Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:11 pm 
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Sublime necrophilia

Pedro Almodóvar's 'Hable con ella' ('Talk to Her') would be worth seeing if only for the chance to hear and see the silky voiced Brazilian, Caetano Veloso, deliver a suavely wonderful song halfway through. But there are other pleasures. Almodóvar's cinematography has never been more handsome, or his plot construction neater. What it all adds up to is anybody's guess, but the craftsmanship is a source of constant sensual pleasure. Everything in this movie is exceptionally glossy and perfect looking. Almodóvar delights in bright colors and a look of hyper-real cleanness. The odd Spaniard is at the top of his game, and one doesn't have to be a fan to enjoy and admire what he has wrought. Many of the familiar themes are there: the man of uncertain sexuality obsessed by his mother; sexuality; fetishism; accidents; hospitals; bullfights; death.

We begin with the lovingly photographed finale of a strange balletic opera about somnambulism, during which two strangers happen to be sitting next to each other in the audience, one man watching admiringly as the other weeps. The admiring watcher turns out to be Benigno (Javier Cámara), and the sensitive weeper is Marco Zualago (Darío Grandinetti). It's Almodóvar's conceit that these two men, linked at first only by their mutual interest in this campy stage performance, are to become involved more and more deeply as the movie progresses.

At the heart of the story is an implausible sequence of events. Benigno's previous contact with women has come exclusively through his caring for his mother for many years at home. Now he is a nurse in a clinic where several women lie in comas, and he lovingly cares for one of them, Alicia (Leonor Watling), eventually falling in love with her and - absurdly -- wanting to marry her, though she still remains in a vegetative state. He previously had watched her training in a ballet school across the street from his house and -- a rather far-fetched coincidence --witnessed the accident that sent her to the clinic. Equally implausibly, Lucia is eventually discovered to be pregnant and Benigno is jailed for raping her in the hospital. Childbirth brings her out of the coma, though the baby dies, and she eventually returns to the ballet school, but by this time Benigno is in prison - a sophisticated modern prison of the country club type - and he remains tragically unaware of the positive outcome his transgression has brought about.

The two men become friends in the clinic because Marco comes there to attend upon another woman in a coma, a female bullfighter, whose lover he had become, though she continued to be fatalistically obsessed by a caddish former lover and was gored as a result of a suicidal gesture of going down on her knees before the bull even came into the ring. All this we witness, telegraphed to us in scenes of bright hyper-reality.

Though Almodóvar coyly suggests otherwise, there is something unmistakably gay about both Marco and Benigno, and particularly Benigno. Marco is seen as macho, but we aren't fooled. After all, he is the one who was crying. It's his girlfriend the bullfighter who was the one with the cojones. At the end Marco and Benigno's greatest bond is with each other. The director plays with the masks gay men have to wear in his macho, Catholic country.

In keeping with the glossy, heightened visual style, everything about this movie is completely operatic. As a viewer, one correspondingly feels compelled to remain rapt and passive. One simply has to watch the whole business unfold with willingly suspended disbelief. One enters into Almodóvar's peculiar and distinctive world, a world that is very Spanish and very gay, very stylized and elegant, and often very bizarre. The film's persistent image is of Benigno bathing and massaging Alicia's beautiful, inert body, which he does with great patience, love, and art. Is this perfect love, as he believes? Benigno's attitude is both monk-like and sensual. Eventually he loses his cool, but we don't see that actually happen, and everything is handled with the ultimate in taste and restraint.

The fetishism of Buñuel has been reborn in Almodóvar. The nurse's obsessive care for his unconscious patient is fetishistic, and so is the dressing of the female bullfighter, a quintessentially Spanish ritual which Almodóvar has beautifully filmed. Benigno's obsession with Alicia is inspired by a silent film, 'The Shrinking Lover,' in which a tiny man makes love to a normal sized woman by entering her vagina. This black and white film depicting a fetishized man and a fetishized giant female body is exquisitely invented by Almodóvar. 'Hable con ella' is beautiful filmmaking at every point.

But the whole story, like Benigno's life, shows a strange detachment from reality. Benigno, as his name implies, is benign, harmless - or at least well meaning. But his disconnectedness from reality proves dangerous, punishable. It is odd how the movie celebrates this slightly mad man, yet it does, and the actor, Javier Cámara - self possessed, methodical, overstuffed, a little eunuch-like, yet discreetly sexual - is ideal and compelling in the role. Dario Grandinetti as Marco is somewhat less satisfying. His machismo is unconvincing. He seems too consciously to be modeling his studiedly casual outfits, and his fascination with the prima donna bullfighter is covertly camp. Geraldine Chaplin does an elegant turn as the Martha Graham-like ballet teacher of Alicia, the dancer in a coma.

One leaves 'Talk to Her' feeling refreshed and calmed because Almodóvar takes us with such assurance and delicacy through his peculiar, exquisite world. He has unmistakably undergone a marked evolution since his 1988 'Mujeres al borde di un ataque de nervios' ('Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,') and similar entertaining follies. This is a restrained, serene, rather hypnotic film, a more mature and self assured work than anything that has come before. One is still left with a sense of puzzlement, of possible pointlessness, but one has been taken to a very special place, where one feels there may, in time, be something important to be learned.

November 7, 2002

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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