Following my musings on Spain in my last post in which I used an image from the Almododvar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her) it was almost inevitable that I would want to watch it again. It is my favourite film and strikes me as a complete work that operates at a variety of levels. It has a fairly straightforward narrative, but it is filled with symbolism, cinematic vignettes, mini stories and minor characters that enrich the overall narrative.
That it should be viewed as symbolic is clear from the very start as the film opens with a dance sequence, Café Muller, choreographed by Pina Bausch which is being watched by the two central characters Benigno and Marco, who are sitting beside one another in the audience but who have not yet met.
The film ends with another piece of dance theatre and sandwiched between them within the main body of the film are numerous choreographed sequences.
The second scene where Benigno, a male nurse, and his colleague Rosa, wash and dress the comatose patient Alicia is a highly stylised piece of cinematic ballet as are the bullfighting sequences in which the female matador Lydia appears. Similarly the scene where Lydia is dressed by her, male, assistant is also a beautiful piece of cinema in which careful lighting and closely choreographed movements are used to create a highly intimate moment.
The female bullfighter has been much commented on as an attempt by Almodovar to challenge the macho world of the Spanish male but he also does so in other more subtle ways. Marco weeps at the performance of Café Muller and we see him welling-up on a number of other occasions as he remembers the pain of his breakup with his previous partner Anglea. Yet it is this highly emotional man who ends up with Lydia the bullfighter – who out of her matador garb is intoxicatingly feminine in short body-hugging dresses and dripping barely covered by a towel as she steps from a shower.
Despite his vulnerabilities Marco is portrayed as a sophisticated man of the world – an Argentine-born journalist who works for El Pais and who has written a series of travel books.
In contrast Benigno is portrayed as sheltered and naïve – described as a “retard” by his boss. He spent his youth nursing his mother who was confined to bed, not because she was ill but because she was “a bit lazy”. He is slightly creepy and stalks Alicia to the point where he arranges an appointment with her psychiatrist father so that he can get into their home and while there sneak into her bedroom – yet it is he who ends up nursing her after she is left in a coma following a road accident.
We see the former stalker Benigno washing down Alicia’s naked body and looking after her every need, to the point where he is even allowed to clean up her period. He confesses to Marco that the four years he has spent nursing her have been the most satisfactory of his life.
Benigno’s journey from a sad and lonely obsessive through to the imprisoned, unshaved “psychopath” who raped his comatose patient is dramatic and yet despite his crime it is hard not to feel sympathy for his action which was driven by devotion and desire for the woman in his care.
And here Almodovar sets us up with a moral dilemma for his audience – by raping Alica and impregnating her Benigno proves to be her redemption as she miraculously regains consciousness and we are left with the philosophical conundrum that if by performing an act of evil something good is the result can we still judge the original act as evil.
Marco’s development is more subtle than that of Benigno and he emerges from his morose, introspective self pity to engage with Benigno. He even shares some his traits, his obsessiveness and loneliness, and he admits to Benigno that he too is very fond of still-comatose Alicia. Marco is redeemed by his unquestioning support for the incarcerated Benigno when all others have abandoned him even though he is horrified by his friend’s crime.
Almodovar uses Hable Con Ella as vehicle to show of his considerable skills as a filmmaker. It jumps back and forward in time – and even contains a flashback within a flashback – but never seems to lose its narrative thread.
It even contains a film within a film, which he uses to symbolically depict the rape of Alicia. The silent movie tells the story of a man who drinks a potion concocted by his mistress which causes him to shrink until he ends up just a few inches high and cavorting over her naked body from where he “disappears inside her for ever”.
Almodovar also manages to strategically place objects and sequences of dialogue that hint at deeper levels of meaning.
On Marco’s bedside table we see a copy of the novel Las Horas (The Hours) by Michael Cunningham, while beside Alicia’s hospital bed is the novel version of La Noche del Cazador (The Night of the Hunter).
Alicia’s dance teacher, played by Geraldine Chaplin, describes a ballet she is working on set in the trenches of World War One where the ethereal emerges from corporal depicted by female ballerinas emerging as the souls of dead male soldiers who have been killed by warfare.
It is the dancer Alicia who eventually emerges from her near-death state while Benigno, whose rape of her instigated her recovery, is incarcerated in prison and eventually in a grave after he takes his own life during an attempt to induce himself into a coma through a drugs overdose so that he can “be with Alicia” whose recovery he is unaware of.
Throughout, Almodovar paces his main narrative with slight distractions and humorous interludes. The female nurse explaining how she can tell how well a man is endowed by the shape of his face and the pretty receptionist who works for Alicia’s father answering the phone and telling her friend that she has just had “an elephant-sized dump” (surely one of the great lines in cinema) add nothing to the plot but help create a multi-layered feel in which numerous elements mingle.
The visual impact is enhanced by the soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias which for me is now so synonymous with film that even when playing it while driving in my car I can visualise the scenes that each track accompanies.