Monday, February 24, 2003

Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores in Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her.

Men on the Verge of an Emotional Breakthrough

I’m tempted to say Talk to Her is the best Pedro Almodovar film in years; unfortunately, I haven’t seen one in a few years, not even All About My Mother or Live Flesh. The last one I saw was The Flower of My Secret, and I don’t recall being all that impressed. But I saw most of his early work, which ranged from the good (Matador and Law of Desire) to the superb (What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). His break-through film, of course, was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and I was alone, among critics as well as in the theatrical audience, in either not getting the joke or just not thinking it all that daring or funny. (People wailed with laughter as I sat there stone-faced; not an uncommon happening with me and independent films. Laughter in an art theatre has such a self-consciously “with-it” ring to it.)

Talk to Her is a different case. This film about two men who are both involved with women in a coma brings to mind everything I ever liked about Almodovar: his playfulness, his wit, and his unashamed tenderness. The film explores with graceful agility a theme he has touched on in the past -- the degree of blind trust any romantic relationship requires -- and adds to it a new twist: the degree of imagination it requires, too, and the way in which love can and often does exist on a purely imaginary plain. Lest I forget, I must add that it has at least two scenes, possibly more, which I can safely say I’ve never seen in any other film. One is of a beautiful woman on the phone, telling a friend: "I’ve just taken an elephant-sized dump." The other involves a silent surreal movie within a movie that likely plays only in the brain of one of the characters, a movie in which a man is miniaturized by a scientific experiment and manages to crawl inside his wife’s vagina.

When we first meet Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), they are strangers to each other, sitting in a theatre watching some avant-garde ballet where women dance blind on a stage that is full of empty chairs. As the women move about freely, a man on-stage serves as their spotter, hastily moving chairs out of the way so they won’t bump into them. In the next scene, Benigno, a male nurse, is describing the performance to Alicia (Leonor Watling), the comatose young beauty whom he serves as fulltime attendant. Alicia responds to nothing, and Benigno looks after her more than any lover ever could; he’s her man on the stage. He talks to her constantly, massages her face, bathes her, and cleans up after her periods.

Marco’s case is different. He is a journalist who is pursuing a female bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores), in hopes of writing a profile. Both are just coming out of love affairs gone sour and wind up turning to each other, although in either case they are still obsessed by the people they left behind. Lydia, who seems to find her career a form of suicide as a way of spitefully destroying herself for an old boyfriend, also finds herself in competition with Marco’s memories of his old girlfriend. She wants to make Marco forget her; she wants them both to purge old loves from their brains.

When Lydia is gored by a bull, she winds up in both the same hospital and condition as Alicia. While Marco accepts the fact that Lydia is brain-dead, Benigno can’t accept the same fact about Alicia – mainly because she’s always existed for him on a somewhat untouchable, ethereal, and Freudian plane to begin with. The less there is to know, in other words, the more there is to love; the more love and imagination can work their own strange magic, can fill in a personality where there is none.

Between these two, Almodovar is rather naturally on the side of the romantic Benigno, but he doesn’t ask us to choose; in the end, he seems to say that love -- whether it’s a matter of passionate reality or yearning fantasy – is still love: still believing, still forgiving, still stronger than death.

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