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Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.

For a director whose films usually center on preternaturally vibrant women (and the transgendered men who aspire to be them) Talk to Her, with its primary focus on two male figures, seems like a strange proposition. Even more curiously, it imprisons its most physical female personalities – the (nearly) fearless bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) and the dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling) – in comas for the majority of the movie. Yet despite a story hinging on the lives of two men, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her is still a movie about women, using those men’s handling of their enfeebled partners as a different prism through which to view them.

A key scene occurs about halfway through the film, when Benigno (Javier Cámara), the male nurse who cares for the vegetating Alicia, describes a silent film he has just seen. In that movie, a rapidly shrinking man gives in to his condition by crawling inside his lover’s vagina, where he “stays forever.” This scenario, boldly presented by Almodóvar in mock-period style, says a lot about the currents flowing beneath the central plot. It hints at the unreachable goddess status of these two sleeping women, whose closed-off state symbolizes their men’s inability to engage them on an equal level. For Benigno, it hints at a pattern of subconscious fetal desires, further elaborated by his years of caring for his ailing mother, while also foreshadowing more menacing needs.

In the majority of cinema, masculine characters are the main actors, striving agents of force whose power pushes women to the background. In Almodóvar’s movies the equation is reversed: men are invariably the weaker figures, not possessing the same reserves of inner strength, unable to decode the manifold mysteries of womanhood. Yet it’s a further mark of his skill that this characterization doesn’t work strictly on gender-specific lines. As a constant use of drag queens and transvestites attests, he believes firmly in the fluidity of gender, as well as the ability of certain attributes to flow between boundaries.

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It’s the kind of thing that allows Benigno, who exhibits so many female traits, to retain masculine desires of possession and control. It also gives us a character like Lydia, the film’s other sleeping beauty, who fights bulls and intimidates men but still fears snakes, celebrating feminine ingenuity while putting it on par with masculine strength.

The bulk of Talk to Her’s story concerns the way Benigno and Lydia’s boyfriend Marco (Dario Grandinetti) deal with their comatose loves. Benigno’s attentiveness, a fawning devotion that seems as much for his own benefit as for Alicia’s, is contrasted with Marco’s detached discomfort. This situation is later replicated when Marco visits Benigno, who has been imprisoned for raping Alicia. In his cell, Benigno reads through the travel guides Marco has given him, latching on to the Cuban guide in particular, with its stories of proud people hemmed in by their country’s policies. Like those Cubans, Benigno’s imprisonment has been dictated by forces beyond his control. He’s punished for his act, but the film chooses to present him as a victim rather than entirely condemning him for it.

This kind of central indistinctness represents a progression for the director, whose earlier films mainly hinge on rejiggered soap opera plots and culminate in washes of good feelings. Talk to Her, while still mining similar source-material veins, is comparatively dark and depressing, taking as many cues from Hitchcock’s baroque love stories as Douglas Sirk’s candy-colored melodramas. It’s a more ordered film and also a more complicated one. Dark problems, which were softened by farce in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or defeated by the bonds of ersatz sisterhood in the later All About My Mother stand unresolved at the end, a depressing finish that also feels more true to life.

It is this comfort with ambiguity that makes Talk to Her one of Almodóvar’s most brilliant films. The difficulty in separating the thematic thread, in which an obsessed fanatic rapes and impregnates a comatose woman, from the metaphorical one, where his care and eventual sacrifice seem to indirectly revive her, leaves a lot to analyze. But it’s the careful handling of the film’s surface elements, its delicate care in depicting the surfaces of the body and the beautiful framing of the hospital shots, that helps make Talk to Her so insistently memorable. Like he’s done many times before and after, Almodóvar tempers a trashy telenovela plotline into a contemplative piece of art.

by Jesse Cataldo

Other Almodóvar Oeuvre Features

All About My Mother

Live Flesh

The Flower of My Secret

Kika

High Heels

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

Law of Desire

Matador

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Dark Habits

Labyrinth of Passion

Pepi, Luci, Bom
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