Inscrutable Human Document : Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her

Directed by Pedro Almodovar, 2002


Pedro Almodóvar’s filmic cosmos revels in the free democracy of Spain resuscitating from an authoritarian ‘Francoism ‘ through the Civil War (1978), where cultural trends nationalized by Francoist regime namely bull fighting and flamenco are fused with the emerging subcultures of pop, drag, television soaps, showbiz and music reactionary to the repression of rock. The framework of a conventional plot generates themes of illicit love, same-sex desire ,adultery and murder, deviant sexual behavior ranging from necrophilia to BDSM and nymphomania in a distinctly ‘carnivalesque’ fervor. The perils of transgression are never completely surpassed and much has to be closeted. But within the intimacy of secrets the characters nurture, lurks the survivor’s instinct that tends towards a passionate expression rather than a tragic submission. Talk to Her released in 2002 can be deemed a departure from Almodóvar’s usual loud melodrama to flout conventions and offers a more subdued take on two men’s devotion in privacy to women in PVS.

Benigno Martin (Javier Cámara), the male nurse entrusted to care for the dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling), daughter of a psychiatrist Dr. Roncero who has been in coma for four years, has passed a ‘special’ childhood and adolescence in tending to his sick mother for fifteen years. In the course of a mock couch therapy session that Beningo subjects himself to in Alicia’s father’s chamber on a visit to see Alicia, we learn of his correspondence courses in aesthetics, make-up and hairdressing- skills he can exercise to his best possibility in nursing a brain-dead woman. The logic of gendered professions renders Beningo a social anomaly in his role of a caregiver. Inscribed in this inversion is the temptation towards a Freudian psychoanalysis of his attachment to the mother in its transposition on Alicia. In typical Almodóvarian tongue-in-cheek humour, Benigno shelves Alicia’s father’s doubts regarding the nature of his attachment to Alicia by agreeing to his assumptions of him as a homosexual and thus, harps on the popular imagination that would stereotypically attribute his traits to being gender-queer. His preoccupation with Alicia’s body also veers towards a child’s play with a doll in an abatement of the loneliness he diagnoses himself with in Dr. Roncero’s chamber. Almodovar for the most part of the film, only hints at the dubiousness inherent in Benigno’s excessive scrubbing, massaging and oiling of Alicia’s body- the innocence endowed on Benigno as a benefit of doubt is mostly rendered through the camera’s voyeuristic yet clinical and devotional interest on the body of the female nude that is never fully eroticized. Camara’s impeccable performance conveyed through his continual conversational engagement with the unconscious Alicia and his diligence in pursuing her interests like watching silent films retains our faith in his naiveté.

The intimacy of Benigno’s devotion extends to Marco (Darío Grandinetti) for the erstwhile bullfighter, Lydia Gonzalez (Rosario Flores), also victim of PVS, but there’s a marked difference in attitude. Benigno’s acute sense of joy inherent in the beauty of tragedy becomes evident in his act of recounting his encounter with Marco in a dance-theatre performance of Pina Bausch introduced in the opening of the film to Alicia: “He (Marco) cried with emotion lots of times. I don’t understand was beautiful!” While both men are helpless in their infinite wait, Marco recedes to despondency in the hopelessness of Lydia’s revival while Benigno believes in a miraculous recovery without banking on miracles. The shrine in Lydia’s ward constituting of a congregation of Christ’s images focused on a couple of times hints at the hope surprisingly pervading the Godlessness of Alicia’s room.

The purity of Benigno’s intention is blurred through the narrating of a silent short-film namely “Shrinked Lover” within the film. Benigno’s loss of naiveté, as later revealed by a medical diagnosis of Alicia’s pregnancy, is conveyed through the bathos of the love story in the short-film teeming with sexual energy- a classic Almodovarian strategy of dimming grimness through comedy. Our moral bafflement and hesitation in dismissing Benigno as a pervert or sick bastard is best reflected in the humanly compassionate response of his associate nurse, Rosa in her refusal to visit Benigno in prison due to her disagreement with his unmistakable crime coupled with a sincere plea to Marco to help Benigno.
Almodovar takes a dig at the priests through Marco who comments on their degradation into perpetrating sexual crimes like raping locals and turning into pedophiles, themes he explores in his other films. The bull slays Lydia in the ring rendering her comatose- an incident through which Almodovar hints at the perils and critiques bullfighting , a sport exoticized within nationalist discourses of Francoist Spain.

The absolute responsibility in the face of the other’s non-response and non-rapport is a relation Marco fails at, unable to “talk to her”, but which Benigno champions, albeit through delusions. His act of suicide marks a more pointed failure in his incompatibility with reality but the resuscitation of Alicia at the close of the film when she returns to normal life does justice to the word ‘champions’, even if the intentionality is suspect and he is jailed on the clear grounds of rape. Marco has no delusions about the perversion of Benigno’s act, bordering on necrophilia, but he sympathizes with him, perhaps through a discernment akin to Arendt’s logic of forgiving “what is done.. for the sake of who did it”. Katarina, Alicia’s dance teacher’s words near the close of the movie -“I am a dancing teacher and nothing is simple”- provides a cue for the irreducibility and warns us against the simplification of Almodóvar’s film(s) that form a complex human document. The film ends with another silent theatrical dance performance akin to the one that opens it in which the moment of seduction and youthful love is romanticized and immortalized in a hopeful vein which is reminiscent of Benigno.

– Barnamala Roy


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