Sleeping beauty

Pedro Almodovar achieves the freaky and sublime with Talk to Her

What does a 3-inch-tall man do with a normally proportioned naked woman? In his new film Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar answers that burning question, and more, in ways that are sure to set tongues to wagging around the old water cooler for weeks to come.The remarkable scenario resembles an early silent film in which a character drinks a potion invented by his scientist girlfriend and shrinks down to the size of a Snickers bar. The sequence concludes with the diminutive fellow rolling around on his sleeping lover's nude body, first ecstatic, then mystified as he eventually takes the plunge and walks right into the woman's vagina, that perennial mystery of mysteries, where he apparently disappears forever.

The segment sounds like pure Almodovar — outrageous, sexy, sensationalist — but it's actually quite lyrical, oddly touching and far closer to profound than provocative. It's almost as if the movie were suggesting the only way to understand the secret of sex, of life, is to simply be absorbed by it.

Like the rest of Almodovar's extraordinary new film, the Shrinking Lover film-within-a-film is kinky only by default. In any event, it's miles away from the "old" Almodovar, that Spanish bad boy who scandalized the world with frenzied bits of naughtiness like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!.

Talk to Her is the "new" Almodovar all the way, a natural evolution of the more relaxed and emotionally direct approach that the director's been steadily honing over the past several years. It's a curiously restrained film for Almodovar, almost fragile in its way, but still bursting with life and fully informed by the juicy, overwrought passions and fabulous theatricality of those grand old melodramas so beloved by the director (along with fellow 1950s enthusiasts/revisionists Todd Haynes and Francois Ozon).

Lest there be any doubt what Almodovar's up to here, Talk to Her opens on a stage — or, to be precise, on a very beautiful, very artificial-looking red velvet curtain that almost immediately rises to reveal its world-as-a-stage. We watch as a pair of women dressed in nothing but slips stumble about the stage in semi-comatose fashion, eyes shut, heads slumped, arms flopping about in front of them. They look like sleepwalkers or maybe particularly well preserved zombies, but they're actually performers in an avant-garde dance piece by Pina Bausch. A lone man scurries about the stage doing his best to stay out of the women's way.

Two men sit in the audience, the one's attention to the performance diverted by a silent tear rolling down the face of the other. The two men don't know each other yet, but in time they'll turn out to be the movie's main characters — although not necessarily its prime movers.

That status is reserved for the film's women, a pair of coma victims who, although unable to move or even utter a sound for most of the movie, are in fact responsible for spurring most of its significant action. Much like the sleepwalking performers in the Bausch dance piece, the female characters in Talk to Her control their space even with eyes wide shut, while the men just go with the flow and try to keep up. Think of it as Almodovar having a little fun with passive aggression.

The movie's form appears unusual; it's even unbalanced at first but gradually reveals a potent internal logic and symmetry. Almodovar structures the movie like a puzzle that gradually comes together, dividing the film neatly into chapters that each focus on a different combination of characters and on the relationships that develop between them.

The first act belongs to Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and Lydia (the gloriously hound dog-faced Rosario Flores), one of those curious couples so perfectly mismatched they could only exist in real life. He's a journalist and one of those strong, silent but hopelessly sensitive types given to shedding a discrete tear at the drop of a hat (Marco's the quiet crier from the opening scene). Lydia's a female bullfighter who eventually meets up with one bull too many and winds up with a smashed cerebral cortex, flat on her back in a hospital bed and clinging to life by a barely intact brain stem.

While hovering around his brain-dead lover, Marco strikes up a friendship with Benigno (Javier Camara), a hospital employee attending to a silent woman of his own. Benigno is the primary caregiver of Alicia (Leonar Watling), a comatose beauty with whom he's secretly obsessed. The film's second act belongs to the two.

Almodovar skillfully zigzags through time, offering up strange little narrative detours and flashbacks within flashbacks but never allowing anything to get in the way of the movie's forward momentum. We jump back four years to witness the origins of Benigno's sweet but somewhat twisted infatuation with Alicia, watching him watching her from his apartment across from her dance class, then arranging appointments with her psychiatrist father, just to be near her. When Alicia collides with a car and winds up in a coma of her own, Benigno is there at exactly the right place and time to maneuver himself into a plum position as the girl's personal nurse.

Benigno is the film's most complex character but also its most endearing one, the beating, beautiful/ridiculous heart of Talk to Her. Brilliantly played by the pudgy, piglet-eyed Camara (whose face is as wide open as a child with Down syndrome), Benigno's a bit like Forrest Gump crossed with Norman Bates, part simpleton, part sage, part freak-of-the-week. You'd never take him for anything other than the sweetest boy in the world, even after all his messy obsessions and confused, compulsive sexuality hit the fan.

The latent melodrama in Talk to Her comes bubbling to the surface early on, then explodes in the film's very strange and moving final act. By the time the closing credits roll, the movie has killed off a couple of characters, landed another in prison, and introduced all manner of unexpected crimes, suicides, resurrections and various other supersize secrets and lies.

And like Almodovar's earlier Oscar- winner, All About My Mother, Talk to Her winds up coming full circle by embracing both the harshest realties of life and its brightest possibilities — those impossibly sublime moments that beg to be called miracles.

If All About My Mother was a film about the ways women see themselves through the eyes of men — playing roles and reinventing themselves in the image of what they're expected to be — Talk to Her is its perfect bookend. This is a film about men, albeit men seen as tiny particles of flesh and spirit ceaselessly orbiting the enormous celestial bodies of women. Almodovar's scenario has nothing to do, though, with the traditional film noir notion of the perpetually maneuvering, manipulative femme fatale. Everything in Talk to Her emanates from and revolves around its female spheres of power, but those femmes don't have to lift a finger to make it so. All they have to do is be there.

"A woman's brain is a mystery," says Benigno, as he happily goes about the business of projecting thoughts and feelings onto the comatose Alicia and Lydia, dressing them and arranging their limp forms in matching lawn chairs, like twin versions of the ubiquitous stiff in Weekend at Bernie's. "You have to pay attention to women, talk to them," he instructs, "remember they exist."

Words of wisdom in what is probably the year's oddest love story, but also certainly one of its best. Almodovar continues to refine the form of melodrama in ways that allow his films to function as witty, sophisticated black comedies, without sacrificing one iota of emotional texture or resonance. Talk to Her is far more eager to have us fall in love with its characters than to titillate us with its fetishes, but it does a great job at both. The movie is another step up for one our best filmmakers, a mysterious, elegant, absurd onion of a movie that we could peel away at forever and probably never get to the end.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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