Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Rosario Flores, Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti
In the midst of planning a trip to Spain and having just seen Pina, a splendid 2011 documentary tribute to Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders, I was eager to return to Almodovar’s 2002 Talk to Her. I remembered the film’s opening scenes of Café Muller as an archetypal dance. And in anticipation of our upcoming travel in Spain, I was also sure Pedro Almodovar would stir up excitement with his deft flair for embellishing patriarchal symbolism with spicy feminine images.
If Almodovar had called his film “Talk to Him”, I could’ve imagined I was going to be urged to discover the rewards of expressing my deepest longings to the designated immanent being of mankind – the usual, God in male persona. But, instead, he was urging, Talk to Her? Her? Well, of course, this was going to be a film urging men to talk to women, but then, I found it went bit further. It urges us viewers to wonder about a strange world, an unusual one, the divine one where miracles happen. At the center of Talk to Her is a “coming back to life” story calling us to the mysteries of the feminine.
Talk to Her opens non-verbally in dance, the body expressing more emotion in a gesture than words could conjure. In one of the most famous of Pina Bausch’s dance performances, Café Muller, men dash quickly to remove chairs from women dancing blindly with abandon without seeing where they are going. Men removing obstacles from the beauty of women’s free flight is a metaphor so powerful, it brings tears to the eyes. Two men – strangers – sit next to each other in the audience watching Café Muller. In fact, one does cry. The other looks at him, touched by his tears but saying nothing. They will meet again.
Talk to Her brings these two men together to break a silence that so often covers up feelings and separates people, reinforcing a painful aloneness. Talk, as we all know, is the province of women. Hence, entering the province, men enter the mysteries of the feminine and find what they’re missing – feelings for one another and for the ‘other’, a woman.
The man who cries, Marco, is a freelance writer, a traveler of the world, macho strong in looks and suffering silently from a lost love fifteen years past. He’s smitten with a famous female bullfighter, Lydia, whose husband has left her, leaving her embarrassed in public and vulnerable to the press. He reaches out to her, offering to do a story that will rescue her from hostile publicity. The plot thickens as the two ride a rocky road of sexual attraction that could, perhaps, become something more if they were not both plagued by attachments to their previous relationships. He attempts to overcome his own doubts with declarative statements of love for her but she demurs, saying, “We’ve got to talk”, alluding to unspoken assumptions.
The man seated next to Marco is Benigno, an odd voyeuristic fellow for sure. He is a highly sensitive male nurse who lives alone in the apartment where he grew up with his mother, cared for her until she died. He’s fallen in love with a dancer, Alicia who he’s never met, only watched practicing in a studio across from his apartment window. He slowly begins to act on his fascination, returning a purse she’s dropped on the street, making an appointment with her psychiatrist father and spiriting a comb out of her apartment. And then, going beyond Benigno’s wildest dreams, Alicia is in a car accident and ends up in his almost 24-hour care at the local hospital — his sleeping beauty, the love of his life and a woman for whom he will die. While she lies silent in a coma, he keeps up a flow of talk, indulging himself as if she were an eager participant.
With all the magical allusions synchronicity conjures up, the female matador also meets with an accident that renders her unconscious in the same hospital down the hall from Benigno and the dancer. The two men are thrown together one more time and, as different as they are, this time they become close friends. Benigno, who talks endlessly to Alicia, tries to get Marco to open his heart to Lydia. Marco tries to get Benigno to see the futility of one-sided love. Fantasy driven Benigno and reality bound Marco are like two sides of one coin, forming a strong albeit not well explored emotional bond.
Benigno enters into an ever-expanding world of make-believe with Alicia, developing an arguably closer relationship with this woman in a coma than would ever be likely in his ordinary life. Benigno’s love of Alicia may be pure. No one questions it. He doesn’t seem sexually mature to anyone. His being moved by an unconscious woman’s passivity as if she were alive is never taken as anything more than devoted caretaking. When Alicia is discovered pregnant and Benigno is accused of impregnating the unconscious dancer, he neither confirms nor denies. But the facts (and Almodovar’s suggestive animated imagery) say it’s so.
When Benigno announces his intentions to marry Alicia, saying to Marco, “I want to marry her”, Marco thinks he’s kidding and gets annoyed. Nothing could be more absurd to Marco. “You can’t marry her, she can’t say ‘yes’.” But Marco, who has charged ahead with his own plans for marrying Lydia is also guilty of never having asked her and listened for an answer. In fact, he’s edged out of Lydia’s life by her husband’s return to her bedside in the hospital, finding out from him that they were on the verge of reconciliation when the accident occurred. Neither man in either world considers talking to a woman as meaning that a woman talks back.
Benigno, jailed for his offense, slips further and further into oblivion. Marco, by contrast, does the ‘manly’ thing. He throws himself into work, signing up for farflung travel assignments – until he hears that Benigno is in jail. Marco feels compelled to return and see what he can do for Benigno. Unconcerned about imprisonment, Benigno simply wants to know how Alicia is, when he can see her. Marco discovers the ill-begotten pregnancy ended in a stillbirth for the child but a full recovery for the mother! He’s determined to get Benigno released from jail but he has agreed to silence about Alicia’s condition. Benigno, deprived of information and believing Alicia died in childbirth, commits suicide.
In another one of those great Almodovar synchronous storytelling events that evolve culture as well as character, Marco and the recovered Alicia, meet at yet another performance of Pina Bausch. Marco, a changed man, is openly eager to talk to this woman who looks with open eyes and talks back. Keeping silent has not gone well for him and he has the legacy of his friendship with Benigno still fresh in his mind. He may even wonder whether Benigno talking to Alicia in a coma enlivened her, contributing to her recovery. Since science is still looking for the mind, it’s not so far fetched to believe that talking stimulates a process that leads to an awakening from a coma. I go back to my beginning of seeking the divine ‘Her’ in “Talk to Her”. We may get our fondest longings met talking to “Her”.
When Marco turns around in his seat to talk to Alicia, their talk must go across an empty chair in the row between them, suggestive of a silence not of their own making but with an invisible, miracle-making Benigno present, encouraging them to cross it.