Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 9, 2003
Waking Life

Affecting and strange, Talkto Her is a Pedro Almodóvar masterpiece.


It’s a good thing for some film critics that Pedro Almodóvar has made a good movie this year. After all, a critic looks provincial if his annual list of the year’s best movies doesn’t include at least one foreign film, and an Almodóvar is a safe bet. It’s an odd status for a filmmaker as wild and crazy as he is.

He came to the world’s attention with the outrageous and highly entertaining 1988 farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, then spent the early 1990s in a rut, trying to top himself by increasing the quotient of insanity and sexual perversity in his films. The turning point was his 1996 film The Flower of My Secret, in which he toned down the shock value and used his visual style to tap the emotional content of his melodramatic stories. The sumptuous, color-coded beauty of his films has earned him comparisons to Douglas Sirk and Sirk’s German disciple Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but Almodóvar’s distinguishing marks — his healthily omnisexual outlook and cracked sense of humor — make his movies easy to warm up to. All these qualities, on display in his latest film Talk to Her, add up to something that casts a peculiar spell that’s like, and yet unlike, anything he’s done before.

The movie begins with a shot of a red curtain (is Almodóvar taking a cue from Baz Luhrmann?) that pulls back on a performance of Café Müller, an angst-ridden dance choreographed and performed by modern dance master Pina Bausch. It then cuts to two men in the audience who are sitting next to each other but won’t properly meet until later. Marco Zuloaga (Darío Grandinetti) is taking in the dance silently while tears stream down his face, as they do several times throughout the film. Benigno Martín (Javier Cámara) is busy observing Marco’s reaction.

The two men later find much more in common than an interest in modern dance. Marco is an Argentinian journalist who falls in love with one of Spain’s few female bullfighters, Lydia González (Rosario Flores), after writing a profile on her. Several months after they begin their relationship, he watches from the stands as she’s gored and trampled by a bull. In the clinic where Lydia lies in a coma with little hope for recovery, Marco is helped through his semi-bereavement by Benigno, a shlubby nurse. Benigno’s got a patient that he loves in his own way, a ballerina named Alicia Roncero (Leonor Watling), whom he used to watch while she practiced in the studio across the street from his apartment. She’s now also comatose, after a car accident.

Almodóvar’s films have been widely celebrated for their vivid and variegated female characters, but this movie turns on the friendship between its two men, whose emotional problems are rather well matched. Benigno is socially and sexually stunted from spending his formative years caring for his invalid mother, and the only intimacy he gets is from talking to his comatose patients while rubbing down their atrophied muscles. (In a softer and more passive way, Benigno is like Antonio Banderas’ stalker in Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) In contrast, Marco keeps vigil over Lydia but can’t bring himself to approach her bed. The kind-hearted Benigno encourages the frigid Marco to open up, but Marco does so only after Benigno’s loneliness and frustrated desire lead him to do something very bad. This sticky point in the story will no doubt turn off some viewers, but the way Marco instinctively stands by his friend without condoning his action is enormously powerful. The same could be said for the performances of the two lead actors, as Grandinetti lends a grace and beauty to Marco’s stoicism, while the blockish Cámara brings out the tragedy in the twisted but pitiable Benigno.

The director has parted company with Affonso Beato, his cinematographer for his last several films, in favor of Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others). It’ll take a sharp viewer to notice the difference, though — this movie is filled with the same eye-popping colors and striking compositions as Almodóvar’s other films.

A series of performance pieces — dances, a song, a film within the film — provide a running commentary on the film’s themes. When Benigno tells Alicia about a film he has seen, Almodóvar shows us that supposed movie — allowing an important plot development to occur offscreen. (The movie thoroughly freaks out Benigno and will probably have the same effect on you.) Brazilian music legend Caetano Veloso sings an achingly beautiful rendition of “Cucurrucucú Paloma” as the backdrop for one scene. Bausch works bookend the film: Café Müller at the beginning and the troubled yet sunnily optimistic Masurca Fogo at the end. These creative works do more than lighten the movie’s tone. They reflect and magnify the characters’ emotional states, and their aesthetic splendors lay the groundwork for a veritable miracle at the movie’s climax. This magical ending is like something out of one of Shakespeare’s later plays in the way it binds the tragic and the redemptive into a single experience, and it qualifies the transcendent Talk to Her as Pedro Almodóvar’s most sublime film. -

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