It has been a joy to watch Pedro Almodóvar mature into one of the world’s most admired and stylistic filmmakers. His films include screwball comedies like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the widely acclaimed melodrama, All About My Mother. His latest is Talk to Her, gorgeously surreal and delicate, with compositions so detailed that each seems hand-painted.
As the movie begins, a curtain opens on a ballet by famed avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch. In the audience, Marco (Dario Grandinetti) is so moved that he begins to cry. In the next seat, Benigno (Javier Cámara) observes him quietly. The two will soon become friends, linked by grief, as they will both be tending to women in comas.
Marco’s girlfriend, Lydia (Rosario Flores), is a bullfighter who is gored in the ring and rendered comatose. In the scenes before the goring, she is both cool and fiery, and it’s easy to see why Marco misses her so terribly. Alicia (Leonor Watling) is loved by Benigno, who works as her nurse. Before she was struck by a car, she was an aspiring ballerina, and they had only met briefly; her appeal to Benigno appears spiritual. As she lies prostrate like a dumbstruck saint, he gently and ritualistically washes her limbs with all the dedication of an acolyte.
Worship is one of the many forms love takes in the film. Talk to Her is also about men loving other men, the way time changes intimacy, memory and forgiveness, and emotions so strong that they can shape reality, for better or for worse. The gently unfolding friendship between Marco and Benigno is humorous and touching; at first Marco views Benigno as a harmless kook, exacerbated by strange discussions including Benigno’s advice to talk to women, even when they are comatose. As Marco grows more desperate, he comes to view Benigno as a sort of misunderstood, Byronic hero—his dedication to Alicia may verge on the obsessive, but Marco sees it as courtly.
Benigno’s ambiguous sexuality makes his devotion appear “pure,” at least for a time. Marco effectively copies Benigno’s patterns to become an asexual lover, and moves from a verbal, bodily relationship to a silent, one-sided, reverential love. Eventually, it becomes clear that Benigno and Marco are deluded, however differently: ambiguous sexuality and asexuality are not identical. Talk to Her reminds us that sex and sexuality are healthy and necessary.
At the same time, Marco and Benigno begin to treat each other more and more like lovers; lacking female companionship, they lean on one another, even engage in a discreet flirtation, their own kind of courtly love. Just as their love for the women seems “purified” in its lack of physicality, so does the relationship between the two men.
During one night at Alicia’s bedside, Benigno tells her about a silent film he’s seen, in which a female scientist shrinks her male lover. Eventually, the lover literally crawls inside the woman, consumed by her and offering her continual pleasure. Benigno appears both repulsed and entranced by the idea. For him, love is a kind of all-consuming force: his apartment is dotted with pictures of Alicia and he spends all day and night caring for her. The next logical step is to be literally swallowed by her, a fate he toys with throughout the film.
Likewise, Marco becomes consumed by Benigno, as his own identity is more and more defined by aspects of his friend’s life. Marco doesn’t just imitate Benigno’s way of loving a woman; eventually, he recreates Benigno’s everyday actions, such as gazing out the window at the ballet school across the street. Love here manifests itself as friendship, sexual union, obsession. All these forms are linked, and Almodóvar suggests that pigeonholing love into one or another category is limiting.
A great deal of the joy in Talk to Her, however, comes not from its central story but from its tangents. In one flashback, Marco remembers a night outside with Lydia and their friends, listening to a singer (the famed Brazilian Caetano Veloso). Deeply moved by the song (and I dare anyone not to be), Marco’s eyes again fill with tears as Lydia holds him against the dark night. This scene evokes an almost devastatingly emotional response through a simple, even standard set-up: the singer with the heartbreaking melody. Still, the scene feels fresh—in his refusal to allow irony, Almodóvar recalls, even reinvents, classic cinematic tools. We are allowed the humor of Marco’s tears, ready to burst out of his soulful eyes at any moment, but Almodóvar also allows us the luxury of crying along with him. Again, doubling and complexity: Talk to Her always looks at events, people, and emotions as multifaceted.
Like most of Almodóvar’s films, Talk to Her passes no judgment on these passions; each is beautiful for what it is. Also familiar is the film’s twisting of melodramatic formula, with a focus on memory, loss, and impossible desire that remains just short of clear. Still, for all its understanding of past forms, its frank observations of love in excess of gender (or even sex) and its postmodern, eclectic style are distinctly reflective of our own present.