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In Almodóvar's masterpiece 'Hable con ella', none are guilty but all are punished

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What is a liminal space? From the Latin limens (threshold) the liminal is a place of in between: of ambiguity, of the nebulous line between conscious and unconsciousness, reality and fantasy. It is not where you’d think to look for decisive action, passion or indeed, transgression of boundaries. And yet the liminal is precisely where the actions - and transgressions - of Pedro Almodóvar’s’ Hable con Ella (‘Talk To Her’, 2002) play out.

In his fourteenth feature film, the Spanish auteur eschews his shock tactics of the 1980s and melodrama of the 1990s to create a work of artistic restraint that is most powerful in what is left unsaid, or unshown. With a mixture of flashback, recollection, dance, shifting points of view and one unforgettably haunting use of metacinema, Almodóvar manages to paint a story without spelling it out, and ultimately resists judgement or simple resolution.

Those new to Almodóvar’s films are often directed towards Volver (2006), the most internationally well known, All About My Mother (1999), the most critically acclaimed, or Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (1988), the most popular. But only Talk To Her manages to be both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally devastating - the shock is all in the subtlety here, and Almodóvar has, to my mind, never been more in control.

For a director known primarily for his focus on, and sympathy with, female characters, the film stands out in Almodóvar’s oeuvre for its focus (and sympathy) with its male protagonists. This is a story of an unexpected friendship between two men caring for their comatose loves, while the women are left in mute suspended animation. This film is named ‘Talk To Her’ in English, rather than the more accurate translation of ‘Talk With Her’; despite being the focus of the men’s attention, the women only speak in flashback.

The film also functions as a treatise on masculinity vs femininity, and the blurred lines between love and obsession, or voyeurism and perversion. What makes this film more unusual is that in most of Almodóvar’s films, everybody is somewhat to blame for tragedy; in this one, nobody is to blame - but everybody is nearly destroyed.

The opening takes place at a performance of Pina Bausch’s best known work of dance/theatre, the melancholy Café Müller (1985): dance is both a leitmotif and book-end of the film, which closes with an excerpt from Bausch’s slightly more uplifting Masurca Fogo (‘Mazurka of Fire’, 1986). Two men are in the audience at the first performance: Benigno Martin (a career-defining performance from Javier Cámara), a gentle nurse, and Marco Zuluaga (Darío Grandinetti), an Argentinian travel writer. Benigno sees Marco crying, unashamedly moved by the performance, and is intrigued.

Benigno is a lonely, naive child-man of ambiguous sexuality and the primary hospital carer of Alicia (Leonor Watling), a comatose Sleeping Beauty. She is a dancer in a vegetative state to whom he is devoted and, we will discover, with whom he is tragically obsessed. Benigno treats Alicia as though she were listening; he attends dance performances and black and white films, her other great passion, in order to be able to share her interests and tell her what he has seen.

Marco, we see in flashback, is more stereotypically macho; a hack who aggressively pursues an interview with Lydia (Rosario Flores at her haughty best), a well-known female bullfighter. Lydia, who has experienced endless chauvinism and male posturing, is put off by his pushiness. But when she runs in terror from a snake in her house, which Marco is forced to kill, he cries at the memory of his former fiancée who shared the same phobia. Lydia is moved by his emotion, and they begin a relationship. But a brutal goring by an incensed bull puts her in a coma in the same hospital as Alicia, and so Marco and Benigno meet.

At first, the film plays out as a heartwarming tale of two very different men finding solace in friendship, in the face of loneliness, grief and one-sided love. But it takes a turn into darkness: obsession, deception and one terrible crime.

In the style of Oedipus, we do not see what occurs. Instead, Almodóvar hides the action with a black and white silent film, The Shrinking Lover, in which a scientist has swallowed a shrinking potion and, in desperation and desire, eventually pleasures his lover by crawling into her vagina.

It is only later, when we discover what Benigno has done and what the consequences are, that the tragic yet erotic film starts to make an unsettling sense. It is a masterclass in directing that Almodóvar manages to relay a sickening transgression in such a way that Benigno does not lose Marco’s sympathy - or indeed ours. It’s also a testament to the bravura performances of the two leading men (and Geraldine Chaplin, who very nearly steals the show as Alicia’s eccentric dance teacher).

Aside from the gripping plot, there is so much sensually to enjoy in this film: the practised but poignant washing of Alica’s body; the elaborate dressing sequence of Lydia in her matador clothes; a performance of ‘Cucurrucucu Paloma’ by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso; and of course the seven-minute film-within-a-film, which will stay with you far longer than you want it to.

The film closes with Marco and Alicia together at the same dance recital, with their names followed by a question mark before the credits. It’s the perfect visual metaphor: there are no easy answers for the audience - or the characters. All of them love, and, like Romeo and Juliet, all are punished. But the genius of the film is that in punishment, there is also redemption and, at the end of it all, hope.

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