Almodóvar's Ambivalence: TALK TO HER

November 29, 2017 - 11:37am
Posted by Matt St John


These notes on Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Talk to Her will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Almodóvar's work on Sunday, December 3 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium.

By Erica Moulton

Talk to Her is Pedro Almodóvar’s first film of the new millennium, and it finds him both reflecting upon his legacy and relying on some of his favorite filmmaking strategies, most notably his use of metadramatic elements, while also turning his eye forward for a contemporary reappraisal of the most sustained theme in his body of work: obsession. The result of this revisitation is a film that is rapturously beautiful and deeply unsettling in equal measure. It has been fifteen years since the film was released, and yet, recent headlines in Hollywood only make this film more disturbing and relevant as it concerns two men and their attractions to women who are in comas.

Almodóvar introduces the main characters, Marco and Benigno, sitting side by side at a performance of Pina Bausch’s modern dance “Cafe Müller,” in which a female performer rushes across a stage strewn with chairs, relying on the male performer to move them out of her way. The two main female characters in this film unknowingly find themselves dependent on men for their physical well-being, a theme that Almodóvar develops in both strands of his story, one dealing with the relationship between the journalist Marco and a female matador named Lydia, and the other the story of male nurse Benigno’s obsession with a comatose ballerina named Alicia. We see the women before their accidents, both involved in physically demanding careers, and then for the remainder of the film, their bodies are limp, bending to the will of their male caretakers.

In giving us two couples, Almodóvar invites us to draw comparisons between the men and their situations. Marco seems to be the more stable force in the film, as he has an established relationship with Lydia before her coma, and Almodóvar spends more time depicting their interactions at the beginning of the film. Benigno is the more leery presence in the film, and his connection to Alicia before her coma borders on stalker behavior. He leaps at the opportunity to become her nurse, and even lies to Alicia’s father about being gay to assuage his suspicions about the devotion Benigno shows for his patient. Despite the generally creepy tone struck by Almodóvar, critics at the time of the film’s release found the men’s treatment of their somnolent partners to be both unsettling and commendable. Roger Ebert wrote that “both men seem happy to devote their lives to women who do not, and may never, know of their devotion. There is something selfless in their dedication, but something selfish, too, because what they are doing is for their own benefit; the patients would be equally unaware of treatment whether it was kind or careless.” Characterizing devotion in a relationship that is so entirely one-sided as selfless is potentially dangerous, and yet, I think Ebert’s reaction is wholly in line with the message that Almodóvar sought to convey with Talk to Her. Perhaps that is why the film is all the more troubling now, when the harm of men exerting control over female bodies is such a painfully visible part of our national dialog.

Almodóvar engages every facet of his storytelling apparatus to present the darker undertones of Benigno’s character with ambivalence, most notably in the sequence where he shows a film-within-a-film called “The Shrinking Man.” The sequence is notable for its comically shocking and fantastical presentation of the female anatomy, but the director’s comments about this metadramatic interlude prove that even in his most outrageous moments, he is making shrewd narrative decisions. In an interview with The Guardian, Almodóvar alludes to the function of “The Shrinking Man,” saying that “with this silent film, I wanted to hide what was going on in the clinic [where Benigno bathes Alicia]. I wanted to cover it up in the best cinematic way and in an entertaining manner. Benigno had become like a friend of mine, although I wrote the character. Sometimes, you don't want to see things that your friends do. I didn't want to show Benigno doing what he did in the clinic. I also did not want to show the audience that image. So I put the silent movie in there to hide what was happening.”

Almodóvar’s comments are revealing. His desire to be ambivalent towards a character that may or may not be committing horrific acts is problematic, yet it’s perhaps an understandable impulse. It is easier not to see. But is it right to ignore the truth when it is in front of you?

I don’t know how well this film will continue to age, but Almodóvar’s commitment to the beauty and power of cinema makes his films hard to ignore, even as they tap into the most uncomfortable aspects of life. His films are never easy, nor should they be.