by Matt Levine
Talk to Her might be Pedro Almodóvar’s most beautiful movie—but is that an entirely good thing? “Beauty” here also serves as a synonym for tasteful elegance, which is an ambition that very few of Almodóvar’s movies strive for. This director who has often marvelously embraced the furthest extremes of human sexuality, from the lurid Stockholm Syndrome of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down (1990) to the emotional ferocity of Live Flesh (1997), maintains a subdued, well-behaved tone for Talk to Her, despite the story’s more perverse elements. Slow-motion bullfighting sequences set to mournful chamber music are not something to complain about, exactly, but fans of Almodóvar’s more melodramatic tendencies might be dismayed by Talk to Her’s gentler melancholy, its warmly sympathetic depiction of a twisty, troublesome narrative.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Producers: Agustín Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe
Editor: José Salcedo
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Mariola Fuentes, Geraldine Chaplin, Roberto Álvarez, Elena Anaya, Lola Dueñas
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2002
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
There are, of course, positive trade-offs to Almodóvar’s adoption of a quieter style—namely an infectious humanism, a desire to understand the lonely and the desperate. The story revolves around two men, whose existences are in turn defined by their love for the women in their lives: Marco (Darío Grandinetti) has recently started seeing Spain’s most famous female matador, Lydia (Rosario Flores), and is devastated when she’s gored by a bull in the ring and lapses into a coma. At the nearby hospital, Marco meets bubbly male nurse Benigno (Javier Cámara), who has been looking after his own comatose paragon of female beauty for four years: ballerina Alicia (Lenora Watling), who was brought in after a car accident and who Benigno now tends to lovingly, cutting her hair, applying her make-up, and (in a moving-creepy scene) massaging her thigh muscles.
Almodóvar leaps around in time, utilizing pastel titles that float up from the background, attempting to flesh out Talk to Her’s dual love stories—one of which is ardent and bittersweet, the other of which is disturbing precisely because it’s portrayed so tenderly. Maybe this is one of Almodóvar’s boldest gestures—conveying extremely creepy relationships as if they’re middlebrow romances. The movie’s real heart lies with the character of Marco, who observes everything woefully and constantly seems on the verge of tears (as in the first scene, in which he starts weeping during a performance of Pina Bausch’s “Café Müller,” fatefully seated right next to Benigno). The double narratives—or maybe quadruple, since both the men and the women in each relationship are portrayed so vividly—are linked by themes of loneliness and miscommunication, as the all-consuming silence of the women’s comas is paralleled by all the things that have gone unsaid in their relationships.
Labeling an Almodóvar film as “well-behaved” is, of course, a relative term; in subdued, inoffensive mode, the Spanish provocateur is still more exuberant than many of his filmmaking peers. Talk to Her’s more memorable interludes include Benigno’s unnerving Oedipal complex (before Alicia, he spent twenty years waiting on his mother—mostly because she was “lazy,” Benigno admits) and a silent film-within-a-film entitled The Shrinking Lover, in which a six-inch-tall man dedicates himself to satisfying his female lover any way he can. More generally, the eye-poppingly bright colors (achieved by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe)—including a theatrical shot of a pink curtain that opens the movie—and the unseemly extremes of Benigno’s story lead us undeniably to the realm of Almodóvar.
But more than any extreme, troublemaker indulgences, Talk to Her offers heartfelt, melancholy moments of love and sadness—a poolside performance of an impossibly beautiful flamenco song, for example, or a superimposed flashback to a young lover, a woman not seen for many years, terrified by the sight of a snake. While Almodóvar’s previous film All About My Mother (1999) may have been the director’s most successful assimilation of his formalistic, melodramatic, and humanistic tendencies, Talk to Her at times finds its creator softening his idiosyncratic edges, whether intentionally or not. It might be unfair to expect a more volatile tone from Almodóvar—without question, the milder aesthetic touches of Talk to Her have their own plaintive power—but there’s still undeniably a tension between the more perverse elements of the storyline and the gentle remove from which they’re conveyed.
Disregarding the question of whether punkish Almodóvar is preferable to wise, world-weary Almodóvar, Talk to Her is a moving, unique story of lonely, wounded men and the women they love, who in many ways are stronger than they are. What lingers most from the movie is its rueful portrayal of time, its irreversibility and, yet, the tendency for moments from our past to consume us in a non-synchronous present. From the funereal silence of Lydia ceremonially donning her matador costume—a grave silence acknowledging the danger of her sport and her mortality—to the suddenness with which past, present, and future replace each other, Talk to Her is a movie about the finality of relationships, a reminder that when we’re finally able to divulge and expose ourselves to someone we love, it might be too late. A lot of the same thematic interests as All About My Mother, in other words, even if Talk to Her's emotional tone is at an entirely different register. In whichever direction Almodóvar’s muse leads him, though—whether it’s salacious melodrama or gentle compassion—we can still expect a skewed story of human connection and desperation, gravitating constantly between the dual poles of camp and compassion.