Pedro Almodovar has done it again. If anyone else had directed “Talk to Her,” (Hable con Ella) it would seem like a revelation; from Almodovar, it is a reassurance of greatness. Both tragic and comic at turns, “Talk to Her” offers the viewer a subtle and aesthetic insight into the deepest questions of humanity — love, loneliness, connection — all with the sensibility of a man who loves people as much as he loves movies.
In a brilliant choice that immediately invokes the closely connected fantasy/reality/art connection in “Talk to Her,” the film opens with the curtain at a Pina Baucsh dance concert. Two men who have not yet met, Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and Benigno (Javier Camara), sit next to each other in the audience. Marco cries as he watches the two women dance across the stage with their eyes closed — Benigno notices, but does not say anything.
When they finally meet, it is at the clinic where Benigno works as a nurse. Marco’s fiery bullfighter girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores) has fallen into a coma after being gored. Benigno too is in charge of caring for a particular woman, a beautiful ballet dancer named Alicia (Leonor Watling). Marco, whose relationship with Lydia was passionate and demanding (and turns out to have been more ambivalent on her side than on his), cannot adjust to her comatose state. He turns to Benigno, who speaks to Alicia and effortlessly lavishes attention upon her as though she were completely animate, and the two begin a close friendship.
Though Marco is the main character of the film, “Talk to Her” is really about Benigno, whose loving kindness turns out to be inextricably linked with a tragic and terrifying desire for Alicia. We see Benigno’s story through Marco’s eyes and like Marco, we cannot lose faith in Benigno’s human goodness no matter what he does. Almodovar’s triumph of sympathy lies in his ability to make us love this perpetrator of such a horrible deed — to understand him, to justify him and even to question the immorality of the act itself. Nothing is as simple as we think, says Almodovar. Not morality, not love, not sanity.
These topics are as serious as any, but the film handles them with an extraordinary amount of subtlety and grace, seamlessly weaving them into the strange, sometimes funny and ultimately lifelike circumstances of the story. The most delightfully comic sequence of the film — reminiscent of Almodovar’s sexually bald “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “All About My Mother,” in which a man drinks his lover’s shrinking potion and begins to grow smaller and smaller until one day he climbs into her vagina and never returns — occurs simultaneously with the most suspenseful moment of Benigno’s moral struggle. Another instance of mixing the comic with the horrible is a discussion early in the film about the phenomenon of priests in Africa raping nuns because AIDS has made them afraid to rape the natives. Though the fate of these unhappy nuns is obviously not funny, the dialogue is hilarious because we recognize ourselves in the characters’ outrage.
Similarly, Almodovar plays with cinematic conceptions of suspense when we follow Lydia and Marco down a quiet road to her house on the night of their first meeting and see her confidently blow him off and enter alone, the usual setup for some kind of terror scene. Then Lydia shrieks hysterically as though she is being stabbed. She is terrified of something, but that something turns out to be a tiny snake. She is a female bullfighter with a mortal terror of snakes and Marco is a tough Argentine journalist who cries at the ballet. Almodovar asks us real questions of love, morality and insanity, but we are still having fun.
Indeed, for all of its highfalutin’ ideas, “Talk to Her” is not an intellectual movie. The beauty of the dancing is not distinct from the complex empathy we feel for Benigno, which is not distinct from the hilariousness of Lydia’s snake fit. It is a dark comedy about men and women. It is a tale of tragic proportions. It is bizarre, it is beautiful, it is disturbing, it is hopeful, it is great. And for being all these things, it is modern.