Like most 5-year-olds, my daughter enjoys an unnervingly close relationship with the characters in her storybooks. Im her! my raven-haired tomboy says jubilantly, jabbing her finger at a blond Barbie in fuck-me heels. Or, Im him! when she encounters an ogre with a lot of clout, or a handsome prince who in a previous life was a bullfrog. More than any contemporary director I can think of, Pedro Almodovar knows how to entice the open-hearted 5-year-old in all of us, the one who, given a good enough story, is willing to identify with just about anyone, pre-op transsexuals included. Almodovar is our most scabrous humanitarian. Hes a generous spirit, entirely free of malice, and even when his movies were filled with pimps, hookers, crooks, transvestites, nuns with AIDS and other representatives of the lowlife he loves so dearly, you could take your mother to see an Almodovar movie without fear of precipitating a code blue.
Lately its precisely your mother, or the mother within you, that Almodovar wants to invite out to play. This may sound gruesome, but rest assured the director is not growing soft -- hes growing up. Beginning with his 1995 film The Flower of My Secret through All About My Mother (1999) and up to his new film, Talk to Her, Almodovar has been pulling back from the antic, baroque rebellion -- against Franco, against who knows what in his own history -- of his early work. And in the nick of time: The critical consensus on his enjoyable Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and High Heels, and on the negligible Kika, was that Almodovar had got himself dangerously stuck in a groove of mannerism. Either the director agrees, or hes moved on of his own accord. In Talk to Her, a quietly intense love story involving two couples -- and arguably his finest film to date -- Almodovar all but abandons camp, and, though one hesitates to use the word mature about a director still capable of having a character joyfully announce, apropos of nothing, that she just took an elephant-size dump, theres no question but that a more contemplative mode becomes him.
True, Almodovars genre of choice remains the soap opera, a form peculiarly suited to the tension between realism and melodrama in his work. With multiple plots endlessly unspooling without resolution, soap operas play like life, yet their exotic settings and self-consciously amped emotions, their ambiance of unremitting crisis, couldnt be less lifelike. Talk to Her is as melodramatic -- and, sporadically, as funny -- as any Almodovar comedy, but its mood is one of muted, aching loneliness, while the color scheme leans less to hot reds and magentas than to rich, elegant shades of ochre.
And, for a change, the lovelorn are two men, neither one of them in drag. Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a hunky Argentine journalist with an impassive Pharaohs face, and Benigno, a soft and curvy young male nurse (played by the Spanish soap star Javier Camara, whose ecstatic introduction of Talk to Her at this years Toronto Film Festival suggested a sweet naivete not unlike that of his character), have never met when we first see them sitting side by side at a performance of German choreographer Pina Bauschs Cafe Muller, a portrait of female pain. A tear rolls down Marcos cheek; Benigno casts an approving sideways glance at him. If you know your Almodovar, you might expect the mood to be suddenly undercut by a broad laugh or a burst of hysteria. Instead the elegiac tone is sustained as the scene shifts to an upscale medical clinic, where Benigno is rubbing down the prone body of Alicia (Leonor Watling), a pretty young ballet dancer whos been in a coma since a car accident four years earlier. In due course, the adjoining room is occupied by Marco, who watches over the similarly lifeless body of Lydia (Rosario Flores), a recently gored bullfighter hed romanced after seeing her storm off the set of a television talk show. The clinic functions as a place outside time and space from which the action fans out, filling in the events that led these four unfortunates to end up within its walls. Though Almodovar is clearly entertained by the ludicrousness of his own premise -- taken out on a balcony for air, the two beautiful women in their wheelchairs face one another like mannequins -- he stays with its underlying sadness.
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Doctors have told both Marco and Benigno that their respective women are brain dead and will never recover, and each responds according to his nature. In his grief, Marco is silent and bewildered -- he doesnt know how to communicate with Lydia, and hes certain she cant hear him anyway. Cheerful, chubby Benigno continues to care for Alicia physically and talk her through the many art events hes been diligently attending in the four years hes cared for her. He understands, as Marco does not, the consoling power of storytelling, and he has faith. Aptly named, Benigno -- a virgin, possibly gay, possibly a variant on the young Almodovar -- is a kind of saint, and like many saints he has no sense of proportion, is clueless about the forces that have shaped him, and by any conventional yardstick is more than a little nuts. When Alicias father, a psychiatrist, suggests that Benignos youth, which he spent ministering to the physical needs of his neurotic mother in exactly the same way he ministers to Alicia, was rather unusual, Benigno brightly assures the shrink that his mother was just a bit lazy.
Benignos love for Alicia, and his blossoming love for Marco, will lead to desperate acts all round. In the end, though, Marco has much to learn from his friend, who understands women, knows how to talk to them and make them feel good -- though his love may be complicated by fear. One of the performances Benigno relates to Alicia is The Shrinking Lover, a seven-minute black-and-white silent-movie sequence (by Almodovar) in which a man, shrunk to Tom Thumb proportions by taking his scientist lovers diet medicine, clambers over her gigantic nude body and slips into her vagina, never to emerge. Theres as much sexual terror as adoration of the female form here, and, as always, Almodovar loves nothing better than to muddy the waters of gender and sexuality. Unlike Benigno, Marco is the strong, silent type -- albeit with a habit of shedding tears over art. In one of the movies many flashbacks, a wistful number by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso undoes Marco to the point where hes willing to open up to Lydia about his previous love life. Lydia, too, with her beaky nose, horsy features and pencil-slim hips -- at once mannish and feminine -- belongs squarely in the pantheon of Almodovars beloved hysterics. I dont know much about bullfighting, Marco tells her, but I know desperate women.
Marco and Lydias heterosexual relationship is hot, neurotic, hard-edged, filled with betrayal and mistrust, while Benigno and the pliant Alicia make an ethereal, tension-free couple. The less than covert idea at the heart of Talk to Her -- that only gay men know how to love women -- might be dismissed as narcissistic special pleading. Yet I dont know many women who wouldnt appreciate a Benigno in their lives. Marco and Benigno represent the poles of both homosexual and female fantasy, and as the movie draws to its close, Almodovar has his own way of fusing the two men into one. Tragedies pile up, but by the end of Talk to Her there isnt a soul you dont care for or want to see taken care of, and Almodovar is inclined to oblige. The movie bows out as it began, with a Pina Bausch ballet, only now the dance of suffering gives way to a more hopeful number, sexy and sublimely conciliatory -- another example of arts power to heal the pain of living.
TALK TO HER | Written and directed by PEDRO ALMODVAR Produced by AGUSTIN ALMODVAR | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Laemmles Royal