Pedro Almódovar’s films are usually a colorful pleasure to watch. This one is certainly entertaining enough but also has dark and complex ingredients that can easily be interpreted into something very negative. Almódovar has always portrayed strong women, but in this film they are completely pacified, best appreciated when they’re in a coma, at least by some of the characters. It’s the most interesting film I’ve seen by the director, one that has the potential to unsettle audiences.
We are introduced to four people who have a clinic in common. Alicia (Leonor Watling) was a dance student who fell into a coma after an accident and is now cared for by Benigno Martín (Javier Cámara), a nurse who’s fallen in love with her; as the story progresses we learn that Benigno had become fascinated by her even before the accident and he shares these sentiments with her teacher (Geraldine Chaplin). Alicia’s father is concerned about the intimate way Benigno is nursing his daughter, but relaxes when he’s told that Benigno is gay. Lydia (Rosario Flores) is another patient at the clinic; a matador, she was goaded by a bull and fell into a coma.
Her boyfriend, Marco Zuluaga (Darío Grandinetti), had not been dating her for long and when her ex-husband tells him that they reunited shortly before the accident, Marco leaves them alone. He does however make friends with Benigno and is one day shocked to learn just how far the nurse has taken his relationship with Alicia…
One obvious theme here is unrequited love; there is a passion in the way Benigno and the dance teacher care for Alicia even though her brain is shut off and incapable of even recognizing their presence. The friendly relationship between Marco and Benigno turns into something deeper, a kind of love that seems stronger than the feelings Marco harbors for Lydia… but he also knows that nothing can compete with Benigno’s feelings for Alicia. Still, the nurse is an ambiguous person and one can’t help but feel that perhaps Benigno prefers Alice the way she is; whenever he’s close to her now he’s completely in charge, able to talk to her and treat her exactly as he wishes. Marco isn’t like that; the final scenes show him interacting with Alicia who’s now out of her coma and hint at a possible romance, to the dismay of Chaplin’s teacher who is now also unable to control her.
The story has a touch of desperation and darkness, but it also celebrates the comfort and security a woman can provide, not least in a fascinating silent-film sequence about a rapidly shrinking man. It is meant to look like it was shot in the 1920s and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe almost gets away with it. The actors perform accordingly and the sequence mirrors a desire to return to the womb, a fantasy that should have psychologists nod knowingly. Some may see a contradiction in the way Almódovar both worships and pacifies women, but it is possible to see a connection. The way the comatose patients are exposed and cared for is gentle and Benigno is indeed punished for crossing the line.
An excellent performance by Cámara in particular anchors the film, but Flores is also worth a look as Lydia who’s breaking gender barriers as a female matador.
Most of the story takes place at the clinic, but Almódovar uses flashbacks as a way of connecting audiences emotionally with Alicia and Lydia (as well as their initial relationships with Benigno and Marco). The film is unsettling because it shows the power of love at its dirtiest and most unseemly… and yet the director knows that there is beauty in it as well.
Talk to Her 2002-Spain. 112 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Agustín Almódovar, Michel Ruben. Written and directed by Pedro Almódovar. Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe. Cast: Javier Cámara (Benigno Martín), Darío Grandinetti (Marco Zuluaga), Leonor Watling (Alicia), Rosario Flores, Geraldine Chaplin, Mariola Fuentes.
Trivia: Original title: Hable con ella. The character of Benigno was allegedly based on Roberto Benigni.
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Foreign Language Film, Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. European Film Awards: Best Film, Director, Screenwriter.
Last word: “With this silent film, I wanted to hide what was going on in the clinic. I wanted to cover it up in the best cinematic way and in an entertaining manner. Benigno had become like a friend of mine, although I wrote the character. Sometimes, you don’t want to see things that your friends do. I didn’t want to show Benigno doing what he did in the clinic. I also did not want to show the audience that image. So I put the silent movie in there to hide what was happening. But it is, of course, full of meaning. I anticipate what is going to happen later in the film. I also wanted to express the strength of cinema to hide reality, while being entertaining. Cinema can fill in the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness.” (Almódovar, The Guardian)