*** Potential spoilers ahead ***
Spanish comedy-melodrama, lascivious, vibrant, organic, is Pedro Almodóvar’s forte, though it is fair to declare that he is the master of the nation’s cinema, and a force to be reckoned with across the planet of film. Many saw a certain maturing in his handling of human drama in the late 1990s – not to say his previous adult-themed exploits of kidnapping, murder mystery, sexual orientation were frivolous. Following up to the career-high Todo sobre mi madre, Almodóvar struck gold again with Hable con ella (simply translated as Talk to Her), a rich tapestry of path-crossing, love’s painful fall-out, and ultimately the divides in communication. Book-ended immaculately by performances of dance-theatre piece Café Müller, Hable con ella is the dramatic equivalent of music to your ears, and Almodóvar’s effortless masterpiece.
Renowned for memorable, commanding roles for women, the protagonists here are men – though the story of women and their influence on the human race is prevalent in the movie. Writer Marco Zuluaga (Darío Grandinetti) and nurse Benigno Martín (Javier Cámara) are both sensitive souls, having not yet met, they sit next to each other in the opening theater performance. Marco is moved to tears, one of several moments in the picture were characters let their emotions just go with the flow.
Feminine characteristics or not, hearts are worn on sleeves and facial expressions, you’ll find one man dissecting the human spirit and motives, and another a much quieter presence, but the unease and feelings show in his exterior. Marco and Benigno actually meet later in the film, under pretty sullen circumstances as female companions lie in comas in the same hospital. Their unlikely friendship builds through the hindrance of their situation, as well as the contrast of their personas.
Marco watches over Lydia González (Rosario Flores), a famous matador gored by a bull, they met when he wanted to write a journalistic story on her – from there, via a snake scare (Marco’s former girlfriend also had a snake phobia), they became lovers. His pursuit of a profile write-up of Lydia is somehow also a quest for unagendered companionship based on both admiration and attraction.
Benigno’s care-giving derives from his supposed good-nature but also his occupation, dedicating endless hours nursing Alicia Roncero (Leonor Watling), a beautiful dance student who was hit by a car. Benigno talks to her as if conscious, tending to her every need, including washing her naked body, as well as somewhat intimate muscle massages – you could this is Almodóvar’s Sleeping Beauty.
From the first dance as players run into walls, through the bull ravaging Lydia, the unseen car that runs into Alicia, there’s a drifting sense of collisions on display here. How people just engage, too, is evident, that they just invite themselves into each others lives, a warm, encouragingly familiar trait from Almodóvar, rather than directly abrupt (though perhaps intrusive). Characters have, and can justify, reasons for their meeting – a dropped wallet, or a curious urge to peak into a room. Human spectators these men are, then, as with bullfighting, the potential grief on display is extremely tough to resist.
Marco is the far more passive character, often told by others what to expect, that he should not keep his hopes so high for Lydia, that he should talk to her even in her comatose state. A pessimist, and a quiet one, Marco is a slow-starter with such engagements, and finds himself alone again. With Benigno, his watchful eye could see Alicia at dance class from his apartment prior to her accident. Once they meet, he finds a way to see her again, but somewhat invades her personal space (and steals a hair-clip), before his fate lies in the worst kind of personal violation. What happens to Benigno is alarming on several levels, as he is introduced as a genuine, caring, decency guy who means no harm.
In one memorable, and not distracting, sequence, Almodóvar pays a loving respect to the silent era of cinema with a short black and white fable, were a shrinking man wanders the naked body of his wife, crawling over her breasts before venturing onward to her vagina, where as a tiny whole, he literally enters, pleasuring her in her sleep. The visual blueprint for Alicia’s development gives a real harrowing gravitas to the inventive segment of comedy – another thematic box tick for Almodóvar.
The cast, as pretty much always, is inch-perfect. Javier Cámara as Benigno brings a real open book of humanity to the table, with a vulnerability and naivety of his actions eventually filters through some painful emotions. Darío Grandinetti as Marco gives a deftly subtle performance, clearly showing the hurtful, disappointed nature of the world around him, the impact of which he does not / can not hide. Leonor Watling as Alicia, and Rosario Flores as Lydia, both have shining moments given they are out for the count for the most part – and Geraldine Chaplin also chews up a bit of narrative space as Alicia’s dance teacher and mother figure (of course, of course).
Regular music composer Alberto Iglesias adds a poignant companion to Almodóvar’s gem. There’s also a movingly melancholic traditional Spanish song at some point, as well as the Pina Bausch dances that open and close the picture. Almodóvar’s passionate devotion for art forms makes a regular appearance, be it through various music platforms, movies being watched, the journalist et al. His resonant imagination make this a decidedly personal film, he lands us in the appropriate time and place to fill in the gaps of the men’s plights, and does not waste a second of film. His characters are unafraid to talk (“I’ve just taken an elephant-sized dump.” being a more surreal, funny moment), hence the film’s title and mantra, providing an emotional reverberation in line with the themes of struggles in communication and battling loneliness.
That very intimacy portrayed, that there is love beyond loss, a troubling notion but an even harder reality, make Hable con ella a truly unparalleled love story. Pure naturalism in its execution rather than all-out depressing, but delivered to our eyes like sunshine, Pedro Almodóvar’s unflinching grasp of fragile human interaction, as both a story-teller and film-maker, is a thing of beauty here. His performers are so natural, speaking the words as though their own – grounded, emotive, heart-breaking. An unrivaled, alluring film in all of its pain.
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