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All About His Oscar

Pedro Almodóvar invents a Career-Capping Oddball Masterwork

Girlfriend in a Coma: (from left) Leonor Watling and Rosario Flores take the air in Talk To Her.

By Ian Grey | Posted

After 25 odd years of hugely enjoyable mucking about leading to his 1999 brush with near-greatness, All About My Mother, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar has finally made his sui generis masterpiece. A flawlessly realized ramble about love, death, and wretchedness turned sublimity, and vice versa, Talk to Her shows heart and pluck from the git-go with its inspired tabloidesque hook: Two men find true love with two women. Who are in comas.

Benigno (Javier Cámara) is a thirtysomething gay-leaning virgin nurse whose only experience of love comes from years spent tending to his ill mother. That is, until he becomes obsessed with sweet, gamine dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling), who is promptly run over by a car. She ends up vegetative in a Madrid hospital, where Benigno takes loving care of her every physical need (and we do mean every).

Marco (Darío Grandinetti) is a smoldering fortysomething travel writer who falls for gorgeously hatchet-faced, neurotic matador Lydia (Rosario Flores). Marco shares his tortured past with Lydia; Lydia shares her terror of snakes. After a brief consummation, Lydia is gored by a bull, and off to the coma ward with her as well.

The two men meet over their beloveds' still bodies. Their relationship goes everywhere except where you'd expect it, until one of them does something unimaginably grotesque that might also be construed as an ultimate articulation of pure love, bordering on the mystical. You could argue both points all night and never come to one conclusion.

Along the way, the film nearly convulses with invention. Benigno's life is altered by the memory of a hilarious black-and-white silent science-fiction film-within-a-film--The Shrinking Lover--that hilariously literalizes Freudian back-to-the-womb fantasies, to put it politely. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (of Alejandro Amenábar's bloodlessly luminous 2001 The Others) here creates images so painterly that he achieves the unique distinction of making a moving picture which several times fooled this viewer into thinking he was perhaps looking at a previously unknown Andrew Wyeth. Alberto Iglesias' music is true world music, a combination of Bernard Hermann-esque string-driven things, Spanish plainsong, and stealthy electronica.

It can be said of Almodóvar with all confidence that there is no living director who so unabashedly loves women without mythologizing them or reducing them to male fantasy adjuncts. While Lydia's twitchy female matador seems indigenous to the Almodóvar oeuvre, it is his deft handling of Alicia's flinty and pretentiously imperious ballet teacher, Katerina (Geraldine Chaplin), that deserves brownie points for superior empathic chops. Katerina could easily have born the brunt of cheap derisive comedy, but Almodóvar presents her as a pragmatist whose passion must be protected by a deflecting hard-shell cover.

Still, the surprise content here is the director's handling of his male characters. Marco seems at first a refugee from early Almodóvar efforts, a cut of vacuous beefcake à la Antonio Banderas. But Marco is actually the most visible sign of Almodóvar's maturation and an extension of his sympathies beyond the fatales, innocents, and big-hearted tough gals often present in his previous features.

Seething with repressed regret and loss, Marco is initially hell-bound because he denies his passions. It is only through embracing a "feminine" response that he gains human strength, becoming the film's point man for Almodóvar's themes of the mutability of gender roles--in particular, the traditional polarity between the nurturer and the nurtured. A lot of this has to do with Grandinetti's super performance--all eyes and raised brows--and his director, who always knows how to frame him in the right relationship with whatever/whomever is causing his world to turn upside down yet again.

Cámara's clammy Benigno is a more obvious but no less admirable achievement. A beady-eyed, mincing queer version of Norman Bates minus the homicidal inclinations, he is initially pretty much a creep. But through the equal opportunity magic of AlmodóvarVision, our perception of him changes in almost imperceptible gradients from oogey-man to heroic carrier of love's strangest flame.

With age, Almodóvar seems to have lost the need to shock, show off, or indulge perversity for perversity's sake. He still incorporates elements of his telltale mix of Buñuel surrealism, Sirkian mad-camp romance, and Fassbinder-like ambigendered Eros. But a new maturity graces the obligatory catfights, eye-popping décor, and big-dick jokes, grounding the film's more outlandish moments in a real world gravitas, infused by an unstinting humanism unique to the director. At every juncture, Talk to Her does the true art thing: It creates a near-addictive need for something you never knew you even wanted in a world that only exists when the director exposes film emulsion to light.

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