I wrote this in May 2004, minutes after the movie finished. I wasn’t interesting in writing a plot summary of a movie I’d just seen—I almost never am, as you’ll see this week. In general, I’m more interested in reading a critic’s impressions of the movie’s tone and feel than in her ability to detail the whos, whats, and wheres. Anyway, I’ve edited and cleaned this piece since I first wrote it, but the sentiments remain the same. I hope you like it as a piece of writing, even if you hated the movie.
I became a fan of Pedro Almodóvar in my teens, because you were guaranteed to see tits in his movies, and you knew you were in for a good time. The near-constant sexual audacity of his movies, and the rich and complex beauties he got to act in them, delighted me to no end. (Until I saw Almodóvar’s movies, I wouldn’t have found sexiness in women who were oddly shaped, dressed garishly, or had big, crooked noses. Silly me.) The snappy clutters of funny dialogue, near-operatic gestures, and eye-popping color schemes floored me even more than the presence of sex. At age sixteen, I bought tickets for the flesh; I stayed past the end credits for his spirit.
Maybe I still buy for the boobs, but now I’d old enough and perhaps wise enough to recognize that, on some horny-adolescent level, I had really good taste. Almodóvar is as least as humane as he is cinematically innovative, and usually as emotionally honest as he is lascivious. Talk to Her flips his script, however, in that it’s more melancholy, cerebral, and silent than previous Almodóvar concoctions. The vibrant colors are still present, his sense of composition is still astonishing, and the movie’s centerpiece is a black-and-white silent film that’s as surreal and perversely entertaining as anything he’s done. (It involves a man traipsing over and into a beautiful woman as she sleeps. I refuse to give away anything more.)
But there’s a quietude and seeping loneliness that I’ve never seen before in the Spaniard. The camera moves slowly, sliding gracefully over the hills and valleys of the female body, the dusty landscapes, and the moonlight. The torchy glances between lovers are unwavering, songs hover in the air, and the images linger longer in the frame and in the mind than ever before. The whole movie seems to be made up of duets—between two disparate couples, between the two men, between the couples who plunge into and around each other onstage. Whereas early Almodóvar movies revolve around large clusters of characters and interweaving plots, Talk to Her revolves around the principle of an intimate pas de deux. Appropriately, the movie is framed by modern ballets at its beginning and its end, aurally quiet but visually seething with tension.
Two women—one’s a ballet dancer; the other, a bullfighter, is a dancer of a more dangerous sort—lie in comas, and their lovers act as caretakers in the hospital. The men talk to, and care for, the women as much for their own sakes as for the sakes of the comatose. Eventually, the men form a curious bond that’s closer to real, mutual love than anything they could express to these women, even when they weren’t unconscious. It’s not quite homosexuality—Talk to Her’s sexual politics are too nuanced for simple explanations—but it’s more than platonic love. They say as much to each other without ever really saying it aloud. They dance around love. The editing is superb, concealing and revealing aspects of the protagonists like a dress flapping in the wind, alternately covering up the crotch and rendering it nude. Odd, horrible things do occur here, and they are given the appropriate level of gravity, but the transgressions are put in perspective, and the film doesn’t judge the transgressors. I nearly cried over the death of a rapist, because by this point he’s earned weirdly our sympathy and respect, and the circumstances of the rape are more complicated than we care to admit. When a new, oddly unsettling, romance springs up at the movie’s end, I smiled with gratitude. Talk to Her is slow, but not funereal; ponderous, but full of laughs; audacious, but never flashy.