All about my girlfriend in a coma
Pedro Almodovar shows the same marks of genius as in his zanier films but continues to delve deeper into the human drama in "Talk to Her," about a man dealing with the loss of his lover.
By FRANK VIGORITO
(Originally reviewed at the 2002 New York International Film Festival at Lincoln Center.)
The undisputed voice of Spanish cinema for almost more than twenty years, writer and director Pedro Almodovar's latest film "Hable con Ella" ("Talk to Her") is as much a must see as "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" or "All About My Mother," not only because of the tender, extraordinary human drama it recounts, but also because it finds the master challenging himself, creating a new cinematic vocabulary that touches the viewer as powerfully as all the blood, guts and sex that has come before.
The first scene of the film, a modern dance performance, is telling. In dance, it is quickly apparent, Almodovar has learned to read, and by filming dance express, the hideous and blissful messages that the human body communicates in movement. An older woman, seemingly blind, agonizes and stumbles around a stage filled with wooden chairs. A young man struggles to move the chairs out of harm's way as she stumbles across the floor and falls, quite literally, into despair. Upstage, a younger woman dressed similarly echoes her movements in smaller, more subtle action.|
The film is infused with these scenes of human motion the lethal dance of a matador and a bull, the hands of a nurse sensuously massaging the body of a beautiful young woman, the minuet of lava-lamp globules breaking apart and ricocheting in a pool of oil. Watching the drama unfold on stage are Marco and Benigno, two men who will later careen and tumble emotionally across the movie screen. That these men sit only inches apart, but do not acknowledge each other, is as much a dance of characters for Almodovar as the costumed ballerinas on stage.
The majority of the film takes place in The Forest, an aptly named clinic for patients who suffer from comas, trapped in a state of unreality that recalls the dreamy nighttime woods of Shakespeare. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and Benigno (Javier Camara) are waiting at the clinic for their loved ones to return to the sun-drenched world of the living. Marco is the most newly arrived, his toreador girlfriend having been gored in the ring their history together has been brief and he's uncomfortable amidst former lovers and hysterical relatives.
He finds refuge with Benigno, a nurse at The Forest whose only charge is a beautiful young dancer whom he had developed a crush on before her accident. While able to converse freely with one another, the men are plagued by what they never said to their respective loves. Benigno had innocently stalked Alicia (Leonor Watling) over the course of two weeks, only to find her one day as his new patient at the clinic. Marco, a writer, spent too much of his brief time with Lydia (Rosario Flores) talking, as writers do, and not listening.
|Marco's frustrated response, "She's brain dead," only elicits the glib, yet nuanced Almodovarism, "Yes, but women are complicated."|| |
The story follows the suffering of these two unrequited lovers using a series of flashbacks and flashforwards to tell each of their individual stories. The deliberately time-stamped sections are a new narrative tool for Almodovar, who typically has left things up to his audience to figure out. The sequencing gives the impression of jumping forward only to cut back twice not in a disjointed, Tarantino-esque fashion, but in a manner that allows each story and relationship to develop, building slowly and fleshing out the complexities of the men who remember.
Benigno's constant care and affection for Alicia is a bit eccentric, but his attitude is what one would hope for from a good nurse he truly believes that Alicia, and perhaps all the patients, will one day miraculously awaken. As a veteran of the coma ward, he advises Marco to talk to his girlfriend in a coma, "talk to her." Marco's frustrated response, "She's brain dead," only elicits the glib, yet nuanced Almodovarism, "Yes, but women are complicated." Benigno's naive hope is ultimately his downfall, but in a turn, it is also Marco's salvation when the two forge an unlikely, lasting friendship of the type that can only emerge from communal suffering. When Marco finally does take Benigno's piece of advice in the final scene of the film, there's a calm, a peace that he seems to find; to whom he does the talking is Almodovar's best-kept secret.
Since 1997's "Live Flesh," Almodovar's films have been maturing thematically as well as narratively. After exploring the visceral and abject in films like "Matador," "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" and "Kika," he's shown more interest lately in the subtlety of the human condition: growth and enlightenment, often born of pain. He no longer needs to color the screen with blood, guts and violent sex. Where once there might have been a disturbing scene of sexual aggression (think "Kika"), there are now intimations of action offscreen, or equally effective, high camp.
The two Almodovars come into stark relief by way of an original silent film that punctuates the narrative of "Talk to Her." The exquisitely executed short "The Shrinking Lover" (think Bela Lugosi's "Dracula") is a technical gem, but more importantly it serves as a comic venue where Almodovar can bare his teeth. The bratty, vulgar sex-fiend Almodovar returns and lets fly with a scene of intercourse only he is capable of delivering: a shrunken man, a six-foot tall vagina, and an all-consuming lust. It's a good laugh for the audience, but the consequences for the intended audience of this film within the film, Benigno, are ironically quite confusing and tragic.
"Talk to Her" is full of surprises like these for Almodovar veterans and newcomers not only in its slowly unfolding plot, but also in the new and inventive way Almodovar has found to tell his story. With a filmography that reads like "El Quijote," it's no wonder Almodovar has begun to interest himself in not only what story to tell, but how to tell it. Given a tough assignment to follow the success of "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her" proves once again that Almodovar is at the top of his game and truly one of the world's best, most original filmmakers.
|NOVEMBER 22, 2002|
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