The closing act of the New York Film Festival, and one of the season’s most rewarding films, Talk to Her strikes a variety of chords: It’s uproarious, whimsical, sad, preposterous–sometimes sequentially, sometimes all at once. The one-time provocateur and lover of garish pop culture shows a growing maturity in this film, mining darker, more emotionally resonant territory that gets deep under the skin even as its loopy unpredictability makes it wildly entertaining. At issue here are loneliness, loss, communication, male friendship, and the different forms love takes, all embodied with the wacky imagination for which Pedro Almodžvar is noted.
The plot, when described, has as much plausibility as a telenovela on acid, but here goes. Following a chance encounter at a performance of a Pina Bausch dance piece, two men, Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), meet again at a private clinic where Benigno works as a nurse. He’s caring for Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballerina rendered comatose by a car accident. And as chance would have it in the world according to Pedro, Marco is visiting another comatose patient, girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores), a bullfighter who was horribly gored in the ring. During this period of suspended time in the clinic, the lives of the four characters fluidly play out through titled flashbacks and forwards (‘Benigno and Alicia,’ etc.), cut with present scenes of the two men’s burgeoning friendship. Benigno pursues the logical culmination of his passion for his comatose patient. She’s found to be pregnant. Benigno’s imprisonment leads to a heart-rending denouement, as Alicia, Sleeping Beauty-style, awakens, and the narrative pirouettes into a hopeful future.
The film’s richness comes, in part, from a tapestry of art and performance that includes bullfighting (and a fascinating glimpse of Lydia the toreador getting kitted up before the fight), dance, and a song sung live by Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso. And rather than assault viewers with a scene of sex with a comatose partner, Almodovar has devised the brilliant device of The Shrinking Lover, a hilarious black-and-white silent film-within-the-film that obliquely predicts the event and refracts a distasteful act through burlesque comedy.
Benigno (for ‘benign’) and his passionate devotion to Alicia, on whom he lavishes such loving care, remains one of Almodžvar’s most indelible portraits. A virginal innocent who lives in a parallel universe by his own rules, he manages to make do and even find joy with so very little. Before Alicia, his life was devoted to caring for his crochety, ailing mother; now his love object can’t speak or respond. But as Benigno says, in a line both
droll and heart-rending, ‘We get along better than most married people.’
Through Benigno, Almodžvar suggests that love can be nourished by the most barren sources–indeed, is largely a product of the imagination. Perhaps he’s also mischievously proposing that knocked-out (and acquiescent) is how men would prefer to have their women. And, for ‘communication’ to flourish, it’s actually desirable for one partner to be silenced. He’s saying, too, that barring the usual dialogue, a lover’s monologue is an equally valid form of communication. But perhaps the film’s emotional fuel comes from the never explicitly examined love between Benigno and Marco, which hauntingly continues to flower, fairy-tale-style, with the plot’s final turn.
Open-ended and composed of layer upon layer, Talk to Her is a cinephile’s feast, an invitation to countless interpretations.