Seeing “Talk to Her,” the highly touted new film from Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar, is like taking a drug everyone says is dynamite and impatiently wondering why the heck it’s not kicking in. The kick in fact turns out to be real, and as powerful as advertised, but it doesn’t necessarily hit you in any way you anticipated.
For at its core, in both its technique and what it has to say, “Talk to Her” is very much a subversive film, one that takes its time creeping in under your skin. But once there, it’s determined to stay awhile, to entice the mind into playing seditious games. This story of women in comas and the men who love them aims to both discomfort us and enlarge our horizons, to take us to the far shores of human emotion and make them look like the beaches at home.
In some ways, this is not completely unexpected. Almodovar, with films like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and 1999’s Oscar-winning “All About My Mother,” has always relished his reputation as world cinema’s iconic bad boy, fearlessly rushing in where soberer minds would hesitate to venture. But the filmmaker has passed 50 now, and as he told The Times, “I need to explore new things. I’m saturated with the Almodovar of 10 years ago.”
In essence, “Talk to Her” is the kind of picture you’d expect Almodovar to make if he made a serious picture. The film relishes the contrivances of melodrama but it has a fearless confidence in its ability to make them meaningful. Its got its taboo-shaking moments, including a mock silent film called “Shrinking Lover” that manages to be slightly sensational as well as completely innocent, but its concerns have broadened beyond the transient pleasures of shocking the bourgeoise.
Most of all, what “Talk to Her” does is insist in its very particular way on the importance of emotion, connection and love, no matter how obsessive a form they may take. In line with the Roman writer Terence’s famous belief that “nothing human is alien to me,” it views deeply disturbed, even deviant behavior from an almost unimaginably empathetic space. And it does so in a way that is more thoughtful and genuinely reflective than we’ve had from this filmmaker before.
“Talk to Her’ is book-ended by a pair of modern dance performances featuring Germany’s iconic Pina Bausch Tanztheater. The first, “Cafe Muller,” is witnessed by two men, strangers, who happen to be seated next to each other in the theater. One of them, Benigno (Javier Camara), is very touched when he notices that his seatmate, who we eventually find out is Marco (Dario Grandinetti), is moved to tears by the performance.
We know what went through Benigno’s mind because he talks about it the next day to a young woman named Alicia (Leonor Watling) while doing her nails, giving her a sponge bath and in general lavishing the kind of almost religious devotion to her body that seems more appropriate for dressing the corpse of a saint.
Alicia is neither a saint nor a corpse. She is a beautiful dancer who’s been in a deep coma, something called a persistent vegetative state, for four years. Benigno -- pudgy, officious, but somehow genuine -- is her devoted nurse, his actions characterized by a virtuous willingness to work long hours at her side and an unshakable belief that Alicia hears all his talk even if she appears to be dead to the world.
Lydia (Rosario Flores) is by contrast the most active of women, a bullfighter who is recovering from a tumultuous love affair with a fellow torero. Benigno’s erstwhile seatmate Marco, who turns out to be a journalist with an interest in desperate women, decides to do a story on her and a romantic relationship soon develops.
By one of those coincidences Almodovar’s films couldn’t exist without, Lydia is not only soon in a coma identical to Alicia’s but also ends up hospitalized in the same facility. Benigno recognizes Marco at once, and the two very different, very lonely men soon become close friends, bonded by a need to communicate to someone.
Though it may sound as if a lot has happened by this point in the narrative (including a moving solo performance by Brazilian Caetano Veloso that is included at least partly because Almodovar is a big fan), it is here that “Talk to Her” is just getting started.
Gradually, the compelling back stories of both the Benigno-Alicia and the Marco-Lydia relationships are revealed, and a remarkable twist occurs that puts everything in a different perspective. The compassionate message of finding humanity in the outcast, a message that, given the persecution he endured as a young gay man in Franco’s Spain, must resonate strongly with Almodovar, is presented in an especially provocative way.
The director, as usual, has an exact eye for casting. His woman are memorable even while in a coma, a state Almodovar reminds us in the press notes, is far from easy to play. And Camara in the extremely delicate role of Benigno is more effective than one would have thought possible. “I fear,” the director writes, “that for a long time Benigno will accompany Jamier Camara as his shadow.” It’s an accurate judgment, and one that applies as well to this singular work and the filmmaker who called it forth from the most personal part of his soul.
‘Talk to Her’
MPAA rating: R, for nudity, sexual content and some language.
Times guidelines: Extremely adult subject matter, surreal sexually explicit moments.
Javier Camara ... Benigno
Dario Grandinetti ... Marco
Leonor Watling ... Alicia
Rosario Flores ... Lydia
Geraldine Chaplin ... Katarina
A Mad Pix production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Pedro Almodovar. Executive producer Agustin Almodovar. Producer Esther Garcia. Screenplay Pedro Almodovar. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Editor Jose Salcedo. Costumes Sonia Grande. Music Alberto Iglesias. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Exclusively at the Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica, Blvd., West L.A. (310) 477-5581.