Girlfriend(s) in a Coma
We continue our nothing-but-classics series of oldie reviews.
Pedro Almodóvar's 2002 film Talk to Her (title en Español ) opens rather theatrically, which may not come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with this director – the curtain rises and we are treated to a display of interpretative dance from Pina Bausch. Watching it are the two main characters of the film, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), although at this point they know each other as little as we know either of them. Marco is moved to tears by the performance, a fact which does not go unnoticed by Benigno.
Slowly a narrative begins to form, piecemeal and out of chronological order. Marco is a writer, mainly of travel books, though the story from his point of view starts when he is sent to do a piece on up-and-coming female matador Lydia (Rosario Flores). After an unpromising start, mainly because both of them are carrying baggage from previous relationships, romance seems to kindle between them.
Bullfighting is a bit of a cliché in many people's idea of Spain, and it's obviously a controversial topic. All that aside, Almodóvar's presentation of scenes set in the bullring is exceptional – they are beautiful and grotesque at the same time, colourful and vibrant but also laced with horror. That the danger is not all on the bull's side is reinforced when Lydia comes off second best in a bout with a bull and ends up in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state – in other words, a coma, and one there is virtually no chance she will ever emerge from.
Marco, who has never been the most articulate of people, has no idea of how to cope with this, but finds himself making friends with Benigno, who is a private nurse employed on the same ward. His duties only extend to looking after one particular patient: Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dance student who was involved in a car accident. Benigno is clearly a deeply committed and very caring nurse, who happily talks to Alicia about everything going on in his life; he is completely unlike Marco. And yet the two of them do become friends.
However, this is a friendship that is soon to be put to the test. Not all is as it initially seems in these relationships, and the story is about to move into some very strange and dark territory…
Talk to Her is, first and foremost, a really excellent movie, fully deserving of its reputation as one of the best made so far this century. However, it is also one of those films it is somewhat difficult to write about in detail without venturing into spoiler territory. I turned up to watch it with only the vaguest idea of what the story was about – the non-chronological nature of the plot means that the Wikipedia plot summary isn't especially rewarding if you only skim read it – and the fact that it's almost impossible to predict which way the story will go at any given moment is one of the pleasures of the film. You really want to know as little about the story in advance as you can manage.
So what can I really say about this film? Well, the first thing is that this is not quite the schmaltzy romantic melodrama it looks like it's going to be – in fact, Almodóvar is relatively restrained when it comes to the plotting this time around; there are none of the outrageous coincidences that often pop up in his scripts. His subtlety and playfulness are still entirely intact, and you could argue that for much of the film he is cheerfully engaged in misdirecting the audience, turning their expectations against them. You are watching it and enjoying what has so far been an engaging and very well-made romantic drama, touched with elements of tragedy, and then suddenly and without your really being aware of it, the film has taken on something of the aspect of a psychological thriller – the kind of film that Hitchcock might have felt moved to have a go at, had he spent twenty or thirty years in therapy. Elements of the story which have previously been wholly innocuous suddenly look horribly suspect, and you question just exactly what kind of people some of these characters are.
It works as well as it does because of the brilliant performances given by the two leads – the two women in the comas are also good, but perforce have rather limited scope to participate in the film. Camara is very good in a hugely challenging part, managing to find all the subtlety it requires; Grandinetti has the tough job of playing someone who isn't naturally very demonstrative, but finds the chinks in the armour that make it work. But the magic of the film is in the scripting and direction – as mentioned, there is a very black cheerfulness at work here, and an immense deftness when it comes to tone (just when you think you have the film figured out, Almodóvar throws in the eye-popping silent movie vignette).
But perhaps the most impressive thing about it is Almodóvar's ability to retain his humanity and compassion even in a film which deals with topics as dark as the ones here. There is always room for subtlety, no-one is wholly good or bad, they are simply human and worthy of at least a little understanding. And beyond this, he even manages to conclude the film on a quiet moment of hopeful promise, something that would have seemed impossible only a short time before. As I said, Talk to Her is an excellent movie in every way.