Writer/director Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her recalls for me a line from Alan Rudolph's Choose Me in which battered wife Rae Dawn Chong defends her husband's having beaten her by saying, "At least he loved me enough to do it." Viewers of Choose Me most often laugh at the absurdity of that proposition. But gnarled in the complexities of co-dependency one can probably find elements of love amid the rage. In very different circumstances, Almodovar asks us to forgive a character for what most would regard an appalling violation. Any ultimate response to this arresting film will be colored by one's ability to make the leap Almodovar requests.
Talk to Her is the story of two unlikely friends and the women who bring them together. Benigno (Javier Camara) is a Madrid nurse who works in a hospital specializing in long-term care. He is especially involved with Alicia (Leonor Watling), a beautiful young ballerina who was injured in a car accident and has lain in a coma for four years. On the job at the hospital, Benigno meets Marco (Dario Grandinetti), an Argentine writer whose bullfighter girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores) has been gored and has also fallen into a coma.
Benigno angles for assignments to care for Alicia, whom he had spotted and tried to meet before she was injured. He volunteers to cover for other nurses and works overtime if he can. Benigno's ministrations to his patient are very intimate. He exercises her inert limbs, dresses and undresses her, washes her and rubs her body with lotion to keep her skin soft and to protect her against bedsores. Alicia's family members feel comfortable with Benigno because they think he's gay. They also appreciate that all the while Benigno attends to Alicia he talks to her. If there is hope that Alicia might ever emerge from her coma, Benigno's constant aural stimulation might help.
Marco, in contrast, finds himself almost utterly unable to speak to Lydia. He is emotionally devastated by her injury but repulsed by the raw physical needs of the ravaged body that still breathes but otherwise does not live. Benigno tries to teach Marco how to relate to Lydia, and some progress is made. For a time the two men wheel their patients out to take the sun where the women sit behind their sunglasses like movie stars trying to avoid recognition.
But Marco is far different from Benigno. He has had a life before Lydia. He still pines for a woman he lost to drug addiction, but he recovered from that heartache, and we never doubt that he will recover from his grief over Lydia. Benigno, though, is a man who lived with and cared for his mother until her recent death. He is a virgin who understands little of the world. In a symbolically essential flashback scene we see him in his mother's darkened apartment, peering through narrow windows in hopes of catching a glimpse of Alicia in the freshness of her youthful vitality not long before her accident. Marco is rugged and masculine. Benigno is chubby and soft. Though Benigno perhaps does not understand this, we know that he would never have managed a relationship with an unbroken Alicia.
So what, Almodovar wonders, really constitutes love? In conventional terms Marco has deeply loved two different women, lost them both, and moved on. Benigno could never move on. In a provocative scene, Benigno describes an old silent movie he claims to have seen, though we conclude he must have imagined it or perhaps dreamed it. A man takes a potion that causes him to shrink until he's no bigger than a finger. Even as he diminishes, though, he remains bonded with his longtime lover who fears that she may roll over in bed some night and crush him. His shrinking is such that he will ultimately become invisible, and rather than be lost to his love forever, he decides to merge himself with her. In a scene at once romantically heartbreaking and farcically outrageous, we see him, like an explorer before a cave, slip between the folds of his lover's vagina and climb inside her to disappear.
That kind of devotion, Almodovar evidently submits, is the essence of real love. And Benigno has that kind of devotion to Alicia. He stands ready to give himself over to her, a feat, metaphorically at least, he accomplishes by the film's end. But does such devotion, which is one-sided after all, permit Benigno to avail himself sexually of a woman in a coma? The most immediate and obvious answer is a resounding and unqualified no. But Almodovar's answer is far more muted and far less definite. There is much to admire in this film, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. And it occurs to me that we're not meant to understand it on a literal level. I admit, however, that after much reflection, I remain uncomfortable with its narrative events and the emotions the filmmaker assigns to them.
- Benigno (Javier Camara) patiently waits for his intended lover to snap out of her coma in Pedro Almodovar's latest, the Oscar-nominated Talk to Her.