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
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
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.