Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Favorite Films: "Talk to Her"

My first encounter with Almodóvar's film Talk to Her came in the numb months after Sept. 11, when everything seemed touched by the specter of grief and loss, when nothing we thought was permanent and safe was either of those things.

Within the first moments of Talk to Her (Spanish language: Hable con Ella), tears are shed.  Two men sit in the audience of a ballet, and one of the is so moved by the performance he begins to cry.  The men do not know each other; their seats are next to each other purely by chance.  (Or, as the film will later imply, is it?)

It's not until months later that they encounter each other again.  The crying man is named Marco, and he is in love with a bullfighter named Lydia.  The dry-eyed man is Benigno, and he has his own reasons for going to the ballet that night.

Agitated one morning before a bullfight, Lydia has something she wants to tell Marco.  She never does, because she's gored by the bull and falls into a coma.  Her lifeless body is placed in a bed at a local hospital.  Benigno works there, too.  He's a nurse, and introduces Marco to the woman he cares for.  Her name is Alicia, and she was a ballet dancer before she got hit by a car.

Neither Lydia nor Alicia has a chance of waking from their comas.  They are in persistent vegetative states.  Benigno, who has such simple views of life that his co-workers call him the "retard," urges Marco to "talk to her," because there's no definitive way of knowing whether a comatose patient can hear.  There's always a chance.

Benigno and Marco form a friendship.  Awkward, virginal Benigno and handsome, virile Marco spend a lot of time together, taking care of the women in their lives, devoted to their comfort.

Back to that first viewing, 13 years ago.  Talk to Her struck me as a yearningly romantic movie.  Despite the often unsavory things that happen on screen, Talk to Her moved me deeply for its observations of how love seems ideal when it's necessarily one-sided, how talking about the need for care, the need to talk can pull together two people who have such different lives.

They don't know what will become of the comatose women, but Benigno and Marco both know they each need a friend.  That relationship is tested when doctors note that Alicia has missed her periods and is pregnant.  Could Benigno have done this terrible deed?  Will Marco remain by his side?

The movie is interested in asking those questions, but more than anything Almodóvar engages in a studied, careful homage to Alfred Hitchcock, using many of the same storytelling and cinematic techniques to convey the unbalanced psychological states of his leading characters.

"Women tell each other everything," Benigno tells Marco at one point, jealousy shaping the tone of his words.  The unspoken corollary is: Men don't, but should.  Benigno has a secret.  Marco had his own, the knowledge of which made it impossible for Lucia to focus the day of her bullfight.  The men begin to reveal their secrets, and as they do the ramifications of what has been done come real -- Benigno winds up in jail.  But Marco isn't going to leave his side, no matter what has happened.

Through some fascinating camera work, Almodóvar engages in that masterful Hitchockian technique of visually layering one character onto another over a pane of glass -- the two halves are whole, two unformed thoughts become one complete idea, the two lives are joined.  Visually, it's a magnificent piece of work, one that has been crafted with both the tools and the language of film.  If for no reason other than the filmmaking style, Talk to Her is a movie worth seeing.

But its must more special than that, thanks to its odd, disjointed, challenging story: The main characters in Talk to Her do some unsavory things, but they have their reasons, most of which come down to love.  And the film wonders, over and over, what love and desire mean.  Under the guise of a psychological thriller, Talk to Her offers up the observation that relationships are never equal, can never be fully honest, that one person will always know more of the other, see more, understand more.

Ultimately, Talk to Her does lead to a revelation, but it is neither as shocking nor as definitive as the film might have you believe, undone by a cryptic, intentional remark that Alicia's ballet teacher (Geraldine Chaplin) makes to Marco.  It's the last line in the movie, with reason: Can we be sure of anything we've seen?  Did we draw our own conclusions because of the assumptions we made about these people?

Either way, the film has shown its real heart much, much earlier, when, in a flashback, Marco watches Lydia from across a crowd as they listen to a guitar player sing the haunting "Cucurrucucu Paloma," a song about a dove who returns each day to the same place waiting for a sad and lonely woman to return.

Marco doesn't know what it is about the song that moves him to tears, but we do: He will return and return and return, as will Benigno, to an intolerable situation, never losing hope.  He can never get what he needs, he can never have a healed heart, but he will keep trying.

That message of clinging to faith seemed impossibly affecting in the raw months after Sept. 11, and it hasn't lost its power so many years later, but like loss and grief, it has changed into something less emotional, more understandable, deeper and more resonant in its age.

We watch the people in this movie do (possibly) hateful things and yet we still have feelings for them.  It's hard not to care for them, because they are trying to prove their love in whatever way knows how -- even if it means being like the dove in the song, always trying but never succeeding, steadfastly refusing to accept that love itself can ever die.

In Talk to Her, the lovers and the objects of their affection are never quite what we assume they will be.  But they are strong and true, they are honorable and moving nonetheless.  They want love to persist, somehow, even if it means losing themselves to let their love live.

Perhaps I'll revisit Talk to Her in another decade or so and find a slightly different film; that's the beauty of a film from a director as accomplished, as sure of himself, as Almodóvar.  It means different things at different times to different people, even if it loses none of its ability to stun through unexpected filmmaking and the story of its unusual, compassionate characters.

Viewed June 1, 2015 -- Amazon Instant Video

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