Talk to Her September 11, 2015
If they were schoolmates in their teenage years, Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti) would not have been close. Benigno, shy and sweet, most likely grew up friendless, acting as a teacher’s pet who perhaps even the teacher didn’t want moping around; Marco, a strong, silent type, feasibly hung around the art stars or the faux intellectuals, returning friendships out of obligation only to return home to process his own deep thoughts. Presently, the former is a mama’s boy all grown up and without a mother, the latter a journalist who carries a heart hardly tattered by the ruthless nitpickings that often streak across his profession.
The two meet under circumstances too horrifying to imagine. Benigno is a nurse taking care of comatose ballet student Alicia (Leonor Watling), who has been in a vegetative state for four years; Marco is the lover of bullfighter Lydia Gonzalez (Rosario Flores), who has been gored and is now brain dead. Benigno has become infatuated with his patient, quick to admit that he loves her on several occasions, and Marco, shocked by the sudden loss of the woman he adores, sulks around as he tries to decide whether to move on with his life or not. Dwellers of the same hospital, Marco and Benigno soon notice each other’s destituteness and strike up a friendship, fused together by their similar empty devotion.
Months ago, I might've admitted to being a bigger fan of the screwball Pedro Almodóvar, a filmmaker more inclined to concoct a situational comedy with the visual style of Douglas Sirk — Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown would be the fuel to my fire, Live Flesh and The Skin I Live In working as additives more akin to sticks than gasoline.
But 2002’s Talk to Her, one of the filmmaker's most mature, emotionally draining works, is so painstakingly passionate it becomes difficult not to favor Almodóvar when there’s a feeling that he’s pouring parts of himself out onto the screen. It showcases nearly everything he does best: his untamed eye for melodrama, his fiery showcasing for human sexuality, his dark sense of humor, his enviable ability to jerk tears, and his breathtaking, saturated cinematographic aptitude. We don’t just watch Talk to Her: we devour it, licking our fingers contently as tears metaphorically cascade down our cheeks. It crams the frippery of soap opera in a different headspace and turns cheap bauble into intoxicating emotional flamboyance.
Almodóvar gives us an idea as to what kind of women Alicia and Lydia were, but he, methodically and smartly, doesn’t reveal enough to let their mysterious, exhilarating personas unravel. They are mostly kept as placeholders who allow the viewer to study the complex relationship between Benigno and Marco. There is something eerie about their affection for these women: neither actually knows the person they’re idolizing very well, but they’re willing to give up a comfortable life just to care for them. Marco stays by Lydia’s bedside out of romantic responsibility, as if trying to make up for the time they never got the opportunity to spend. Benigno’s obsession, however, is a little more unsettling. He is often willing to spend more than 24 hours with Alicia at a time, and though she cannot sense his presence, he figures that they’re in love with each other.
But Almodóvar doesn’t judge his leading characters — he analyzes the kind of men they were before and after each woman’s accident, pondering how much they’ve changed. Perhaps Marco has grown more mature, more thoughtful of how he lives his life; Benigno, already emotionally unstable before he even became a nurse, is being given the chance to let his infatuations get the best of him to a dangerous extent.
Almodóvar’s direction and writing bears the same sort of empathy his most poignant films possess, and yet Talk to Her is more like the sort of movie you’d expect him to make during the end of his career, retrospective and considerate in his every action. It’s ordinary by his standards. Cámara and Grandinetti are just as stunning, Cámara making Benigno a lovable oaf until innocence becomes accidentally malicious, Grandinetti embodying the sadness of Marco while still managing to keep himself enigmatic in comparison to the easy-to-read qualities of his co-star. Watling and Flores are devastating in their few minutes of living, breathing screen time At its core, though, Talk to Her is pure Almodóvar, heartfelt one moment and taboo the next. There are times it resembles a surly 1950s melodrama, in others a psychological thriller. It’s a spectacular film underrated when put next to All About My Mother and Broken Embraces; it's a triumph in Almodóvar’s versatile career. A