Love Is Only Sleeping 

With Talk to Her, Almodóvar further refines his at once stylish, moving and subversive filmmaking

With Talk to Her, Almodóvar further refines his at once stylish, moving and subversive filmmaking

Talk to Her

dir.: Pedro Almodóvar

R, 112 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt

In the early ’90s, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar was heading down the road to hackdom, pushing his distinctive concoctions of liberal sexuality, shocking violence and tongue-in-cheek melodrama to the brink of self-parody in films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels and Kika. Then, in 1995, he tried his hand at a fairly straight soap opera romance with the underrated The Flower of My Secret, and ever since, his ship has been righted. With 1997’s Live Flesh and 1999’s All About My Mother, the writer-director returned to his beloved world of perversity with a new sense of control, approaching kinky relationships and intense tragicomedy with less stylistic heightening and more maturity.

Almodóvar’s latest, Talk to Her, recalls the classic Hollywood weepies of Douglas Sirk in its ability to make the ridiculous emotionally involving. In many ways, the film outdoes Todd Haynes’ recent, slavish Sirk homage Far From Heaven and approaches the slyer homages of Sirk’s biggest European disciple, the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Talk to Her’s bent worldview winds through the story of two men and two women. Dario Grandinetti plays Marco, a travel writer who falls in love with Lydia (Rosario Flores), a well-known bullfighter. When Lydia suffers an accident in the ring and falls into a coma, Marco meets Benigno (Javier Camara), a male nurse who takes care of Alicia (Leonor Watling), the coma victim in the room next to Lydia’s. Benigno advises Marco on the best way to take care of a woman in a coma—see the title of the movie for step one—and on an Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten level, the instructions could double for how to make any relationship work.

But as Almodóvar jumps back in forth in the story’s chronology and fills in the narrative gaps, the sweet, simple romanticism of how men should treat women becomes curdled. For one thing, Benigno is clearly miserable and confused. A gay man addled by a long stint of caring for his ailing mother, he’s wrapped up in Alicia’s well-being in ways that border on obsessive, if not psychotic. And Marco’s no prize either. He’s a frustrating paradox: the sort of man who’s emotionally remote with lovers, but apt to weep openly at the ballet. The two men’s friendship and their textured character development has the quality of good modernist fiction, in that it’s not so much about what happens, but about how the protagonists react to what happens. Their story is tinged with pathos and ambiguity, but it moves and changes so quickly that the heroes have to change too, just to keep up.

What makes Talk to Her cinematic is that Almodóvar hasn’t lost his taste for spectacle. The film looks stunning, shot by Javier Aguirresarobe and designed by Antxón Gómez with an eye toward making the rooms, the fashions and the lighting subtle and sophisticated. Almodóvar also interrupts the story at several points for digressive performances: an Antonio Carlos Jobim ballad sung by Caetano Veloso, scenes of bullfighting, a lavish wedding, travelogues, dance recitals and, most purposefully, some witty and astonishing footage from a silent movie called The Shrinking Lover.

Constant distraction feeds a casual atmosphere, and the shocking revelations of the plot matter less than the promise that something wondrous and delightful might happen at any moment. Talk to Her is a movie about a stick-in-the-mud and a sociopath, and has often disturbing points to make about male desire, but it’s also pleasant, calming and moving. It may be Almodóvar’s most subversive work.

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