An Appreciation – Talk to Her
There are some filmmakers whose work is so recognizable that you can tell that a project is theirs without even having to read the credits. Whether it is in the camera work, choice of actors, or the themes that they delve into, many will leave a noticeable imprint on their work without even realizing it. The French coined the term auteur to describe these specific kinds of directors. Pedro Almodovar fits precisely this description. Hailing from Spain, Almodovar is a person whose films look and feel one-of-a-kind—many may try to make the same type of story, but very few (if any) can make theirs quite as effectively as he can. His movies range from comedic to dramatic to horrific and everything in between, but all are distinctively his. One of his very best is Talk to Her (2002). Of all his films, this is the one that I’ve returned to the most, and is the one I associate him the most with.
That is not to say that he hasn’t made other movies worth noting. Almodovar’s career has been filled with many notable entries, and as I have worked my way through them, I have been impressed by the way he has been constant with the quality of his output. What makes him such a fine director is how he is able to mold similar themes and stories in very different genres. He can make a comedy such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), or something bordering the line of a horror film in The Skin I Live In (2011), and yet both are completely and unmistakably his own vision. All About My Mother (1999) is one of his most known accomplishments, involving the story of a mother grieving over the death of her son; it won him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Regardless of what genre he works in, all of Almodovar’s films deal with similar traits: they involve relationships, deceit, gender roles, and sex, often taken to a place we may not be expecting.
The stories that Almodovar creates can often be described as melodramas. I find it unfortunate that the term “melodrama” has a negative undertone when describing contemporary cinema, as if being labeled “melodramatic” is somehow a detriment to a film’s success. Like all other genres, melodrama can work when handled and executed in a positive manner, as Almodovar has proven time and time again. With Talk to Her, Almodovar has created a film of deep emotional complexity, setting us up with certain thoughts and beliefs and then challenging those ideas in the film’s ending passages. Based on his own standards, the film is subtler in what he wants to tell, even when containing shocking and disturbing moments and scenes. But it is certainly quieter, more introspective, examining the thoughts and feelings of the main characters more so, rather than focusing on exposition. That is where the power of Talk to Her lies—in examining these people and their actions, and how we can relate (or not relate) to their decisions and their ultimate fates.
Talk to Her is all about making connections; how we interact with people and the reasons why we make the relationships that we do. There have been many times in life where I have walked past a person only to become their friend at a later time. The circumstances that pull people apart and bring them together are at the heart of this film. We open at a theater, where performance artists show off their latest production. It’s no coincidence that the show involves two blind people trying to find their way around a room, with a third performer desperately trying to prevent them from running into the dozens of chairs littered around the stage. In the audience two men sit—strangers to one another at first, but who will become closely associated as the film moves forward. They are Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti). Benigno is a well-regarded nurse working in the local hospital, and Marco is a journalist whose main accomplishment is writing a number of successful travel guides. While coming from different backgrounds, Benigno and Marco found themselves in that theater at the same time—literally sitting next to each other—experiencing the same performance and being moved in similar ways. The scene will be referenced later in the film, but it quickly establishes the theme of relationships: how easily they are made, and how easily they can be broken apart.
Benigno and Marco meet again soon after, but under a different and much more saddening situation. Lydia (Rosario Flores), a famous bullfighter and Marco’s lover, was gorged by a bull and brought to the hospital in a coma. Benigno finds himself in charge of taking care of a young woman named Alicia (Leonor Watling), a beautiful young ballet dancer who is also in a coma after suffering a traffic accident, and with whom he has secretly fallen in love. A strange place, to be sure, for Benigno and Marco to meet again, with both women they care for in catatonic states. Benigno, at this point, works to help Marco through his ordeal, giving him advice and teaching him to cope with how things are, even telling him that talking to Lydia will help. It’s interesting to note that at this moment, Almodovar is already playing with our expectations and assumptions. Benigno is not a doctor but a nurse; and as for Marco, he is put in a situation where all he can do is retreat into himself, reflecting on his relationship with Lydia and patiently waiting to see if she’ll ever wake up. In all too many movies, the male characters are put in positions of action, where the only way the story can progress to a satisfying conclusion is if they do something about it. That’s not the case here.
The film sets up a fascinating dynamic between the men and their female counterparts, and between Benigno and Marco themselves, as well. There is very little that Benigno knows about Alicia personally, only being connected to her through his fascination and near-obsession with watching her dance in the building next to his apartment, prior to her accident. For Marco, what he thought he knew of Lydia gets turned upside down and causes him to reexamine their entire relationship from the beginning. He met her while attempting to write about her professional career and the tumultuous marriage she had with her ex-husband (who is also a famous bullfighter). Marco’s feelings toward her deepen during the scene when, after he has driven her home, she runs out of her house screaming, frightened by a snake she found inside. It’s an interesting (and humorous) piece of character development, to see a woman who has a made a life from battling with enormous and dangerous beasts, and yet runs at the sight of a much smaller animal. What Marco believes of Lydia’s true feelings is revealed to be false as the film progresses, and that causes him much inner conflict. It’s clear that he loves her, but how can he simply push that love aside after learning the truth of her, especially while she’s still in a coma? What comes out of Benigno and Marco’s predicaments is a friendship based out of mutual understanding. They know what the other is going through and thus each tries to help the other. This partnership, however, is put through the ultimate test as the film moves into its second half.