INTERVIEW: Men on the Verge; Almodovar Tosses a Change Up with "Talk to Her"
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE: 11.20.02) — Pedro Almodovar first made his reputation stateside in the mid-1980s as Madrid’s madcap cinematic melodramatist. The best-known Spanish filmmaker since Luis Bunuel, Almodovar’s early work — which includes the riotous “Matador,” “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” among others — can be described as something of a cross between the freewheeling camp of John Waters and the formal inventiveness of Jean-Luc Godard, complete with hysterical lonely women, childishly macho would-be young studs, and loads of sex and drugs.
With his past few films, Almodovar has started to exhibit a more restrained, contemplative touch. His 1999 foreign language Oscar winner “All About My Mother” retained much of the director’s usual style but delved deeper into the themes of grief and loss. And with this year’s “Talk to Her,” Almodovar has ventured even further away from the campy, artificial feel of his earlier pictures, as well as from his usual obsession with female characters. (“All About My Mother” was dedicated to all the actresses in the world.) “Talk to Her” tells the story of Benigno and Marco (played brilliantly by Javier Camara and Dario Grandinetti, respectively), two men who forge a deep and complicated relationship as they grieve at the bedsides of women they love, both of whom have been rendered comatose in brutal accidents. (The film also includes a very not-so-sad sequence about a shrunken man’s adventure inside his beloved’s vagina.)
The film, which received a rapturous reception and rave reviews at this year’s New York Film Festival, will be released by Sony Pictures Classics this week. indieWIRE senior editor Matthew Ross sat down with Almodovar at New York’s Essex House hotel during the festival, where the director spoke about his reasons for making “Talk to Her,” his plans for the future, and the reasons why women in comas make such good listeners.
indieWIRE: This a beautiful film, and it’s very unexpected. I heard that it was going to be different than your other work, especially in terms of the tone, and it was true. how did you come to the story?
Pedro Almodovar: There are various reasons. This is a script that is so complex, and has so many elements that it can’t come from one idea, but from several. In this case I wanted to talk about something that is painful enough to make a man cry. On the other hand, I have been taking notes from different cases I have read in the press about women in comas. In one, a woman had been raped by an orderly in the hospital, and in another case a woman awoke after spending 16 years in a coma. At one point, I decided to put these elements together. “Talk To Her” became that script. I had the intention of not only doing something different than what I’ve done before, but also to make something different from the reality that inspired it. If you think about the story, it’s a story that deals with hospitals and women in comas, a subject that can be really creepy, but I wanted to deal with it in a completely different way. I wanted it to be a love story that had a completely opposite tone from the subject matter you would expect to have to deal with. I didn’t want to deal with pain, and I didn’t want to portray the hospital as a place where pain reigns.
Beyond that came all these other elements, like the dance performances [choreographed by Pina Bausch], elements that I feel enrich the story even though they take it off the linear path. But I think that in spite of that, these elements really bring cohesion to the entire story. They are elements that I have chosen from other things I have loved — from films I have seen and other dances and spectacles that I have enjoyed. But I think in general it is hard to discuss the origin of this film because it was formed by layering several independent elements, as opposed to taking a single idea. It’s also scripted so it came together over a span of time and I was taking notes on all these subjects separately. There came a point when I said, “Now I can put it all together.”
iW: What was it about the subject of women in comas that you found so inspiring?
Almodovar: I think it was their capacity to listen, which is interesting on what it imposes on the other character, because they have the unlimited capacity to express themselves. It’s a grand opportunity for me to write about someone who talks. I was always fascinated about the relationship of a couple. What I like about a woman in a coma is that she herself is in the story; she is alive, and despite what the doctors say her body still wants to be alive. But it does something to me because we don’t know the place where the person lives; someone in a coma is at a certain place in life that is very dramatic to me. The truth is that in some ways, the first inspiration was not from the woman in the coma, but from the nurse that cares for her, and the man that talks by her side. I also found it interesting that in some cases, a relationship works when only one person is giving everything, when one is communicating, and in this case it’s very obvious.
This film is also about the fact that if you want something, you have to forage ahead to achieve it, despite what the world thinks of you. If you keep at it, you will get it. It’s not exactly the same, but similar to the character in the beginning of the film the film “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” when the character in the mental hospital has nothing and is in the worst situation. It’s through forcing himself that he achieves the thing he wants, and the only thing he wants is a family, and the only way he knows how to obtain that is by kidnapping this woman and forcing her to be the mother of his children. It’s only by forcing the situation that he achieves it.
iW: Yet while this film shows the men’s one-sided relationships with the women, the two men develop a relationship that is very complicated. It’s not predicated on one person wanting something from the other; it’s something that just happens.
Almodovar: Yes, exactly. These are two people that would probably not be friends. They are complete opposites, yet their relationship grows in spite of the fact, and it grows in a very natural way. The point of the story is their friendship. There is a concept of the body and blood of Jesus coming together, when there are two different substances joining into one, and this is what happens — they identify with each other and they come together. Also, the relationship formed at the end of the film between Alicia and Marco, in a way, is the actual consummation of that relationship. There is a spiritual transcendence from Benigno to Marco that blesses the relationship between Marco and Alicia.
In fact, can you help me to explain the film? I wanted to send a message in my own words, but this was very difficult to relate to the audience. I would like your help to explain my intentions in your own words, because it is very complicated to do.
iW: I think you succeeded, everything makes sense once the film is finished, I think your intentions are very clear, whether you verbalize or not.
Almodovar: I don’t want it to become some kind of intellectualized topic; the film is about very basic human themes: loneliness and communication. A bullfighter that has fear in her private life but isn’t afraid of a bull. Life is like that, and perhaps there is a way to express it in words.
iW: In “All About My Mother,” you dedicated the film to all the actresses in the world. In that film it made sense to dedicate it people who perform because the characters themselves are performers. In this film, the characters don’t perform as much, but there are significant performance numbers. There is the Pina Bausch dance in the beginning, the Caetano Veloso song later on, and the silent-movie sequence about the shrinking man. Can you talk about your decision to include these actual performances in the film, and how they relate to the theme?
Almodovar: This film is a sort of confession and a personal anthology. The confession is showing that the man cries when he is faced with unexpected and extraordinary beauty, naturally linked to some kind of love. In choosing the moments to move the character, I used personal anthology, from other moments and spectacles that I have seen and have moved me in the past. That is the case with the two bachelors that we see in the dance performance as well in the sequence with the silent movie. That is a story I had written a very long time ago, and I wanted to make it come alive in some way. In fact, I found the ideal place for it in this movie. The other reason is that these spectacles take place so that Benigno can tell Alicia about all the things he has been seeing, and enable her to live the spectacles that she had been imagining.
iW: What’s next for you? I heard a rumor that you might do a film in the States?
Almodovar: This is always that rumor. I almost decided to do it. A few weeks ago I was thinking about it, but at the last minute decided not to do it. I always have all these projects going on, but it is hard to decide. It is a little frightening dealing with a place and land I don’t understand. It’s very tempting. I probably will do it at some point with a story that lets me go wild, when I have the passion to do something with it. But not right now.