products of female power shrinks him to the size of a matchstick. Nonetheless, they bravely continue their romance. One night, as the scientist lies naked and sleeping, the miniature paramour wanders over his sleeping beloved, whose body has been transformed into a magic kingdom. Suddenly he realizes that he has a whole new perspective on her vagina. Speculate, if you will, on the climax of this episode, which blends fear of and desire for women in a completely unique and jaw-dropping way. Let’s just say that penetration has never been quite like this, and I doubt you have seen anything like it.

If that doesn’t convince you to buy a ticket, I don’t know what will. But for whatever reason, go and see the film whole-heartedly—as it demands to be seen.

—Ellen Whittier


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