Great filmmakers push their ideas and characters to the limit, unafraid of consequences - which is what Pedro Almodovar has done in "Talk To Her," his latest film and, I think, his best.
Famous for the dark vibrant comedies and campy domestic or sex dramas that started his career in the 1980s, Almodovar here takes a subject that might seem ripe for his old sarcasm and jesting. He creates a deep and unexpected friendship between two men in a hospital, both of whom are in love with coma victims, and takes it to the extremes of strangeness and pathos. The situation is admittedly somewhat absurd; with slightly different emphases, "Talk To Her" might make you laugh, the way "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" or "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" once did.
But Almodovar has imagined his characters so well and deeply that they come fully alive onscreen, defying cheap jokes or easy conclusions. This is a movie of great, rending compassion and artistry, and the ease with which it invites tears or laughter along with the hypnotic quality of the storytelling are the signs of a true master.
The two men here are Benigno (Javier Camara), a repressed and effeminate male nurse, and his opposite number Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a hyper-masculine but sensitive journalist. Benigno is in love with Alicia (Leonor Watling), a beautiful young ballet student from the dance school across from his apartment who is unconscious after being struck by a car. Marco adores Lydia (Rosario Flores), a female bullfighter who let herself be deliberately gored.
Both their passions are seemingly unrequited. Alicia barely knew Benigno, a mama's boy who spent his life carrying for his bedridden mother and now cares for Alicia. Lydia tried her bullring suicide out of frustrated love for another matador.
But both men keep visiting or tending their unconscious loves. They talk to them, wait sadly for some sign of life - and after a time talk to each other. For Benigno, Marco is a fascinating riddle; before their hospital meeting, he had seen the reporter in tears while seated next to him at a Pina Bausch dance recital. His curiosity piqued, he later starts the friendship. Like many good but different friends, they each supply things the other lacks. Marco is something of an adventurer; Benigno a stay-at-home. Marco has known love; Benigno is a virgin. (Just as Benigno was emotionally hamstrung by his ties to his mother, Marco still salves wounds from his previous affair with a heroin addict.) But what happens in the hospital between the two and their ladies suddenly turns dark - and their friendship undergoes an ultimate test, unto death itself.
The beauty of "Talk To Her" lies in its mixture of humor, horror and romance, of scathing candor and deep compassion - and also in the absolute artistry with which Almodovar realizes his vision. The characters here - the two couples as well as bystanders such as Geraldine Chaplin's ballet teacher Katarina and Mariola Fuentes as the nurse who is a bit in love with Benigno, are real to a degree few secondary film characters reach. Almodovar has supplied them with richly detailed and consistent back-stories - so they become more real the more we know them. Would we laugh at Benigno in real life - with his babyish face, fussy ways and na? withdrawal from life? Camara makes him simultaneously an object of derision and a deeply tragic, even heroic figure. Would we dismiss Marco's tears at the ballet as an affectation - either of the character or of Almodovar? Grandinetti breathes life into his every moment on screen.
The two men carry the film, which is about loneliness, friendship and the limits of desire. And though some might suspect that Almodovar, as a gay filmmaker, is emotionally stacking the deck by imagining a world where heterosexual love is in a coma and latent homosexuality is an option, that's too facile. Midway through the film, the director pulls off a starling tour de force: He creates a fictitious silent film called "The Shrinking Lover," which Javier sees at a cinematheque. (Alicia was a silent film buff and he copies her tastes.) It's an elegant pastiche in which a lover shrinks (like Jack Arnold's "Incredible Shrinking Man") to the size of a bug and then engages in activities no silent filmmaker could have shown.
The Bunuelesque "Shrinking Lover" is a revelation: both stylistically perfect and an amazing commentary on "Talk To Her" itself, and on the sadness and derangement that passion can bring. That's the subject of "Talk To Her": the varieties of passion, the limits of friendship. Few films have ever dramatized them so daringly and so movingly.
4 stars (out of 4) "Talk to Her"
Directed and written by Pedro Almodovar; photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Jose Salcedo; art direction by Antxon Gomez; music by Alberto Iglesias; produced by Augustin Almodovar. Spanish, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: R (Nudity and sexual situations).
Katarina.....Geraldine Chaplin Nurse.....Mariola Fuentes
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times