Almodovar's World

Article excerpt


November has been melodrama month at the movies. First Todd Haynes brought us Far From Heaven, which he ought to have called Imitation of Imitation. Now comes Pedro Almodovar with Talk to Her, so we can see the real thing.

When a film is as touching and true as Talk to Her, it deserves to be praised on its own. Nevertheless: I note that only one of these melodramas makes itself bigger than life through generosity, by giving its characters the boldness and color we'd all like to have. The other achieves grandeur by making life small: judging every character in advance, reducing every situation to a slogan--the sort of unexceptionably liberal slogan on which your average Democrat could run, and lose.

Of course, I'd be lying if I said that Haynes alone condescends to his characters. There's a woman in Almodovar's new movie--a television talk-show host--whom the filmmaker demeans three times over. After being treated as a functionary, who exists solely to bring together the real characters, she's made to splutter and thrash, like a frog who's missed the lily pad. And for the third insult, she's given nothing better to croak than this platitude: "Talking about problems is the first step toward overcoming them."

This is serious, in a movie titled Talk to Her. The professional interviewer has cheapened conversation.

That said, all the other characters in Talk to Her are amateurs in their speech--lovers, I mean--and receive the deepest consideration from Almodovar. That's true even for the chatterbox concierge who charms the screen for thirty seconds; even for the prison warden who feels the full gravity of the words he says, however few. As for the major characters:

Marco (Dario Grandinetti) is a wandering writer by trade: an author of travel guides, who walks and talks as if he were himself a slim and stubble-chinned suitcase, somewhat battered by life and holding the bare necessities within. Seen from his point of view, Talk to Her would be about the loss of three loves. The first is a softly beautiful young woman, blond and needy, who made Marco wretched when they were together and makes him wretched now that she's gone. The second love is Lydia (Rosario Flores)--fierce, lean-muscled, strong-featured, Andalusian, a woman who has sliced her way into the ranks of professional bullfighters. When she, too, begins to slip away from Marco, the third love enters: chubby young Benigno (Javier Camara).

A voyager who binds himself to three such different types must be polymorphous in his affections--which makes Marco a good match for Benigno, the sexually amorphous stay-at-home. What would Talk to Her look like from his viewpoint? Instead of being about loss, it might be concerned with the presence of three beloved people: his late mother, for whom he cared throughout his adolescence and who still hovers in his thoughts; a young dancer named Alicia (Leonor Watling), whom he nurses in a clinic where she's been lying in a coma; and Marco, who ventures into Benigno's place of employment when he visits the comatose Lydia. "Talk to her," Benigno advises Marco. He says it with an openness, a lack of affectation, that makes speech itself seem a daily miracle.

Benigno's voice sounds light and lyrical; his gestures are rounded and smooth. "What is your sexual orientation?" Alicia's father wants to know (a question he asks while Benigno is firmly kneading his daughter's left thigh). The answer is the one he wants to hear: "I like men," Benigno tells him, his face meanwhile betraying the slightest hauteur. Does this man understand nothing of life? Benigno's feelings can't be frozen into categories. They take shape as if they were blobs in a lava lamp--a lava lamp, say, like the one that sits at the head of Alicia's bed. Its amniotic colors will eventually fill the screen in close-up, at the moment when candid, loving, endearing Benigno commits his unforgivable crime. …