Talk to Her is part of MUBI’s current streaming programme of Pedro Almodóvar films. I assumed I’d seen it and I remembered that several friends and colleagues rated it highly. It also won its writer-director a writing Oscar. But when I started to watch the film, I could remember nothing about the narrative. I think it must be one of those famous films that you know about without seeing properly. It may be that the casting fooled me – none of the leads are Almodóvar regulars though Darío Grandinetti as Marco later appeared in Julieta (2016) and Javier Cámara as Benigno in I’m So Excited (Spain 2013). On the other hand, several of the secondary roles are taken by familiar faces. Talk to Her is a different kind of Almodóvar melodrama. In some ways a quieter and more restrained narrative it also has a striking score by Alberto Iglesias, an extraordinary fantasy sequence and the usual exquisite art design of the more familiar melodramas by Almodóvar’s team. The subject matter is potentially ‘disturbing’ and perhaps the impact of the film comes from its delicate treatment, almost like an anti-melodrama. For many film scholars and critics the film represents a peak of creativity.
The film is written as a series of scenes over several years that are introduced by on-screen titles. Some of the set-ups are recognisable from earlier and later films by Almodóvar. Two men, Marco and Benigno, sit next to each other at a dance theatre performance of Café Müller by Pina Bausch, though they don’t yet know each other. Benigno lives in an apartment that offers a view down into a dance studio where he sees a young woman, Alicia (Leonor Watling) being coached by an older woman, Katerina (Geraldine Chaplin). Marco is a writer who one day finds himself watching a female bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores). He decides to write a profile of her for a magazine and she will eventually become his girlfriend. Some time later the two men meet in an unusual situation in which the two women they have been watching are both in a coma after separate serious accidents (Lydia is gored by a bull). The men begin to get to know each other. Benigno is an unusual young man who has trained as both a nurse and as a beautician. He has managed to become the main carer for Alicia in a small hospital facility known as ‘El Bosque’. There are other (female) members of Alicia’s care team but Benigno spends most days and nights with her, maintaining her body in excellent condition and, of course, talking to her. Marco is also unusual as a highly sensitive man who Benigno remembers from the theatre performance because Marco cried in response to the emotion on stage. The two men form a strong bond that becomes important for each of them. Benigno allows rumours about his sexuality to circulate but he tells the other workers that he isn’t gay.
I won’t spoil any more of the plot if you haven’t yet seen the film. It is a highly complex and sometimes surprising narrative with an emotional climax. As an Almodóvar film it is consistent with his adoration of beautiful women and his interest in male relationships. The script is indeed remarkable. When the film was released in the UK in the summer of 2002, Sight & Sound invited two well known Spanish film scholars to write about it. Paul Julian Smith wrote a feature for the July 2002 issue and José Arroyo reviewed the film for the September issue. These two writers are aware of the reception of the film in Spain and they are able to spot all the numerous cultural references. Almodóvar is the cover star of the July issue and tagged ‘putting the ‘A’ in art film’. Smith’s piece is given the heading ‘Only Connect’ and the kicker is a suggestion that the film is a change of direction for Almodóvar. With the advantage of a nearly twenty years retrospective view, how should we view the idea of a change of direction now? Looking over the seven features completed since Talk to Her, it seems to me that they represent a mix of stories, genres and ‘personal’/autobiographical interest by the director. What has changed is the nature of art cinema and the status of a filmmaker like Almodóvar both in Spain and Hispanic cinemas and in global cinema more generally.
Smith describes the reception that Talk to Her received in Spain and the promotion of the film by Almodóvar himself – something that he has become increasingly skilled in organising and presenting. Like many writer-directors, Almodóvar tells us things about himself and why he has included scenes in his films etc. I’m always a little wary of these comments as his promotions of his work are performances in themselves and possibly just as fictional. His comments are useful guides or ‘ways in’ to his films but I’d rather rely on the listings of cultural references in his films by scholars and what I can determine by my own and other more informed readings that are available. In this case there are a number of interesting issues. The first is about the gender discourse in the film and whether its focus is the male relationship between Benigno and Marco or the story of the women – both of which in Almodóvar’s films are informed by his own sexual history and by the women who have inspired him. As Smith argues, there is an initial ambiguity about Benigno’s sexuality. Smith also comments on the way in which Lydia is presented during her ‘robing’ as a bullfighter, with an almost fetishistic focus on the constraints the tight costume creates across her breasts and thighs. Arroyo suggests that the narrative presents Benigno as “his mother’s daughter” and Lydia as “her father’s son”. Sexual ambiguity pervades the narrative.
The second issue for Almodóvar watchers is the inspirational source for his aesthetics in the film. Unlike the maternal melodrama, fuelled by the director’s affection for All About Eve (1950) which informs All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her draws upon Rossellini and Antonioni (according to Almodóvar himself) to enable “the intensity of emotion with transparency of style”. I’m quoting Paul Julian Smith’s reading of Almodóvar’s statements here. Smith refers to the ‘classic neo-realism’ of Rome, Open City (1945) and adds the “hip Mexican urbanism of Amores perros (2000)”. I haven’t seen the latter film by Alejandro González Iñárritu so I can’t comment but the Rossellini reference makes sense. Smith also mentions Almodóvar’s reference to Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (1999) which was adapted as a film in 2002. I saw the film but I don’t remember it well enough to make the connection, apart from the narrative shifts between the stories of different characters during different time periods.
For Smith the cumulative effect of the above and a range of other elements of the film is to create a distinctly arthouse aesthetic. He goes as far as suggesting that the appearance of Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Alicia’s dance tutor is a clear sign to Spanish audiences that Almodóvar is “aiming for the outer reaches of the art movie”. I’m not sure that stands up or the claim that the first few minutes of the film (the dance-theatre sequence) is alienating as an opening. However the cultural references and what Smith calls an “aesthetic patterning” do add up to a rich and compelling narrative. I think I prefer José Arroyo’s conclusion that Almodóvar manages to present a complex story as “simply told”, presenting “a range of feeling at once precise and endlessly evocative”. The more I think about the reception of this film (and its promotion by Almodóvar), the more I am reminded by the similar reception of Julieta in 2016.
The one aspect of the film I haven’t discussed is the most controversial aspect of the story – and that is something I think viewers should come across without any previous knowledge. What I will point out is that Almodóvar presents the whole question through a fantasy dream sequence and that this sequence, several minutes long, is matched by other ‘performances’ by the dance-theatre troupe and by musical sequences, one staged as part of the narrative by the Brazilian singer and musical legend Caetano Veloso. Talk to Her is a joy and I don’t understand how or why I didn’t appreciate it first time around.