Pedro Almodovar has been a darling of the critical community for nearly two decades now, so in writing about his new film I must confess upfront that I’ve never been part of the bandwagon. The Spanish writer-director is certainly a fluent filmmaker, and his ability to portray things affectionately from a feminine perspective is laudable. But the extreme theatricality and gaudy surfaces of his pictures have always struck me as a matter of flamboyant showing off, as did their rapid shifts from farce to melodrama and back again; in these respects there’s always been a heavy suggestion of his earlier work as a cartoonist in his features. One might admire the result for its glossiness, high spirits and unpredictability, but his work has never seemed either as sharply amusing or as emotionally resonant to a few of us as most others have found it; to the contrary, it always resembled little more than a modern dose of Ross Hunter with more sex and, frequently, a smidgen of winking-and-nudging perversity added too.
“Talk to Me” is more subdued and less satirically edged than many of his earlier films, but it still shares their basic qualities. If you’ve cared for Almodovar’s previous work, you should like it; if not, it may strike you as equally contrived and vaguely unpleasant. The big switch here is that while women remain integral to the plot, the two central females spend much of the running-time lying in a coma in hospital beds. That doesn’t mean that Almodovar slights them, even in such a condition; his camera frequently lingers on their motionless faces, and toward the beginning of the film he lovingly shows one of them, Alicia (Leonor Watling), being gently washed and dressed by her nurses. (This is the sort of thing the director loves: the other woman, a bullfighter named Lydia played by Rosario Flores, is later depicted being meticulously dressed in her tight- fitting matador garb before the contest which will result in her injury.) On the surface, however, the thrust of the film appears to involve the men who love them: Benigno (Javier Camara), the nurse who dotes on Alicia (and who, we learn, had effectively stalked her prior to the accident which left her comatose), and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a sad-faced writer who becomes Benigno’s friend after his girlfriend, Lydia, takes up residence in an adjacent hospital room. But though the two men easily have most of the screen time, the film isn’t so much about them as about their adoration of the bedridden women; the two coma victims may be immobile, but in the narrative they’re less like victims than idols, objects of worship. What the film emphasizes is the consideration, even reverence men owe to women. The title is an indication of this: it comes from Benigno’s injunction to Marco that he should talk to the unconscious Lydia. “They like that,” he explains–implying men’s responsibility to find out (though communication) what women need, and then provide it (and thereby fulfill their own needs, too). Almodovar makes the point in a sort of cadenza toward the close, when Benigno tells the unhearing Alicia about a silent film he’s just seen called “The Diminishing Lover,” a piquant take on “The Incredible Shrinking Man” in which a young Lothario takes a large dose of his beloved’s diet medicine and, once rendered tiny, literally enters into her in the most obvious way (possible for full-sized men only in part) with the aim of remaining there forever, oblivious to all else but gratifying her (and himself) utterly. The same point about the male’s duty to women is made in a modern dance sequence that opens the film (a typically extravagant Almodovarian gesture), and, more gently, in another at the end. (There’s also a long sequence in the middle featuring a poignant love song suggesting the same thing.)
What “Talk to Her” offers, then, is an elaborate meditation on the relationship between the sexes, one whose general calmness, so uncharacteristic of the director, is periodically interrupted by the sorts of florid touches and piquantly perverse twists in which he’s previously specialized. The silent film-within-the-film is a perfect example: it’s a visual tour-de-force, but ends in a way that many will find rather unpalatable rather than witty. The same thing can be said of the picture as a whole. The last act takes a turn which is actually quite disturbing and tasteless, involving rather horrendous conduct which the maker not only suggests is acceptable but depicts as having a miraculous effect. To be sure a measure of ambiguity remains about what actually happened, but that’s irrelevant: Almodovar’s point is that people have different needs and ways of fulfilling them, and that one shouldn’t be overly judgmental about them. In this case, however, even making allowance for Almodovar’s predilection for melodramatic overstatement (like Douglas Sirk on speed), the denouement is rather unsettling–a plea for sympathy that many will find it easy to resist.
Of course, the picture has much in its favor to compensate. Almodovar’s touch is as always technically expert, and together with Antxcon Gomez (credited with artistic design) and cameraman Javier Aguirresabore he creates some lovely visual effects. Camara makes Benigno a sympathetically odd mother’s-boy, Gardinetti is quietly authoritative as Marco, Flores proves a suitably feline Lydia, and Watling is a quite bewitching Alicia. One also has to admire the dance and musical interludes, even if they do sometimes seem intrusive.
Ultimately, though, while “Talk to Her” represents in many ways a maturation of Almodovar’s method, it remains a quite typical work in terms of its themes and devices. If you’re an admirer, therefore, you’ll probably find it as enchanting as many critics have done. Others, like me, will still be far more reserved, and to a large extent perplexed by the utter adulation the director has generated. Though “Talk to Her” eschews the bombast of most of his earlier films, Almodovar remains an acquired taste that some of us just haven’t acquired. You probably know which camp you fall into.