Dead Alive

Like most five-year-olds, my daughter enjoys an unnervingly close relationship with the characters in her storybooks. “I'm her!” my raven-haired tomboy says jubilantly, jabbing her finger at a blond Barbie in fuck-me heels. Or, “I'm 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 Almodvar knows how to entice the open-hearted five-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. Almodvar is our most scabrous humanitarian. He's 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 Almodvar movie without fear of precipitating a code blue.

Lately it's precisely your mother, or the mother within you, that Almodvar wants to invite out to play. This may sound gruesome, but rest assured the director is not growing soft—he's 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, Almodvar 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, as well as on the negligible Kika, was that Almodvar had gotten himself dangerously stuck in a groove of mannerism. Either the director agrees, or he has 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—Almodvar 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,” there's no question but that a more contemplative mode becomes him.

True, Almodvar's 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, couldn't be less lifelike. Talk to Her is as melodramatic—and, sporadically, as funny—as any Almodvar 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 (Daro Grandinetti), a hunky Argentine journalist with an impassive Pharaoh's face, and Benigno, a soft and curvy young male nurse (played by the Spanish soap star Javier Cmara, whose ecstatic introduction of Talk to Her at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival suggested a sweet naivet 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 Bausch's Caf Mller, a portrait of female pain. A tear rolls down Marco's cheek; Benigno casts an approving sideways glance at him. If you know your Almodvar, 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 who has 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 he'd 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 Almodvar 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 doesn't know how to communicate with Lydia, and he's certain she can't hear him anyway. Cheerful, chubby Benigno continues to care for Alicia physically and talk her through the many art events he has been diligently attending in the four years he has 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 Almodvar—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 Alicia's father, a psychiatrist, suggests that Benigno's 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.”

Benigno's 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 Almodvar) in which a man, shrunk to Tom Thumb proportions by taking his scientist lover's diet medicine, clambers over her gigantic nude body and slips into her vagina, never to emerge. There's as much sexual terror as adoration of the female form here, and as always, Almodvar 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 movie's many flashbacks, a wistful number by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso undoes Marco to the point where he's 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 Almodvar's beloved hysterics. “I don't know much about bullfighting,” Marco tells her, “but I know desperate women.”

Marco and Lydia's 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 don't know many women who wouldn't 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, Almodvar has his own way of fusing the two men into one. Tragedies pile up, but by the end of Talk to Her, there isn't a soul you don't care for or want to see taken care of, and Almodvar 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 art's power to heal the pain of living.

Talk to Her was written and directed by Pedro Almodvar; produced by Agustin Almodvar; and stars Daro Grandinetti and Javier Cmara. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

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