By Chris Kriofske
Talk to Her – 2002 – dir. Pedro Almodovar – Original Theatrical Trailer
In Pedro Almodóvar’s world, the protagonists tend to be women, from the juicy parts his muse Carmen Maura played throughout the 1980s to the female-heavy ensembles of the more recent All About My Mother and Volver. Although not his first effort to feature male leads (see Pablo in Law of Desire or Victor in Live Flesh), Talk to Her is the rare Almodóvar film to structure its story around and explore the dynamic between two male characters.
In the opening scene, we first see Marco (Darío Grandinetti) and Benigno (Javier Cámara) seated next to each other at a dance performance. However, they do not yet know each other, and won’t formally meet for many months. In the meantime, Marco, a journalist and travel writer, takes notice of fiery matador Lydia González (Rosario Flores) when she chews out a talk show hostess during a live television interview. He tracks her down and asks to interview her for a newspaper profile. Initially, she refuses, but gradually warms up to him, and they eventually become a couple.
Concurrently, Benigno works as a nurse and caregiver for Alicia (Leonor Watling), an attractive young dancer who was left comatose four years before in a car accident. He cares for her as if she were a beloved pet, or a sleeping beauty—styling her hair, propping her up in a lawn chair on the deck to enjoy the sun, speaking to her as if she could hear his words. Eventually, another accident that also leaves Lydia comatose brings her and Marco to the clinic. The two men strike up an unlikely friendship where Benigno instructs Marco how to approach and care for Lydia. To Benigno, the most important thing Marco can do is what gives this film its title.
However, all is not what it seems with Benigno (despite his name roughly meaning “benign” or “harmless” in Spanish). Just as we are assured of his affection and sincerity towards Alicia, Almodóvar provides a series of a flashbacks that reveal those feelings existed long before the car accident and manifested themselves in unhealthy, obsessive ways. Soon, Marco is the only person in a position to provide emotional support for Benigno. In its final scenes, what until that point feels like a gently percolating Hitchockian thriller reveals its true colors as a poignant study of loyalty between two male friends. The emotional impact placid, bland, yet ever-so-slightly off Benigno has on the formerly guarded Marco is arguably unprecedented in Almodóvar’s oeurve to that point.
In contrast to director’s earlier, far zanier work, Talk to Her exuded and in some ways perfected the comparatively mature demeanor that began around the time of The Flower of my Secret. Still, it’s recognizably “a film by Almodóvar” through and through. True, the gently simmering narrative feels a bit subdued in comparison to, say, the swooping screwball antics of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but you can easily sense a similarly close attention paid to detail here. It’s most apparent in how lovingly he holds his camera on and fetishizes the rituals these characters carry out: Lydia suiting up into the regal, multi-tiered matador outfit; Benigno slowly, meticulously cleaning Alicia’s seemingly lifeless body; Benigno dotingly outfitting Alicia’s room at the clinic with cherished personal objects from her bedroom at home.
Almodóvar also infuses the film with carefully chosen references that cleverly make up a running commentary on the narrative. The film begins and ends with performances by modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch: the first consists of women who are blind and sleepwalking (suggesting a between-life-and-death state), while the second features couples continually breaking apart and rejoining with new partners, which mirrors the film’s subtle but present theme of death and rebirth. A later flashback to an earlier, skipped-over moment in Marco and Lydia’s relationship is structured around a live performance from Caetano Veloso at a party. His tender, yearning song, “Cucurrucucú Paloma”, is threaded into the film at a significant, emotional moment between the two lovers.
Even more striking and shrewd, however, is the film within a film that comes at nearly the exact midpoint: “The Shrinking Lover”, an extended silent cinema homage. As Benigno relays its plot to Alicia, we see a painstakingly crafted black-and-white short film that, visually at least, could be the work of Chaplin or Murnau. Its story, of the lurid desire a suddenly teeny tiny man has for the normal-sized female scientist who made him that way, slyly suggests the feelings Benigno may have for Alicia—feelings that Almodóvar only goes so far in actually showing us. But the absurd, outrageous, outwardly sexual tone of the “The Shrinking Lover” could only come from Almodóvar; such a fusion of genre and an auteur’s sensibility gives Talk to Her a humorous jolt exactly when it needs it.
In many ways, Talk to Her proceeds like a superb novel, albeit one that takes time to establish itself. A good chunk of it is exposition—a string of slowly accumulating details, many of them at first appearing, well, benign. As Almodóvar suffuses them with meaning and pushes the narrative in a darker, deeper direction, at the end you feel the cumulative effect of it all—not only the quirky plot twists, but a resounding warmth and compassion.