REVIEW: The Postmodern Melodrama of Almodovar's "Talk to Her"
by Peter Brunette
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Peter Brunette reviewed Almodovar’s “Hable con Ella” (Talk to Her) as part of indieWIRE’s 2002 Toronto coverage. Sony Pictures Classics releases the film on Friday.]
At the end of the opening credits of Pedro Almodovar‘s new film, “Talk to Her” (Hable con ella), a stage curtain rises and we are ushered into that marvelously artificial cinematic realm that his fans have come to know and
unreservedly love. On this special planet, melodramatic excess transcends
any possible real world, and emotion trumps reason, every time. In short,
the Spanish director is working much the same territory of his earlier triumph, “All About My Mother,” but this time his goals are much more ambitious. Alas, this isn’t necessarily a good thing, for the grander the scope, the greater the possibility for
error. Like comedy, the effectiveness of melodrama lies largely in the eye
of the beholder, and not everyone will be charmed by this latest effort.
While “All About My Mother” reveled self-consciously in the world of women
— virtually the only men in evidence were a gaga oldster and some
transgendered former males — “Talk to Her” focuses resolutely on two
decidedly different men, Benigno (Javier Camara), a virginal
twenty-something nurse who has spent 15 years tending his lazy (and then
dying) mother, and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), a fortyish displaced
Argentinian writer of travel guides. Though Benigno has covertly witnessed
Marco crying during the performance of a Pina Bausch dance composition, the two men first formally meet in a hospital, where both are tending women they love who are in deeply comatose states. Benigno’s adored Alicia (Leonor Watling) is a young, highly promising dancer who was struck by a car one awful, rainy day, and Marco’s lover, the older Lydia (Rosario Flores), is a bullfighter who’s been fearfully gored. True to its soap opera aesthetic, the film’s plot is so relentlessly baroque that it
would take the rest of the review merely to outline its most prominent
features, so let’s not even try.
One wonderful thing about soap opera is that-since all is permitted — you
never know what’s going to happen next, and this bracing unpredictability
keeps “Talk to Her” consistently interesting and entertaining. Ridiculous
jokes abound, such as when it is revealed that the fearless lady bullfighter
is deathly afraid of snakes. There is also a lot more “technique” in this
film than in his previous film (slow-motion, the extreme attention paid to
detail as the bullfighter dons her “suit of lights,” etc.), and this too
seems to make it new.
At one point, Benigno recounts to the stricken Alicia the plot of a silent
film he’s just seen (which we see as he recounts it), and this
film-within-the-film, whose highlight is a man shrunken to a few inches
hilariously crawling into his girlfriend’s vagina, is perhaps the high point
of “Talk to Her.”
But Almodovar’s greatest natural talent may be his ability to master a
dizzying variety of tones within a single film. Thus, as the postmodernist
he is, he can miraculously, and shamelessly, pull out all the emotional
stops, and yet make fun of this very surfeit of melodrama at the same time.
In the first half of “Talk to Her,” the director walks this tightrope
flawlessly, but then seems to decide in the second half to play it
completely straight — that is, as straight, flat-out melodrama — and not
every viewer will want, or be able, to accompany him on this sentimental
The film takes up a bevy of serious themes that in another context would be
called philosophical: the relationship of science (which says, for example,
that a brain-dead patient will never recover from her coma) to faith (which
says that anything is possible); coma as a weird, mixed state between life
and death, which calls both into question; and “appropriate” gender behavior
as something unfixed and variable. And what does it mean to speak of a
person in the third person, in her unconscious presence, and to touch and
massage the erogenous areas of her body? What does this do to her putative
“Talk to Her,” which is the advice Benigno gives to a skeptical Marco
regarding his lost Lydia, is also at times probingly self-reflexive as it
points to, and reveals, the always artificial process behind all forms of
representation. (Almodovar seems to take special delight in the utter
artificiality of the hospital sets.) Unlike most directors, this one doesn’t
fake reality; instead, he realizes fakery, and says that it’s finally just
as important as doing it the other way around.
In order to carry out this double, self-aware game, actors of the highest
order are necessary, and Almodovar has always been blessed in this regard.
Even when you’re watching his two male leads, Camara and Grandinetti, fully
indulge emotions that you’re not sharing, you recognize their talent and the
amazing combination of intellectualism and intuition that can take them to
these stranges places without becoming embarrassed.
Ultimately, though, there’s so much here that the viewers may become
overwhelmed by all the pretty, fascinating balls in the air. So much so that
they may forget to care, which isn’t, of course, what Almodovar had in mind