Midway through the film Talk To Her — this year’s Golden Globe winner in the foreign-film category — a male nurse tells a comatose female patient the story of a silent film he’s just seen. The film, entitled The Shrinking Love, is a sort of romantic comedy about a man who finds himself shrunk to an unrecognizable size. No longer able to communicate with the woman he loves, he does manage to explore her nearly somnolent naked body. He eventually finds his way into her vagina and the resultant smile on the woman’s face indicates that, although she is utterly unaware of the agent of her pleasure, their love has been deliciously consummated. The film short, which has been recreated for the audience, is quite funny and not nearly as offensive as it might seem, largely because it is a sort of burlesque, comic farce.
Talk To Her — from the Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, known for such films as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and All About My Mother (Oscar winner for foreign film of 1999) — is a tale of apparently unrequited love. Two men, Benigno and Marco, share a similar fate: They are both in love with comatose women, Alicia and Lydia. The film within the film is symbolic of the story line of Talk To Her. However, in the transition from burlesque farce to a more-realistic genre, the film runs into serious trouble.
Benigno, a nurse whose life has been spent caring for his aging mother, falls in love with Alicia, whom he first observes from his apartment window as she practices ballet in an adjacent building. When she is later injured and lapses into a coma, Benigno is fortuitously assigned as her nurse at the hospital where he works. The film is all about hope, love, and the possibility of miracles. Talk To Her is rife with coincidences and symbols, right down to the significance of the benign Benigno’s name. At least one of Alicia’s relatives is, in a shallow sort of way, devoted to prayer, to images of the saints, and to a belief in miracles. She eventually gives up, while Benigno keeps the faith and hopes against hope through four long years.
When Marco’s girlfriend, Lydia, a female bullfighter who’s rather incongruously terrified of snakes, is gored by a bull and ends up comatose, Marco meets Benigno at the hospital and the two strike up a friendship. Benigno counsels Marco on the virtues of talking to coma victims. There is the suggestion that such talk is both salutary for the victim, treating her as fully human, and the basis for authentic communication between the lovers. The friendship contains a number of humorous exchanges; for example, when Marco confesses that he cannot sustain his vigil for Lydia, Benigno observes, “You two are splitting up? I could see it coming. There was something in your relationship that didn’t work.”
When asked about his strange love, Benigno responds, “We get along better than most married couples.” There is something genuinely moving about Benigno’s devotion, about his continued affection for Allicia’s living human body, and about his unwillingness to calibrate his love according to the probabilities of science. Talk To Her has interesting things to say about the possibility of non-verbal communication and about the language of the human body, even in its most-deprived state. But its insistence that monologue can actually be dialogue, that docility is equivalent to loving consent, is hard to describe as anything other than perverse.
At a pivotal point in the film, we see Benigno massaging the naked body of Alicia in a gentle, soothing manner. Then, he relates the story of The Shrinking Love. These scenes amount to a kind of prelude/foreplay to Benigno’s impregnating of Alicia. Or at least that’s what we are left to surmise. We never see a sexual act but Benigno, given numerous opportunities, never denies it. Some might want to interpret the lack of explicit evidence of sexual congress as a sign that some sort of miraculous conception has taken place, as if Benigno’s submission to the needs of Alicia’s body has somehow borne its appropriate fruit. If this is so, the film owes us more in the way of debate or suggestion on this issue — think of the way Samuel Jackson and John Travolta debate what Jackson’s character claims is a miracle in Pulp Fiction.
By contrast, Almodovar is incoherent. In what can only be described as a cowardly attempt to have it both ways, the film simultaneously calls it rape and depicts it as a benign and fruitful act of love.
None of this of course gives fawning critics pause. In this, American critics are simply playing true to type, elevating foreign films beyond their merits or at least overlooking their obvious problems. This is true not only of Talk To Her but also of another Spanish-language film from this year, Y Tu Mama Tambien, now available on DVD. (For my money in Spanish-language films, neither of these films comes close to the achievement of last year’s Amores Perros.) Now, Talk To Her, for all its faults, is a much-better film than Y Tu Mama, yet the latter shows up on most “Best Of” lists as foreign film of the year. Critics heap praise on Y Tu Mama as a sensual, existentialist coming-of-age film, complete with social and political commentary. The film is none of this. It is light, pretentious fare, soft porn with just the right touch of bisexuality and a desperate, surprise ending that tries, after the fact, to invest the story with significance.
Amid the gushing and typically inarticulate acceptance speeches during this week’s Golden Globe Awards, Almodovar struck an unusually honest and instructive note when he thanked critics for not exercising “prejudice” toward his film. Prejudice indeed.
— Thomas Hibbs, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.