Those who only know Pedro Almodóvar from the acceptance speech he gave at the Academy Awards ceremony three years ago ' All About My Mother had just won for Best Foreign Film ' may be surprised by his latest movie, a male weepie called Talk to Her. During the '80s and '90s, Spain's Almodóvar built a reputation as the living embodiment of La Movida, the period of cultural fun and games following the death of Generalissimo Franco. His movies weren't just a breath of fresh air, they were a hit of nitrous oxide, combining farce with melodrama, laughter with tears. But by the time Almodóvar took the stage on Oscar night, rambling hilariously in an all but impenetrable accent, his movies had changed, matured ' less laughter, more discreet tears. And Talk to Her may mark the full flowering of this stage in Almodóvar's career. The enfant terrible has transformed himself into un maitre, a master.
How to describe the movie's plot? Well, meet Benigno (Javier Camara), a gentle male nurse who's been taking care of a dancer named Alicia (Leonor Watling) for several years. Alicia's in a coma, the result of a car accident, but Benigno treats her as if she's all there, endlessly talking to her while washing her hair, clipping her nails, massaging her thighs. Now, meet Marco (DarÃo Grandinetti), a writer who was getting a relationship with a female bullfighter named Lydia (Rosario Flores) off the ground when she, too, went into a coma, the result of being gored by a bull. Marco, a strong and silent type, doesn't know how to handle it all, so Benigno, a chubby shlub who's often mistaken for being gay, will have to show him the ropes. "Talk to her," Benigno tells Marco, and we realize that the phrase stands in for all the ways a man should be attentive to a woman. He should care for her by taking care of her.
Sounds good, if a little chauvinistic. But just when you think Almodóvar has fallen for a set of stereotypes and reverse-stereotypes, he pulls a fast one on us, deepening the eternal mysteries of love. Benigno, we've recognized from the beginning, is a weird duck ' a saint, yes, but also a...psychopath? It turns out he grew up "caring" for his mother, who may have been in a coma as well or may just have been "a little lazy," as he describes it. Either way, there's a Norman Bates feeling coming off Benigno, a sense that his hopes and desires inhabit a world of their own. But does that mean he has nothing to teach Marco? Or us? Is pathological love not a form of love? Almodóvar doesn't answer that question for us, thankfully, just poses it and then stands back and lets his characters do what they have to do. The male characters, anyway. The female characters, as I've pointed out, are in comas.
Not all the time. Almodóvar flashes back to before their traumatic injuries, and Lydia in particular leaves a vivid impression ' a woman who's beaten men at their own game but is as clueless as the rest of us in the game of love. There was a time when a movie like Talk to Her, wherein the men do all the talking while the women just lie there, might have aroused anger among certain viewers. If Talk to Her doesn't, that may be because Almodóvar has thrust the men into the women's roles; they're the caretakers. "I wanted the men in this film to be fragile, sentimental, to have all the qualities I've placed before in female characters," Almodóvar has told an interviewer. All the qualities? This is the guy who brought us Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, remember. In Talk to Her, men may not be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but they do seem on the verge of a major breakthrough.
Through to what? It's hard to say, exactly. Almodóvar leaves a lot of room for interpretation, yet another sign of his growing maturity.