A copy of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, shows up in Hable con Ella (Talk to Her). Superficially, it serves as brief homage to the book that Pedro Almodóvar adores, the book that, he says on his website, “film producers should better leave… alone.” More complexly, the reference also hints at themes shared by his film and The Hours: passion, depression and obsession, and especially, the ways that women are shaped, hindered, and occasionally even inspired by the masculine structures and expectations that engulf them.
Even for these thematic correlations, the movie of The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry and scripted by David Hare, is about as different from an Almodóvar film as might be imagined. Where Almodóvar tends to expand or inventively exaggerate emotional trajectories, Daldry, who previously made Billy Elliot, tends to work in a more recognizably “realistic” mode. His version of The Hours is perfectly structured according to meticulous rhythms and lived-in images: the characters’ homes, for instance, are cluttered with materials — books, pictures, and personal mementos. His film translates the book’s complex organization — three women in different times and places, each struggling with depression and desire — as a kind of puzzle, each piece interlocking. Essentially three separate films, The Hours deploys clever matching shots to shift between them and Philip Glass’ famously inexorable scoring to underline thematic fluidity.
The movie opens on the suicide of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), in the London suburb of Richmond, 1941. She writes a note to her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane), dons her plaid wool coat, then walks down to the river, where she puts stones in her pocket and wades in. From here the film cuts back in time, to 1923, as Woolf is writing Mrs. Dalloway, feeling intimidated by her maids, visiting with her sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson) and her children, and each day confronting her own evolving madness.
The second story takes place in 1951 Los Angeles, where housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is reading Mrs. Dalloway, and in the process, facing doubts concerning her marriage to gentle Dan (John C. Reilly), for whom she and her young son (Jack Rovello) endeavor to make a birthday cake. This section begins as Dan buys his wife flowers, a sincere effort to nudge her mood: he sees her melancholy, but has no concept of how to help, or even talk with her. He heads off to work for the day, but not before reminding her how much he’s looking forward to their perfect birthday dinner that evening — a reminder, it seems, that she needs to be there when he gets back. For her part, Laura is seriously considering Clarissa Dalloway’s example, planning not only her husband’s party, but also her suicide.
The third piece, set in 2001 Manhattan, follows Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) as she puts together a party for ex-lover Richard (Ed Harris), a prize-winning novelist now dying of AIDS-related illness. Helped by her infinitely patient life partner, Sally (Allison Janney), and their daughter Julia (Claire Danes), Clarissa bustles about her day, resisting the fact that Richard is coming to grips with his own devastating grief, his regrets and needs, in ways that will necessarily leave her out.
As this synopsis suggests, much of The Hours is about grief, focused through the prism of women feeling oppressed by culturally ordained and personally absorbed obligations. Laura’s neighbor, Kitty (luminous Toni Collette), confesses that she has a growth in her uterus. Looking on Laura’s son and current pregnancy, she frets that you can’t “call yourself a woman until you’re a mother.” With this, Laura’s sense of guilt (why is she depressed when she has everything Kitty wants?) and lesbian desire overwhelm her: she kisses Kitty, who panics, reverting to housewifey chitchat and hustling out the door.
Laura’s desperation and isolation recall Woolf’s, of course. Neither woman can express her sexual yearning outright, and neither can resolve her situation, please herself and those who love her. Laura, for all her efforts to kill herself (which result in a bizarrely over-the-top scene in which she imagines her own Woolf-inspired drowning), eventually leaves her family in her own way.
This links her with Virginia, whose fate is fixed in history. Even she seems resigned to it before it occurs, telling Leonard that she can no longer bear living in virtual seclusion outside the city, despite his best intentions to protect her. “I’m dying in this town,” she informs him. “I alone wrestle in the dark, in the deep dark… Only I can understand my own condition.”
The Hours seems undecided as to whether it believes her. Its women subjects are, on one hand, unfathomable prisms of sentiment and sensation, rendered in brilliant performances (all the talk about Kidman’s losing herself in this role is true — she’s transformed). But the women are also functions of a coherent narrative, made comprehensible as embodiments of historical patterns. In this way, the film indicts, rather broadly and unimaginatively, patriarchal oppressions, especially as these lead to diagnoses of individual deviance, say, lesbianism. As sensitive as Leonard, Richard, or even Dan might strive to be, he just can’t get it: women’s stuff remains mysterious. This seems somehow reductive, political oppression creating an insular emotional world where culpability and generosity may never be known.
Or maybe not. The film’s single wholly selfless gesture is made by Julia, the youngest character. Near film’s end, she embraces Richard’s elderly mother, suffering unspeakable guilt for choices she’s made in the past, and at that moment, feeling judged by the distraught Clarissa. In this moment, Julia acknowledges the older woman’s otherness, the unfathomable nature of her decisions, and asks nothing in return. Coming after “hours” of interiority, it’s a splendidly, surprisingly expansive sign of acceptance and imagination.