Talk to Her (2002, Pedro Almodóvar)

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“Last night, I saw a film that disturbed me,” the creepy, Norman Bates-like nurse Benigno says to his patient Alicia, who’s been in a coma for four years. The film he’s referring to is Shrinking Lover, a silent picture completely conceived and crafted by Talk to Her‘s director Pedro Almodóvar; in this strange, miraculous movie with eye-popping sets and handwritten title cards, a scientist is grousing to her lover that he is too selfish. To contradict this, he consumes a potion she’s working on over her protests; just as they reconcile their passion, he begins to shrink. Soon he is the size of a small child and — shades of Benjamin Button — writes her a heartfelt letter and leaves. When she tracks him down some time later, he’s so tiny he can fit into her purse, the bold letters in his own hand towering starkly behind him. The couple is shown in bed together, her afraid she’ll crush him in her sleep; once her eyes are closed, he begins the adventure of exploring her body — passing through her mountainous breasts and her vulva, which must have been quite a production design coup, and masturbating her with one arm extended outward. Then as Benigno puts it, with perverse wonder in his eyes, “he stays inside of her… forever.”

It’s an extraordinary and outrageous sequence, one of the most inspired in cinema this century; in six minutes it manages a more convincing and affectionate valentine to silent cinema than The Artist, which looks even blander than it already is in such light. But it’s also problematic, because it depicts — with romantic, erotic haze — a moment of nonconsensual sex, however surreal. It’s forgivable insofar as both people in Shrinking Lover are, size notwithstanding, able-bodied and generally conscious and for all we know she at some point told him she enjoyed orgasms while sleeping. Plus the fictitious film was probably made in the ’20s, when there was undoubtedly less sensitivity around rape. What’s more troubling than Shrinking Lover itself is the way that Almodóvar uses it to comment on the action in the larger narrative of Talk to Her; his story involves an entire one-sided relationship to which one party is unable to consent — is indeed unaware of the situation’s existence.

Almodóvar’s cinema is nearly always provocative; he made his reputation by exploring kinky sex and sadomasochism at a time — the late 1980s — when that was pioneer territory. And in some ways, Talk to Her is a more formally conservative film than usual for him. In this story of two women in comas and the two men who love them, the colors are painterly and beautiful, the blocking of scenes engaging but conventional, the camera mostly invisible. And as with his previous film All About My Mother, its unabashed melodrama and barely-contained adoration of cinema itself is intoxicating; for all its taboo-breaking, it seems to come to us from long ago. It’s bound to reel the typical audience in with its artful grace notes that initially hide the sinister undercurrent of an oddly structured story that resembles a Venn diagram (again, not unlike Psycho, a common reference point in Almodóvar’s work). We begin by tracking Lydia, a bullfighter who’s put into a coma after being gored, with her journalist boyfriend Marco by her side at the clinic. We’re sufficiently privy to Lydia’s world prior to her injury that she initially seems like a co-protagonist with the smug Marco, but the story is driven by what’s happening down the hall: Benigno, an isolated, apparently mentally impaired nurse who spent years looking after his mother before she died and did little else with his time, acts as de facto caregiver for a young woman — Alicia — with whom he was once obsessed back when she was taking a ballet class across the street from his flat. We learn in flashback how that relatively harmless if skeevy crush became noxious when Benigno used an appointment with Alicia’s psychiatrist dad as a pretext to sneaking into her room and catching her showering (must we really spell out this cinematic allusion?). Now Benigno’s relationship with Alicia is curiously involved; he has one-sided conversations with her and tries to talk Marco into doing the same with the now-braindead Lydia. The film initially seems to be leading down the sentimental path of an argument toward how thearapeutic this is for both of them, how it bonds them. It then, of course, takes a harsh turn.

Marco’s story more or less fizzles out and becomes strictly about his relationship to the troubled Benigno; indeed, the strongest evidence here of Almodóvar’s humanity is how believably he establishes the tentative friendship between these two men. For all the grotesquerie they both exhibit, their aching devotion to one another is touching. It’s also seemingly the only contact between two people in the film into which both parties seem fully, deliberately invested; we learn eventually that Lydia had intended to dump Marco just after her last bullfight. So Almodóvar perspicaciously explores how men bond, how men talk about women (it ain’t pretty), and moreover, how men talk about themselves. There’s a telling early moment in the back of a car when Lydia is quizzing Marco about his prior relationship — one in which he killed a snake, slept on a couch, tried to curb some addictions, and cried a lot even though he’s a big manly man and shit — and notes that the two of them need to have a serious conversation. “We’ve been talking for an hour,” Marco replies, but Lydia just points to him and says, basically, “No. You have.” Logistics aside, the conversation precisely describes Benigno’s relationship with Alicia just as cogently. Following an injury — a car accident that is never really described to us — Alicia was sent to the clinic where she sleeps eternally, keeps yawning and having periods and sometimes opening her eyes but is effectively dead, and Benigno became her constant guardian, but something still more disturbing besides: he reads to her and talks endlessly to her, yes, not unheard-of behavior for a family member if somewhat bizarre for someone who barely knew her, but he also has photographs of her hanging up in his apartment and has adopted the few things he knows from their one and only actual conversation to have been her interests and favored activities as his own. He goes to ballets (where, in the opening scene that rhymes with the film’s ending, he finds himself coincidentally seating next to his future confidante Marco) and he becomes an aficionado of silent cinema, which she loved.

This brings us back to Shrinking Lover; anyone familiar with conventional psychology and film history will inevitably read what we see of the picture as a coded impotence narrative (like, for instance, Rear Window) — the man’s love for the woman causes him to become no more than two inches high, and his manhood is asserted when he is able to lead her to orgasm despite this limitation. It’s not so different from the manner in which Jon Voight in Coming Home and Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July both have their sexual prowess movingly reasserted after war confines them to wheelchairs and impotence, but one naturally bristles at the knowledge that all such narratives concentrate strictly on the capacity of men to give pleasure and on women to receive it. Meanwhile, Benigno’s sexuality is somewhat ambiguous — he claims to be gay in front of Alicia’s father, most of his coworkers don’t read him as straight and he is portrayed by Javier Camara as a sort of ambiguous, almost sexually neutral figure in the first act. Even when he displays interest in Alicia in the flashback, it’s in the form of self-involved, self-gratifying stalking behavior rather than any sort of regard for her as a human being; and even when we learn he is indeed not impotent, when he (offscreen) rapes Alicia as she lies motionless, apparently inspired by what he’s seen in Shrinking Lover, he still comes across not as a conventional villain so much as a sick man, a figure inspiring of some sort of reluctant pity like the child murderer played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M. Almodóvar then takes care to rhyme the shrunken man’s overwhelmed, awestruck reaction to his lover’s gigantic body parts, his massage of her clitoris and his full-fledged descent into her vagina, and finally her enraptured sleeping response to these triggers with Benigno’s subsequent massaging of Alicia’s legs, a static reaction shot of her unchanging face, and — in place of a display of forced coitus — an extreme, suggestive closeup of fluids in a lava lamp.

The oblique implication is that Benigno, previously presented as benevolent and virtually asexual even as he drooled over the living or (essentially) dead body of a woman, defeats his impotence as a direct result of the movie he sees; in the script’s own parlance, it “wakes him up.” But of course, Almodóvar applies this statement not from this perspective but an even more questionable one. Following the rape, Alicia becomes pregnant and Benigno is investigated and eventually put in prison. Marco visits him regularly, instructed not to reveal what he knows: that Alicia has emerged from her coma, the baby stillborn, and has begun carefully to return to dancing. Benigno is understandably not permitted knowledge of this and Marco complies, but after he receives a coded suicide threat from him by voicemail, he tries desperately to reach him to say that Alicia is alive and active again. As he puts it by Benigno’s grave, “you woke her up.” The narrative of rape as a cure for paralysis or coma or any such manner of suspension — or even death — is not something Almodóvar invented and he won’t be the last to employ it. He intends obviously to link his story to more outwardly innocent variants: the kiss of the Prince awakening the slumbering, beautiful, invariably young woman, thus breaking the spell and carting her away. It’s hard to even name how many times we have all read or seen this — most famously perhaps from the Grimms’ Little Briar Rose, which became Sleeping Beauty. Even Hitchcock’s Notorious, a film that by 1940s standards is generally friendly to modern feminist readings, is essentially a reframing of the Grimm narrative: Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia, taken away and drugged by her evil Nazi captors, must be saved by the dashing fellow spy Cary Grant, literally picked up by him and carried to safety.

There’s nothing outright wrong with this story element, dated though it is, especially used as Hitchcock does to simply complicate or update a fairy tale ideal, or even as the Walt Disney studio did in their stunning interpretation of Snow White that emphasizes the youth, innocence and humanity of its characters, but the particular machinations and the reliance upon the cold and literal in Almodóvar’s variation make it either extremely disturbing or extremely coy and satirical. If it’s the former, it’s an outright suggestion that rape can repair a damaged person. If it’s the latter, it simply lays out a fairy tale trope to expose how impossibly fucked up it really is by pointing out that Prince Charming’s kiss is really more than a kiss, that it would really be a violation of a person unable to, as Marco puts it, say “I do” with any part of her body, and would inevitably result in jail time.

In either scenario, we’re forced to abandon any identification we feel with either of the two lead characters in Talk to Her; Almodóvar’s attraction turns out strictly to be the absurdity of the situations he dramatizes and his gleeful, Dickensian manipulations of fate, a problem shared with his later, equally cynical body-obsessed thriller The Skin I Live In. It’s no great loss — Benigno is outwardly sweet but actually has no regard for the feelings of other people, the proverbial Nice Guy, and he mostly modulates these traits to serve the narrative as Almodóvar sees fit; it’s no real compliment to the movie that his own narration of his uncomfortable visit to Alicia makes him look as bad as the omniscient revelation of Barry Foster as a murderer in Frenzy. The same goes only more so for Marco, an arrogant son of a bitch making too much of his short-lived place in Lydia’s life and full of self-regarding fake emotive contempt for the women he knows. His sole show of tenderness is toward a rapist, but even then he seems only to be acting as a pawn in Almodóvar’s story. The scientist and her lover in Shrinking Lover comment upon Benigno and Alicia in the same sense that Benigno and Alicia comment upon Lydia and Marco; Marco’s relationship to Lydia is ridiculously similar to the other couple’s even though one of them is unconscious — ridiculously one-sided and unfeeling.

There is enough beauty and fascination in Almodóvar’s fanciful plot developments and pessimistic conclusions that one can’t help but wish to tweak a few things. It would be easier to have kind feelings toward Talk to Her if, for instance, Alicia’s awakening coincided more directly with Benigno’s death — as though she only could be alive when her oppressor was dead in a tragic but subversive twist. This could even be underlined well if we knew, as it’s hard not to suspect, that Benigno somehow had a part in the cause of her injury (he mentions it was raining that day, implying he knows more). Such a theory calls to mind the closest relative to Talk to Her that likely influenced Almodóvar: the classic BBC teleplay Brimstone and Treacle, made into an extremely distressing film by Richard Loncraine, Its story points are shared almost exactly with Talk to Her, except that Benigno’s equivalent who rapes and awakens a comatose woman is actually the spawn of Satan, her coma is directly established as the fault of another character in the film whose guilt reaches its apex with her return, and the rape is explicitly shown. There’s also arguably a bit of evidence here of Lars von Trier’s fable-like Breaking the Waves, wherein a woman (Emily Watson) has sex with numerous men in the belief that it will rejuvenate her paralyzed husband; the film coalesces into a moment of magical realism — complete with church bells — that is bound to either enchant or disgust the majority of audience members, a note-for-note analogy to Talk to Her‘s (seemingly intentional) effect.

But an even more potent comparison, and one unfavorable to both films involved, is with Spike Jonze’s Her, made eleven years after Talk to Her. It too is about a one-sided relationship, though a benign infatuation with a computer is by definition far less nefarious in effect than one with a person who cannot protest or respond. What’s icky is that the men in the two films behave so similarly; Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore in Her is equally self-involved as both of Talk to Her‘s leads. He never commits any crime, but the lines crossed by Marco and Benigno extend beyond their actions anyway. Theodore’s constantly moping emotional state mirrors Marco’s; his reaction to setback or heartache is equally focused upon his own problems to the expense of their impact on others as both Almodóvar’s men; and his response to the suggestion of an inner life or decision-making power on the part of a female character is confusion and disdain. And of course, when both Benigno and Theodore talk to their purported lovers, what they are really doing is talking to themselves.

So much as Jonze’s film should probably be called Him since that’s who it’s about, Almodóvar’s is really not about “talking to” any woman — his characters say nothing of importance to any female character who can hear or respond. But we do hear a lot from them that’s quite instructive. We hear all about how women are seen by these people, at large and individually. It’s in Benigno’s characterization of ladybrains as “mysterious” even when they’re not in comas; it’s in Marco’s immediate characterization of Lydia, in their very first conversation (!), as a “desperate woman”; it’s in the leering way the two of them discuss Alicia’s breasts and (foreshadowing) their growth as she lies unmoving; and unfortunately, it’s in the way Almodóvar allows Lydia — a tough, resourceful woman; a bullfighter, for heaven’s sake — as putty in Marco’s hands when he helps her out with a phobia of snakes, as wholly subservient to his needs when he talks of former lovers and wants him to forget them, the way she thus lays herself down in that scene and makes her quite interesting life completely an annotation to his. It’s not impossible that Almodóvar is simply remarking on classical alpha behavior among straight men, since that sequence is a flashback emanating from Marco’s own head — but this is discredited somewhat by how we earlier watch Benigno stalk and terrify a woman barely out of her teens underneath his own narration.

Interestingly, in both Her and Talk to Her there is a curious, promising moment of self-awareness; in the newer film, it’s when Rooney Mara speaks for those of us unconvinced by Theodore’s notion that he’s in a “relationship” with his cell phone’s female-voiced operating system and accuses him rightfully of being a child. In Talk to Her, the moment of clarity arrives thanks to Marco; despite showing no indication that he was so bothered by Alicia’s presence in his friend’s life prior to this, he lays into Benigno full-force when he is told about the nurse’s plan to marry her. His speech about consent, the lack thereof, and the ludicrousness of the idea afterward may reposition him as a mouthpiece for the filmmaker or the audience, but it is a righteous condemnation of entitled, crude, criminal behavior that the film otherwise seems almost to excuse or to treat as a laugh-a-minute freakshow. But both films end up legimitizing the way overgrown child in one film and simpleton / abuser in another see the world. Theodore continues his relationship defiantly, as though it’s just a slight variant on an actual union between individuals; Marco nearly reveals Alicia’s whereabouts to Benigno then comes around to a weepy graveside redemption for his friend and is soon enough making eyes with the rejuvenated Alicia — she unaware of his connection to her — in a theater. One wonders, does this depressing zigzag cycle of the things we don’t tell women, the things we say about women, the things we do to women, ever end?

Talk to Her is a fascinating picture; you could spend ages dissecting it. But it’s also ultimately a heartless and wrongheaded one. Its performances are enormously effective: the tough-minded Darío Grandinetti nearly as convincing in a difficult, nebulous role as the infinitely sad Javier Cámara. But because Almodóvar wants to approach dark, serious subjects and then treat them as though they are just part of his light fun stage to play around with, it now seems less magic than flippant to me — a stark turnaround from my first viewing, when its unpredictability and the still-undeniable brilliance of Shrinking Lover seduced me. It’s the kind of movie that will either make you feel so alive you have to walk around outside for a few hours, or so disgusted you have to vomit into the nearest trash can.

[Includes a tiny bit of content from a 2007 review of the film.]

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