Toronto
2 min

Talking in their sleep

Men as pale dreams of women

NO BULL. In Talk to Her, Rosario Flores gives an electric performance as female bullfighter Lydia González. Credit: Xtra files

He could have easily become John Waters with a Latin twist. When Pedro Almodóvar launched himself upon the film scene beginning in the 1980s with a string of button-pushing films including Dark Habits, Matador, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, he staked his claim to a piece of the cinematic landscape right next to the king of excess, John Waters.



Like Waters, Almodóvar’s style was edgy and over-the-top, his sets were loudly colourful and he often worked with the same eclectic coterie of actors. From the murderous eroticism of Matador and the heroin-shooting nuns of Dark Habits, to the out-of-control Technicolor femmes of Women On The Verge, Almodóvar wanted to be noticed. And his method of choice was the same one employed by Waters – shock value.



Whereas Waters reached his creative and critical peak with Hairspray, then stumbled when mainstream culture embraced his outrageousness (hello RuPaul, good-bye Divine), Almodóvar took a turn for the dramatic and scored an Oscar for All About My Mother. A lush, vibrant and emotionally resonant portrait of a group of disparate women brought together by grief, All About My Mother was a modern melodrama with an absurdist edge (and launched Penelope Cruz onto an ultimately uninterested American public – Tom Cruise excepted).



Almodóvar continues down the award-laden road to respectability with his new film, Talk To Her (Hable con ella), and this time he makes a gender-switch, refocusing his reputation as a “women’s director” (in the tradition of Douglas Sirk) by making men the stars of the show, with mixed results.



The film focuses on Marco and Begnino, who both adore women who can no longer love them back. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) cannot deal with the fact that Lydia, his bullfighting lover recently gored in the ring, may never awaken from a coma. Meanwhile, the seemingly gay Begnino (Javier Camera) tends night and day to Alicia, who has been comatose for four years, and whom he secretly loves and fawns over as if they were a couple.



The men bond over their shared circumstances, with Begnino offering Marco advice on how to care for Lydia (the films title, “talk to her” is one of his suggestions). But when Begnino takes his love for Alicia too far, the repercussions are dire.



The mixed success of Almodóvar’s trip to testosterone-land is most evident, ironically, whenever we see flashbacks of a pre-coma Lydia (Spanish singing star Rosario Flores). A forceful, striking woman, Flores stalks through her scenes with a magnetic mixture of bravado and barely-concealed fear. The scenes of her in the bullring, particularly a stunningly shot montage of Lydia donning her matador costume, are electric. Masterful in his connection with actresses, Almodóvar somewhat sabotages the film by pushing them to the edge of the frame and offering up male characters that lack the charisma of their female counterparts – without the vibrant presence of their women, Marco and Begnino are lacklustre shells of men.



Flashes of the witty, boundary-pushing Almodóvar are sporadically evident, particularly in the re-creation of a silent film-within- the-film that Begnino describes to Alicia, a welcome jolt that smartly foreshadows plot developments. But overall, Talk To Her fails to translate the sense the amazement at the transcendent power of love and the repercussions of following your heart rather than your head that Almodóvar is aiming for. It’s mature and restrained, serious and sedate, lacking the manic energy and emotional abandon of his best work.



Talk To Her, while disappointing in comparison to All About My Mother, is nonetheless a film with plenty to offer, not least of which is the gorgeous cinematography. After all, even a sub-par Almodóvar movie is still a more satisfying cinematic experience than most of the films made in Hollywood.



* Talk To Her (in Spanish with English subtitles) opens Wed, Dec 25 at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland Ave) and Canada Square (2200 Yonge St).