‘Talk to Her’ finds success in sweetness
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Pedro Almodovar has consistently placed women at the center of his films, and with good reason. The Spanish director’s films – including “All About My Mother,” a paean to women in real life and on screen; “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” about an actress abandoned by her longtime lover; and “High Heels,” an examination of a mother-daughter relationship – are explorations of emotional availability and vulnerability.
Women tend to make better vehicles for the depths of feeling Almodovar likes to get at. Men, on the other hand, can all relate well to Homer Simpson, who drowns out his wife Marge’s efforts at emotional openness with thoughts of beer, TV and porkchops.
In “Talk to Her,” however, Almodovar turns his attention to the male species. Women are so far in the background, in fact, that the two central female characters are in comas during most of the movie. The comatose women set a clear stage for Almodovar to examine that elusive trait of male sensitivity.
The two men whose lives intertwine in “Talk to Her” have little in common with Homer Simpson. In the opening scene Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a middle-aged journalist, gets teary-eyed as he watches a theater performance. The play is about a blind, befuddled woman wandering around an obstacle-filled room, and a man who silently moves the objects out of her way.
Marco is a man who cries also when thinking about a long-gone lover; who gallantly helps a woman rid her house of a snake, and sympathizes deeply with her phobia over snakes. As men go, Marco is highly developed emotionally.
Benigno (Javier Camara) is the man sitting next to the crying Marco in the theater. Benigno doesn’t cry at the performance, but he does something equally remarkable: He professes love for the man sitting next to him, so moved he is at Marco’s capacity to shed tears at the theater.
Even Marco cannot compare in emotional sensitivity with Benigno. Benigno is a male nurse who has spent much of his life catering to his mother’s every need. His mother, it turns out, was not sick or feeble. But she had, years ago, been abandoned by her husband, thus eliciting in Benigno a desire to devote his life to caring for her.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Benigno found a replacement object for his affection: the beautiful dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling) whom he could see practicing in a studio across the street from his apartment. Benigno stoops to underhanded and slightly creepy – but also sweet – methods to meet her. Days after they are acquainted, though, Alicia is hit by a car, sending her into a coma.
Benigno becomes caretaker for the unresponsive Alicia, a job, it seems, he would be happy to do forever. Despite her vegetative state, and infinitesimal chance for recovery, Benigno is in love with Alicia. It is an illusory love; they had barely known each other at the time of her accident. But Benigno fills Alicia’s physical needs and, through Alicia, Benigno’s emotional needs are filled.
After four years at Alicia’s bedside, Benigno has another character enter into his narrow existence. Marco, too, is in love with a comatose woman, Lydia (Rosario Flores), a famous matador gored by a bull. The two become companions at the hospital, as Benigno tries to instruct Marco in the job of treating a coma patient as though she were a conscious being. “Talk to her,” Benigno urges Marco.
Gradually, “Talk to Her” becomes more the story of the friendship between Benigno and Marco, rather than between the men and their respective comatose loves.
In a satisfying twist, Almodovar finds just as much selflessness, devotion and caring in Benigno’s and Marco’s friendship. And in the dangerous turns the story takes, that friendship becomes crucial – and more real than the relationships between the men and their women.
“Talk to Her” is about more than just its central story; there are diversions galore, all of them worthwhile. As in most of Almodovar’s movies, the arts play a major supporting role in “Talk to Her.” The arts connect people, inject humor, and give people’s lives purpose and depth.
Before her accident, Alicia was a promising ballerina, a pursuit that gives beauty and vulnerability to a mostly silent character. Benigno’s main interest outside of Alicia is silent movies. In the film’s most brilliant sidelight, Benigno shares with Alicia the story of a silent movie he has seen: “The Shrinking Monster,” in which a shrunken man crawls with delight over and into his naked, sleeping mate.
The heart of “Talk to Her,” though, is in its portrayal of human emotion – love, yearning, empathy – and the emotional connections that make life worth living.
Almodovar injects his characters with such sweetness, and his story with such complexity, that “Talk to Her” is one of the most touching examinations of the interior landscape ever to come across the screen. That Almodovar manages to do so primarily through male characters makes the feat doubly unusual and impressive.
[“Talk to Her” is currently playing at the Isis Theatre in Aspen.]
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A summer film series kicks off at Anderson Ranch Arts Center on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. with a screening of “Waste Land,” a 2010 documentary that follows the career of contemporary artist Vik Muniz.