Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Talk to Her (2002)
Round three in the Almodovar run in the new and even more difficult Birthday Series. So far, I have to say, that I don’t think they’ve been that difficult. Sure, The Skin I Live In was more than a little bit icky, and yes, Volver was a glorified soap opera, but we all know what we’re going to get from the old Spanish filth merchant: a boat load of melodrama, some gratuitous nudity, and more perversion than a Thai brothel. So, this time around, I was mildly pleased to see that my 2002 film (23rd August in the UK) was his masterpiece. Talk to Her is a nailed on classic, one of the finest films of that decade, and it was genuinely a pleasure to sit through it again.
Bet you didn’t see that coming.
May contain the incredible shrinking man climbing into a vagina (really not joking) and spoilers below
This is easily Almodovar’s best film. I thought it was Bad Education, but there’s just too much grubby gay sex in it for me. Instead, in retrospect, the bittersweet Talk to Her manages to hit all the critical high points that usually (and in my opinion unjustifiably) are associated with Almodovar. It’s touching, filled with superb performances, genuinely funny, but above all sad, and really manages to superbly capture the bleak loneliness of his protagonists, without sacrificing wit for sordid detail. Watching this film actually makes me a bit angry with the old pervert, as he clearly, when given the right material can make something truly special, but instead prefers to wallow with freaks and degenerates committing repellent sexual perversions on each other.
Not that Talk to Her doesn’t contain its fair share of perverts, freaks and degenerates- it is Almodovar after all. Telling the story of Marco (Darío Grandinetti), he forms an unlikely friendship with Benigno (Javier Cámara), a borderline retard with a very, very suspect back story. The bond they share is over their girlfriends, the frankly beautiful Alicia (Leonor Watling) and Lydia (Rosario Flores) who are both coma patients being cared for by Benigno. Benigno is head over heels in love with Alicia, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Well, it is, but I’m trying to sugar coat it here, so leave me alone. Nevertheless, Marco doesn’t share the same bond with Lydia, being crippled by guilt and unable to even bring himself to touch her sleeping skin. Told partly in flashback, Talk to Her reveals the events leading up to the girls lapse into unconsciousness, and then explores in the present the relationship between the two unlikely friends.
Benigno is, and let me get this out of the way, a moron, who was very possibly sexually abused by his mother. He has no understanding of socially acceptable norms, and is incapable of understanding how people see his actions. Very early on, he explains his relationship with his mother in a very matter of fact fashion to his psychiatrist, who looks on at him in horror. To make matters worse, he’s had almost no human contact since she passed away until Alicia entered his life. The fact that he’s practically stalking her is neither here nor there, but it is sheer bad luck that after her car accident she’s handed over to his pervy care. Marco is equally broken. He’s not a moron, and knows damned well what his actions appear as, yet he’s traumatised by events he saw in Africa, and is unable to get over them. The relationships between the couples are brilliantly juxtaposed: Benigno watched Alicia from afar, unable to enter conversation with her, until she was rendered into a coma, whereas Marco’s relationship with Lydia, the bullfighter, is kinetic and vibrant, and her accident with the bull is almost balletic. He is unable to talk to her now she’s in a coma, as Benigno frequently urges him to, yet when she was awake, she makes it clear that he’s been doing all the talking; holding a monologue with her present.
Time passes, and our two main characters’ relationship begins to develop. They share a fragile bond, and almost everything that they do is as part of some surreal double date. Benigno, in the meantime, is indulging in more and more bizarre behaviour, relating idealised and deeply sexualised silent movies that he (almost certainly) did not see. There’s clearly something very, very off about his obsession with the slumbering Alicia- which is confirmed when she is eventually discovered to be pregnant. In the meantime, Marco has been told that there is no chance of Lydia recovering, and the reappearance of her ex-boyfriend prompts him to return to travel writing. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is simultaneously very sad, deeply moving and surprisingly hopeful.
As mentioned this is easily Almodovar’s best film. Yes, it does have a perverted male nurse molesting a coma patient, but here the sensationalised material doesn’t feel as tacky as it usually does. Rather the grimy business takes place in the background and allows us to focus on the unusual friendship between the main characters. That it is such a success is, no doubt, down to the acting. Cámara is outstanding as Benigno, being all puppy dog expressions, yet surprisingly sympathetic and relentlessly chirpy. Grandinetti has the far less showy role, yet manages it with no little aplomb, and the pair of them form a spellbinding combination. The female parts, particularly Flores, are equally good, and I’ve already described her elegant movement as almost balletic.
It’s also genuinely amusing. There’s some good old-fashioned toilet humour to break the melancholy, but there are more then a few intentionally amusing lines. There is a bitter edge to the comedy here, but Gandinetti’s delivery of most of it is spot on, particularly his response to Benigno when told of his friend’s romantic designs for his comatose girlfriend: “People talk to plants, they don’t marry them”. This is caustic, dry, witty, and raised more than a smile.
As with most Almodovar, this is a lush and gorgeous film. Intercut scenes of ballet or bullfighting appear with deep and vibrant colours, and the silent movie section in the middle of the film is simply beautiful to look at. Mentioning the silent movie section, though, reminds that this is very much definitive Almodovar, being surreal, darkly amusing, a tad twisted, stuffed with nudity, and it’s no wonder that this has arguably become the defining sequence of the film. I know that’s unlikely, but almost everyone remembers the shrunken man climbing the naked breast. Frequently these touches of surrealism in Almodovar serve to do little more than remind of his visual cues: Dali, Bunuel and so forth, but here it works to great effect. It’s both touching and enlightening and most importantly allows him to inform the audience of the rape without actually showing the rape. Thank the lord.
Talk to Her is a stunning film. It’s a titanic achievement actually, and one that he doesn’t come close to very often. It’s beautiful, the soundtrack and score is intentionally melodramatic but perfectly complements the action on screen, and as the tragedy plays out he allows the wit present in the script and the surreal and absurd events to lighten the mood, to limit the darkness and let some light into what would, in the wrong hands, be an irrevocably sordid tale.
Overall, yes I recommend this one. In fact, I think it may be one of the essential European films of the last decade. Talk to Her is such a good film, deservedly collecting almost every award it could (inexplicably not nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film that year, although it did win best screenplay), that it almost makes me forget the myriad cinematic atrocities he’s inflicted on me. Featuring his usual parade of freaks and perverts, this is arguably the only time he has successfully discarded his crutch of sensationalism to provide a sumptuous, thought provoking and genuinely touching movie. I have absolutely no hesitation at all in giving Talk to Her 4 Cabbages out of a possible 4.
Next up is Jeepers Creepers, a film that I’ve got huge problems reviewing.
The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:
- 2011- The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism (2.5 out of 4)
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny (1 out of 4)
- 2007- Knocked Up (1 out of 4)
- 2006- Volver (1 out of 4)
- 2005- Red Eye (2 out of 4)
- 2004- Dead Clowns (Orangutan of Doom)
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (1 out of 4)
- 2002- Talk to Her (4 out of 4)
- 2001- Jeepers Creepers
- 2000- Gossip
- 1999- All About My Mother
- 1998- The X-Files
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion
- 1996- The Last Supper
- 1995- The Usual Suspects
- 1994- The Color of Night
- 1993- Surf Ninjas
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume
- 1990- Wild at Heart
- 1989- Bull Durham
- 1988- Crossing Delancey
- 1987- The Big Easy
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
- 1985- Better off Dead
- 1984- Oxford Blues
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn
- 1982- The Thing
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway
- 1980- Schock
- 1979- Rich Kids
- 1978- Coma