Monday, September 2, 2013

Film #101: Talk to Her (2002)

Original Spanish Title: Hable con ella

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Initial Release Country: Spain

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

A pair of men with loved ones in comas bond. Strange and illegal relationships ensue. A massive vagina gets involved.

Extended Summary (Spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a journalist in Spain, tracks down the noted female bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) in order to do a story on her. When he meets and explains that he hopes to do the story about her recent breakup with a fellow matador, Lydia initially is upset. However, she changes her opinion, does the story with Marco, and the two become lovers for a time.

Lydia, the unlucky-in-love lady bullfighter who becomes romantic with the sensitive journalist, Marco.

Several months later, Lydia is horrifically injured by a bull and is sent into a coma. While visiting her in the coma ward, Marco meets Benigno (Javier Camara), a nurse who works in the coma ward with one specific patient – Alicia. Marco eventually learns that Benigno’s relationship is far from a simple nurse-patient one. Four years prior, just before Alicia became comatose, Benigno had been living a solitary life with only his mother. He had noticed Alicia in the dancing school across the street from his and his mother’s home, and he one day approached and introduced himself to to her. Not knowing how else to proceed, he even made an appointment with Lydia’s father, who is a psychiatrist.

Before things could go any further, however, Alicia was the victim of a car accident. Benigno, still smitten with the beautiful young dancer, applies to be a nurse in the coma ward where she is admitted. Benigno’s skill and sincerity in caring for Alicia impresses her father enough to hire Benigno as one of two nurses who will attend his daughter at all times. As the four years pass, Benigno continues to dedicate all of his love to Alicia, not only caring for all of her physical needs but also constantly talking to her as if she were perfectly conscious.

When Benigno meets Marco in the coma ward, he offers him some friendly advice about caring for Lydia. However, Marco soon learns that Lydia’s former lover has returned and that they had been back together for about a month before Lydia’s accident. Understandably saddened, Marco leaves the hospital. He runs into Benigno on his way out, and he learns an unsettling secret. Benigno tells Marco that he is so in love with Alicia that he hopes to marry her. Marco, thoroughly shocked, tries to explain how inappropriate Benigno’s notion is, given that Alicia is essentially dead. Benigno, though, seems undeterred.

Benigno "introduces" Alicia (left) to Marco and Lydia. The two men are both doomed to love women who are unable to return their deep feelings.

Soon at the hospital, things take a dark turn. It is discovered that Alicia is pregnant. Based on the circumstances and the fact that a fellow nurse had overheard Benigno’s plans to marry Alicia, Benigno is put into prison on the assumption that he has raped her. While this is occurring, Marco has been in Jordan for several months, writing a travel guide. While Marcos is there, he reads in a newspaper that Lydia has died. When he calls the hospital and asks for Benigno, he learns of the sordid story.

When he returns and visits Benigno in prison, it becomes fairly clear to Marco that Benigno is guilty. Still, he remains friends with the sensitive and horribly misguided nurse. Marco seems to empathize on some level with Benigno’s desire to know whether Alicia’s child is born or not. Marco even accepts Benigno’s offer to stay in his old apartment. While staying there, in fact, he sees Alicia, recovered from her coma. He learns later that she had given birth to a stillborn child, but then came out of her coma. When Marco sees her, she is still on crutches, rehabbing her atrophied muscles.

Marco initially decides not to tell Benigno of Alicia’s stunning recovery and the death of the child. This changes rapidly when Marco receives a phone message from Benigno in which the hopeless man announces that he will escape. Marco rushes to the hospital, only to find that Benigno has indeed “escaped” – he has overdosed on pills and killed himself.

Not long after these tragic events, Marco runs across Alicia at a dance performance. The two exchange a few words and glances, and there seems to be some sort of spark between them.

My Take on the Film

Talk about getting dropped off a cliff.

Talk to Her had me fully engaged for over half its length, and it was easy for me to see why this is considered a great film and why Almodovar is considered a great director. Yet there is a point in this movie at which all viewers will take one of two completely divergent emotional paths. I took the path that led to confusion and alienation from the film.

The seemingly kind and altruistic Benigno - the character who will force you to ask yourself some very serious and disturbing questions.

So what is this crucial moment? We’ll get to that, but let me cover what I really liked about the film, especially during the first hour or so.

The most immediate is the cinematography. The sets and costumes are wonderfully colorful, as is the general setting of Spain, the bullfighting scenes being the ones that immediately come to mind. The shots are wonderfully framed and things are edited in ways that make the visuals smooth and inviting. There is a general warmth exuded from the pictures, even when the characters are suffering through terrible bouts of loneliness or anguish.

The actual narrative itself is also masterfully composed. Despite the depth of the several characters and just how much we are given about them, nothing ever feels either rushed or stagnant. Every time a mysterious element emerges, the story addresses it somewhere further into the plot. This is always a welcome element in films, especially ones like this. I’ve seen far too many films that raise serious questions about the characters or plot that are never addressed, as if the director were either too lazy, too unimaginative, or too pretentious to resolve potential conflicts. Not so with this film.

One of the many visually and emotionally warm moments in the movie. Marco, Lydia, and all of the other characters manage to stoke viewers' feelings for them.

There is also a lot of emotional food for thought in the story. The running theme is finding and losing a person who you love, what it does to a person, and how you can overcome the pain involved. Done mostly through dialectic recollections and a few very brief visual flashbacks, we can sense the pain felt by the different characters as they struggle over past lovers.

The acting is absolutely superior. Each and every person nails their roles perfectly, even the rather difficult roles of Marco and Benigno. The latter, especially, is a character who will surely test the emotions of all viewers, and it had to be played in just a particular way. Javier Camara pulled it off remarkably.

So, these all seem to be the stuff of a hands-down excellent movie, right? Not so fast. Allow me to explain just when the train went off the tracks for me.

About an hour or so into the film, we have a scene with Marco and Benigno. Shortly after Marco learns that Lydia had been seeing her former lover before her accident, Benigno tells him an odd tale of a silent film that he had watched the night before. The film was about a man who had taken a “slimming” potion concocted by his scientist girlfriend. The man shrinks down to roughly six inches high, with no remedy in sight. One evening, while his wife is in bed, he begins to caress her sexually. He then enters her through her vagina, where he stays for the rest of his life.

To answer your question - Yes. This still photo depicts exactly what you think it does.

Now, that scene alone is going to make you ask some questions. It might even lead you to turn off the movie, completely baffled and/or disgusted. Though I was rather uncomfortable at the scene, I stuck with the movie to see where it went.

And then we learn that Benigno has raped the girl in a coma.

Good night, everyone.

I continued to watch the entire film because we do not really get full confirmation of the rape until close to the end, and by that time I was emotionally checked out. And before anyone thinks that I simply didn’t “get it,” I beg to differ. I do understand that Benigno represents some form of victim of the ultimate unrequited love. He felt that he himself had “shrunken” into nothingness like the man in the silent film, and he felt that the only way to prove his own existence was to lose himself in Alicia. After spending four years losing himself emotionally in her, he takes the most extreme next step possible – he loses himself physically by planting his seed in her and then killing himself.

I get all that, and I suppose that it does make for some interesting intellectual discussion. I also assume that Almodovar is asking us to realize that this is a film, and to see these all as fictional characters through which we can use highly unnerving situations to raise poignant questions. And despite knowing all of this, I simply can’t subdue my repugnance at the notion, even fictional, of raping someone in a coma. Call me overly sensitive, but that’s my ultimate impression.

Even after learning that Benigno has, in fact, raped Alicia, Marco continues to remain friends with the former nurse while he's in prison. I understand, intellectually, why this is. However, this was all just too much for me, morally.

For anyone who is thinking of watching the movie and has read through this review, just try to have some idea of what you’re in for. It will seem like a fairly standard drama most of the way, but you will be seriously challenged at the mid-way point. I can see why it is considered a “great” film, as its technical merits are irreproachable and it is unlike any film that I’ve ever seen. But there’s no reason for me to ever watch it again.

That’s a wrap. 101 shows down; 4 to go.

Coming Soon: City of God (2002):

I watched this one about eight years ago and remember thinking it was excellent. It’s been long enough now that I don’t really remember much about it. It’s also appropriate, what with the protests going on in Brazil right now. I’m looking forward to it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.