Last week, I finally saw for myself what cinephiles all over the world have known for ten years already; that Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her is a true masterpiece. I’ve never been a huge fan of the more outre early Almodovar – to the extent that I’ve seen his movies from the eighties and nineties – mostly for their hyperactivity and perceived lack of warmth. The later Almodovar – in All About My Mother (1999), definitely, but never more so than in Talk to Her (2002) – makes up for this, with interest. Thankfully, the latter movie is also one of his most immediately accessible. I don’t say this because I detest a cinema that is idiosyncratic or challenging, but because it’s immediacy probably will have meant that more people have seen it. I should have done so years ago myself.
It’s also a movie that is fairly easy to summarize: Marco’s matador girlfriend Lydia is in a coma. While watching over her, Marco befriends Benigno, who is the personal nurse of the also comatose Alicia, which he confesses to being in love with. In order to not spoil anything, let’s just say that the two men have radically different ways of dealing with the impending loss of their loved ones, and the loneliness that comes with tending for someone who is unable to express anything in return. The relationship between the two men is to my mind never explored more exquisitely that in the scene that gives the movie its title: Marco confesses that he’s uncomfortable with touching Lydia, and even with watching anybody else, like the nurses, touch her. Then talk to her instead, Benigno suggests. In the very first scene of the movie, the two men meet at a ballet performance, and Benigno later tells Marco that after he learned from Alicia that she loved ballet and going to see silent movies at the cinemateque, he has made it his mission to see every ballet and every silent movie he can, and then tell Alicia about them. Regardless of what is later revealed about Benigno’s conception of his love story with Alicia, this immediately struck me as an incredibly beautiful way of expressing your love, in practice as well as metaphorically.
I think it’s a pretty universal impulse when someone you hold dear dies to want to honor him or her in a way that extends beyond the mere paying of respect and nurturing of memories. When this happened to me, I, perhaps in an act of desperation and deep respect promised that I would try to honor his ideals and values to the fullest possible extent. A part of me even wanted to be him, to take in the world on his behalf, in an irrational attempt to let him live on and experience all the things that was now suddenly denied him. To me, that’s the beauty of Benigno’s project in Talk to Her. The situations are not completely similar; death is final, whereas with a comatose person there is always the small chance that they will one day wake up – come back to life, if you will, in whatever state. The two men’s approaches to this remote possibility is addressed in the movie; Marco clings to the hope were realistically there is none, whereas Benigno remains stubbornly optimistic, partly out of (very complicated) love and perhaps partly because as a health worker he is trained to never give up on a patient. What happens if either of the women actually wakes up? Marco has learned something about Lydia that would complicate their relationship immensely, and the same is true with Benigno and Alicia. And yet; neither of the men are allowed to give up completely. I have always sympathized with the concept of premature grief – for the moment I can’t remember what the common medical term is – that people who are told that their loved ones are likely to die soon go through a period of grief more intense before it actually happens than immediately afterward. If by some surprise (I refuse to call it a “miracle”), the patient should happen to pull through, that will of course introduce a sense of guilt on those who had spent months mentally preparing themselves for a final outcome, but my sense is that guilt will be a part of the process no matter what.
But Benigno’s insistence to be Alicia’s eyes to the world in her absence, has haunted me from the moment I saw the movie. In fact, the beauty and sacrifice inherent in the fulfilment of that metaphor affected me so much it took me out of the movie for a moment. For the next couple of minutes, I was unable to focus on the plot and the dialogue; my mind was struggling with the consequences of such a strategy. It’s a beautiful thought, to be sure, but is it really as much of a self-sacrifice as I first thought? In the end, is he doing it for her, or to comfort himself, to make himself feel better? And, perhaps punishing myself for my cynical take on a romantic gesture, I asked myself if the motivations of it does even matter? I don’t think they do.