15/02/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Talk to Her (2002)

Talk to Her (2002)
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.

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28/03/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002)

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002)
Director: Rebecca Miller
Writer: Rebecca Miller
Stars: Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk


“Fate may deal girls a hard hand at birth, endowing them with a sexual allure that will bring out the best and the worst in their fathers, husbands and the odd assortment of boys and men to come across their path. However, Personal Velocity turns fate around, spot lighting the nature of a woman’s nature as a powerful card of her own design not to be underestimated when it’s in play.”

Sexuality determined Mary Lou’s path from the time she was born. She’s the baby in the ‘Blue Jeans’ song that drives men wild. “She can’t help it”; she just turns ’em on. She’s beautiful and powerful, destined to light a man’s fire and rouse his rage because she represents what he can’t have – control. Oh, not just control of her. Not even just control of her body or her feelings. She reminds him that he can’t have control period and, for that, he hates her. Mary Lou’s husband loves and hates her. He’s wild about her and, sometimes, he’s so wild that he hits her. Somehow, he thought if he had her all to himself, he would feel – and stay – on top of the world. But instead, she – and it is her all the way – lets him down. He can fall low down on a simple word from her, reduced to what he is without the illusion of dominance – just a man, not a god nor superman. Personal Velocity captures the moment when he falls, she shatters and life smatters, taking three kids along for the ride. It’s not pretty but the resilience of Mary Lou is awesome and, somehow, she lands on her feet.

For Gretchen, it was different. She was beautiful from birth but it was the brains inside her beauty that drove her powerful, famous lawyer father wild. He didn’t lift a hand against her; he simply withheld the loving hand of approval. She grew up shining back his light. Her frail mother, loveliness incarnate, faded as time passed and died at an early age after her husband humiliated her with an affair with his young legal associate. Oedipus on his head; the father kills the mother to have the daughter. The daughter picks a man far from her father’s kingdom, hoping to elude her mother’s fate. But, alas, Gretchen leapfrogs through corporate America, becoming so successful that an unexpected lust strikes her heart and lights up other men – yep, you guessed it, men just like dear old dad. As sweet and accepting as her husband is, she can no longer see herself with him forever. His sweetness reeks of loss, too close to the failure of her mother to keep her father’s devotion and too close to the fear of following her mother’s footsteps to an early death. Gretchen surprises herself and her father with her success, upsetting her rebellion against him and sending her on a road less traveled pleasing herself.

Paula is a runaway girl, having left a mom who married yet another abusive man once she divorced Paula’s abusive father. On the street, homeless in New York City, she is befriended by a large Haitian man who gives her one of those pears from the Partridge tree, loving her beyond her body to her soul. She radiates to his warmth, curling white inside black until she’s pregnant. Then she bolts; her odyssey toward emotional freedom deepens. She is drawn completely to the light, captivated by easy conversation with a blonde Norwegian who picks her up in a bar. Laughing, walking and talking like teens on an early Bob Dylan album cover, the Norwegian gets hit by a car that whips only him off the sidewalk to his death. Paula bolts again, driving all night to see a mother who doesn’t exist. She needs a sign, something to tell her what direction she’s going. As with the other young women, parental guidance is nowhere in sight while fate deals cards too fast.

The bizarre accident of the Norwegian’s death has played in the background on tv and radio in the previous two episodes with Mary Lou and Gretchen, obviously suggesting each young woman walks close to death and, not so obviously, suggesting the ante of the game is raised as she makes choices about the man she walks with. Paula must decipher her true path by an occurrence of random events that change in size and shape as quickly as if she were Alice in Wonderland. All three women feel lost, racing along a dangerous road of conflicting, switch back emotions. Their sexuality acts as a beacon of light in the dark, leading them toward an unknown destination being made up as they go along. When Paula calls her Haitian lover to ask for help, she breaks through the isolation each young woman suffers. When she gets an answer, one from him and one from deep inside her psyche where inner and outer worlds merge, she skips across the road to the other side.

The unique sexual nature of each one of the women featured in Personal Velocity drives her story. Mary Lou who is not terribly bright nor very clever has little but her exceptional sexuality going for her. And while she may have enjoyed having the upper hand with boys during high school, she falls prey to a husband who beats her to keep her down. When she can’t stand seeing her three children cowering in pain any longer, she gathers up the last shreds of her once reliable spirit and leaves him. Gretchen, by contrast, has brains, beauty and class going for her. But she tucks her sexuality under a cloak of poor self-esteem, marrying a man as far down the ladder from her powerful father as she can. When success as a book editor catapults her to fame and fortune, she finds herself highly sexualized and struggling with fidelity. She loves the sweet man she married but she’s drawn like a moth to flame to the fascinating men that were previously out of her league. Gretchen — her father’s daughter after all. And then there’s Paula, the drop out beauty with the soul of a saint who is rescued off the streets of New York by a black Haitian. They live happily ever after in poor but secure circumstances until Paula discovers she’s pregnant. Somehow, this breaks the spell and she bar hops, meeting a fun white guy but barely escaping being hit by a car that jumps the sidewalk, kills the guy but miraculously leaves her standing, intact. Desperate, she heads for a home that doesn’t exist. Along the way she picks up a boy hitchhiker who has been severely beaten, possibly tortured. In her attempt to rescue this boy that has come as accidentally across her path as the Haitian who is her lover and the Norwegian taken from her side, she discovers a secret that puts a smile on her face.

To put the secret in big terms, Paula discovers the mysterious core of female sexuality — the energizing source of regeneration that lies within a woman’s body that may, sometimes, have to do with having babies but always has to do with giving birth to herself. The sexual awakening for all three women stories is unmistakably complex, leaving the viewer of Personal Velocitysitting in wonder before the beauty of a woman.

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