Thursday, December 10, 2009

Talk to Her

If auteur theory stipulates that films are the result of the creative vision of their directors, Pedro Almodóvar goes above and beyond the call of duty: his films are less ruminations upon his philosophical musings and psychological hangups and more reflections of those attributes as they shape his personality. To paraphrase Francis Ford Coppola, his films aren't about Pedro Almodóvar, they are Pedro Almodóvar.

After starting his feature-length career in the early '80s with hallmarks of anti-Franco punk cinema, Almodóvar gradually softened his politics, though "softened" gives the wrong impression as he subsequently threw himself into films with subjects covering pedophilia, rape, domestic abuse, sexuality and much, much more. That many of these films were tasteless comedies didn't help Almodóvar's international standing, and by the mid-'90s the general consensus believed that, for all their lurid subject matter, the directors films were treading water -- my introduction came with '99's All About My Mother, so I can't comment on the matter.

But if All About My Mother reinvigorated interest in the bawdy auteur, 2002's Talk to Her cemented the fearless director's relevancy in the new millennium, not only continuing the momentum of the last film's reception but setting the stage for future hits Volver and Bad Education. A pitch-perfect mixture of his tactless comedies and camp melodramas, Talk to Her is to typical soap opera writers what the pool of water is to Tantalus: a maddening temptation just within reach that always seems to slip out of one's grasp.

Unstuck in time, Almodóvar's camera charts the lives of two men and the women they love. Benigno (Javier Cámara), a male nurse and caregiver for comatose and brain-dead patients, meets Marco (Darío Grandinetti) when the latter places his gored bullfighter girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Florès) in the hospice. Benigno spends all of his time caring for Alicia (Lenor Watling), a dancer on whom he had a crush before a car accident placed her in a coma four years earlier.

With two men watching over their two comatose loves, Talk to Her examines the duality of the sexes, blurring the lines separating the two to the point that distinction becomes largely meaningless. The first time we see Lydia, she's suffering through a TV interview from hell, in which a female anchor decries the chauvinism of Lydia's occupation -- itself involving the symbol of male virility, though at home she shrieks at the sight of a snake -- even as she subjects the matador to fatuous gossip questions that define her only by her relationships and interactions with men. Florès herself is an intriguing mix of masculine and feminine features, her sharp facial features, athletic build and thin lips lending her an androgynous look before she blurs her features more in her matador outfit.

Benigno, a virgin, constantly fields questions regarding his sexuality, and it's not hard to see this chunky, effeminate man as a stand-in for the openly gay director. He talks gently to Alicia as if she could hear and understand him, and every day he massages her to prevent atrophy; for a time, Talk to Her struck me as Almodóvar's celebration of the "gay friend" by cheekily suggesting that a gay or at least sexually confused man knows women's needs better than heterosexuals. But that reading doesn't hold up as the film progresses: Benigno grew up caring for his mother for the first 20 years of his life, and the isolation from the rest of the world has clearly done a number on his head. Through flashbacks we see that Benigno didn't know a thing about Alicia that he didn't pick up in a single brief conversation, yet he's obsessed over her immobile body for four years. His name translates to "benign" or "harmless," but we see the years of repression taking their mental toll on him, and regardless of his sexuality he clearly loves Alicia's lifeless body.

By contrast, Marco, named for Mars, the god of war, is hyper-masculine (he's balding, a sign of testosterone overproduction) and outgoing, and like any manly man is incapable of discussing his emotions. Yet he's also sensitive, bursting into spontaneous tears when looking at or listening to art, with the subtle suggestion that he does so because they remind him of lost loves.

With their loves in comas, the relationship that develops between Benigno and Marco is latently homosexual. Marco discusses his feelings with his new friend with more honesty than he ever showed with his female lovers, divulging his painful memories on Benigno's supportive shoulder. Compared to his twisted "relationship" with Alicia, Benigno's friendship with Marco is healthy, normal and mutual. Late in the film, Almodóvar sets up a sly gag wherein a frazzled Benigno tells Marco, "I've been thinking about you a lot. Especially at night."

Halfway through the film, Talk to Her takes a dark turn that the director approaches with some ingenious dark comedy. Benigno, who appropriated Alicia's hobbies as his own, spends a free night at the cinema and details the film he saw to her. Suddenly, Almodóvar cuts to a short silent film he made entitled "The Shrinking Lover." Any notions that this might be a legitimate silent two-reeler fly out the window quickly, as this warped story of a man and his scientist lover heads into regions that no filmmaker could have made in the silent days and few could get away with today. It's such a sinister (and sinisterly funny) segment that, when it ends and abruptly cuts to the image of two fluids mingling, we know what's happened in real life before other people in the hospice notice Alicia' fuller breasts and charts indicate she's missed her period.

Almodóvar, then, spends the second half of the film maintaining the sympathy we initially felt for a character now revealed to be an insane pervert and a criminal. I cannot comment upon the supposed flippancy with which he treats rape in his earlier films -- and he certainly masks it in this film with a humorous aside -- but I cannot say that Almodóvar treats the subject lightly here. He does not forgive Benigno, nor does he ask us to, but he does ask that we not immediately dismiss the character. Early in the film, a seemingly random conversation arises concerning news that missionaries had been raping nuns, with the explanation that they used to rape local women until the AIDS scare propelled them to assault the virgins in their ward. Almodóvar mercilessly skewers the hypocrisy: "I don't think all of them are rapists," says one. "No," retorts another, "some are pedophiles." It's a vicious bit of comedy, but it also speaks to the effects of sexual repression and how it does not create wholesome adults but perverted monsters. When Marco, unaware of what just happened, confesses his concerns with Benigno's obsession, the pudgy optimist chirpily replies, "We get along better than most married couples!" a subversion of typical relationship jokes that has a stark contrast in the preceding actions that comments upon the inherent sexism and misogyny of such "jokes" as well as a reflection upon the film's theme of the inability of the sexes to communicate with each other.

Talk to Her is often funny, audaciously so, but here Almodóvar never loses himself in his anarchic taboo-breaking. He feels sympathy for a man so psychologically wounded that he cannot fathom the horrible extent of his actions, and so do we. Benigno grew up in a psychological prison, only to find himself in a literal one in his attempt to break out of the first. Compare his delusion to the cynical outpourings of his landlady, whom Marco meets to rent Benigno's vacant loft: she does not even offer her moral opinion on Benigno's crime, only bitterly questioning why no one ever came to interview her for that opinion. "With all the trashy shows there are, not one bothered to come and interview me!"

It's easy to think of Pedro Almodóvar as some mad, fabulous combination of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Talk to Her certainly has an air of Sirk's melodrama (one of his more notable works is titled Magnificent Obsession, starring Rock Hudson, whose manly image belied his own real-life homosexuality), though it isn't as female-centric as his other, more Fassbinder-esque work. Or is it? By constantly erasing the line between male and female, Talk to Her ironically has more to say about the differences between men and women than just about any other film out there. With the director's glossy vibrancy toned down from his blazing reds to more earthen tones (hell, compare the poster for the film to, say, Volver's), the film manages to balance Almodóvar's outrageous sensibilities with some sense, making Talk to Her his most mature work even as he doesn't compromise an inch.

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