Pedro Almodóvar is a top Spanish celebrity, but that doesn't stop Hable con ella from being resolutely art house. Paul Julian Smith explores a change of direction
A rainy March in Madrid and Pedro Almodóvar is everywhere. His fourteenth feature Hable con ella (Talk to Her) has just been released to rave reviews, even from the conservative critics who still tend to deride the Manchegan maestro. Showing on an unprecedented 276 screens, Hable con ella has grossed almost $1 million in its opening weekend. The most prestigious newspaper El País (which itself features in the film) called it "a beautiful and disconcerting work" that initiates a new stage in Almodóvar's career. The dailies are full of the director's 'auto-interview', a self-penned inquisition in which he answers only questions posed by himself. (This is by now a familiar tradition when he releases a new film.) The glossies feature photo spreads of his latest 'girls', pale and ethereal Leonor Watling and strong-featured, dark Rosario Flores. Huge billboards showing the two women's profiles, picked out in red and blue on a black background, cover the faces of the capital's tallest buildings.
Behind one multi-storey poster lies Madrid's biggest book and record store FNAC. Here the director presents the 'Almodóvar Universe', a special promotion running over all four floors. Displays highlight his personal choice of novels, CDs and videos. An exhibition space shows his first venture into still photography, documenting the shoot of the latest film. Watling, angelic in a white tutu, faces off Flores, devilishly seductive in black miniskirt and thigh-high boots. The principal boys, tough but tender Argentine Dario Grandinetti and soft-faced but sinister Javier Cámara, pose on a balcony high above a wood. The warm landscapes of Andalucía glow red and brown, dotted with olive trees. Other images are more enigmatic. Who is the 1920s vamp? Why is the androgynous bullfighter lying by the severed head of a mocked-up bull?
The FNAC promotion is called "Objetivo Almodóvar", using a Spanish word that means both 'focus' and 'target'. In the photographic exhibition, which will travel to Paris and Milan, Almodóvar pictures himself haloed by movie light and caught in front of a huge bull's-eye. Not for the first time, then, his visibility in Spain is not just a luxury but also a trap. In interview he claims to have screened Hable con ella direct to the Spanish audience without first taking it to festivals in order to avoid the punishing round of publicity tours he has previously endured. Malicious gossip claims that after the unprecedented success of All about My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999, which won both Best Director at Cannes and the foreign-language Oscar), he is scared that the new feature, three years in the making, won't live up to this highest of standards. Some critics complain that we've seen it all before. Don't the harrowing hospital scenes go back to All about My Mother and even to 1995's The Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto)? And don't the brief comic turns from old favourites Loles León as a grotesque chat-show hostess and Chus Lampreave as an eccentric caretaker evoke the carefree comedies of the 1980s? Given the minor qualms already voiced in Spain about cruelty to animals and rape in Hable con ella, Almodóvar is also bracing himself for foreign objections he typically brands "politically correct". Caught in the spotlight, Almodóvar is just too prominent, constantly repeating that as Spain's best-known celebrity he is allowed no private life and is condemned to the solitude that is the flip side of success.
Coincidentally enough (and we should not take such pseudo-confessions too seriously), solitude is the main and uncompromising theme of Hable con ella. Focusing uncharacteristically on male friendship, the film is the story, complex and subtle, of two unusual relationships. Mild-mannered Benigno (Cámara) is a male nurse who, after the death of his mother, cares lovingly in the clinic for Alicia (Watling), who lies comatose after a car accident. Strong but sensitive journalist Marco (Grandinetti) is equally solitary. Separated from his wife, he falls in love with female bull?ghter Lydia (Flores), a woman with a past whose very name evokes the 'contest' ('lidia') of Spain's national sport. After a goring from a bull, Lydia too is confined to the clinic. The two men begin a rich and strange companionship, their friendship founded on lack of communication. Almodóvar takes his title from Benigno's polite request to Marco: he should speak to his beloved even though she cannot hear. The psychology of women, he adds, is always a mystery.
Previous Almodóvar narratives stayed on the side of the woman. (Indeed it was in 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown/Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios that Carmen Maura, pursuing an ever-fugitive male lover, remarked that male psychology was more mysterious than motor mechanics.) But Hable con ella, apparently so straight in its premise of twin heterosexual couples, does continue Almodóvar's oblique investigation of queer sexualities. One of the most telling scenes shows Flores being buckled into her bullfighting garb. The camera lingers longingly on the beautiful fabric that confines her breasts and thighs. The significance of the moment for Spanish audiences is heightened by the fact that in the real-life corrida high-profile women bullfighters have recently challenged the sport's machismo. What is more, Rosario Flores, a distinguished singer in her own right, is the daughter of Lola Flores, the most extravagantly feminine flamenco star of an earlier era. The apparently placid Benigno, Almodóvar's main man, is also sexually ambiguous. Initially the character seems set up as a stereotypical queen. Mother-obsessed, he has trained in make-up and hair styling, all the better to care for his comatose female friend. Apparently a virgin, he confesses to Alicia's father, a psychoanalyst, that he prefers male company. And his initiation of intimacy with the mourning Marco seems curiously seductive. Later plot twists, however, confirm this is not the case: Benigno will belie his name.
Appropriately, given the clinical setting, much of Hable con ella is soft-spoken, even delicate in tone, especially the conversations between the two lovers of absent women. Marco and Benigno, the odd couple, bond over a common melancholia. Almodóvar has written that he is aiming for Rossellini and Antonioni here: intensity of emotion combined with transparency of style. Perhaps his most daring innovation (and one he knows will test his audiences' patience) is the shift into what can only be called a full-blown arthouse style.
The shrinking man
The cultural reference points displayed in FNAC are significant here. Almodóvar's favourite movies (or so he claims) include not only the camp classic All about Eve (1950), slavishly cited in All about My Mother, but also the classic neorealism of Rome, Open City (1945) and the hip Mexican urbanism of Amores perros (2000). His record choices embrace as expected kitsch Cuban songstress La Lupe (who features on the soundtrack to Women on the Verge), but also the more subtle rhythms of Caetano Veloso. (The Brazilian's melancholy cooing on the plangent ballad 'Cucurrucucu, paloma' receives a reverent staging in Hable con ella as the cast assemble to hear Veloso play at a party, joined momentarily by an uncredited Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes, stars of All about My Mother.) Most telling, though, is Almodóvar's book choice, a pot-pourri of international distinction from J. M. Coetzee to Bruce Chatwin via Spanish classic novelist Clarín. The most relevant reference is to Michael Cunningham's much garlanded recent novel The Hours, a subtle narrative which (like Almodóvar's) interweaves multiple strands by way of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. (The Hours is soon to be filmed by Stephen Daldry, starring Nicole Kidman.) Cited in Spanish press accounts of Almodóvar's film is Woolf's diary entry, which prefaces Cunningham's novel: "I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, and each comes to daylight at the present moment." In just the same way, Almodóvar's four central characters gradually acquire depth through their progressive interconnection, even those suspended in the living death of coma.
In the press book and on the excellent new official website Almodóvar has chosen to present Hable con ella with an abstraction worthy of Woolf: "Hable con ella is the story of friendship between two men, of solitude, and of the long convalescence from wounds provoked by passion. It is also a film on lack of communication between couples... on how monologues before a silent person can be an efficacious form of dialogue. [It is] on silence as 'the eloquence of the body', on cinema as the ideal vehicle for personal relations, and how cinema, once put into words, holds back time and takes up residence in the lives of the speaker and listener." While Almodóvar's films have always treated the theme of the 'impossibility of the couple' (and he himself has carefully veiled his own private life from press attention), Hable con ella marks his most extreme and most moving portrayal of the imbalance between amorous partners: men, whether talkative or mute, confront frozen and silent female bodies, that speak more than they know. (For the arduous role in which she spends most of the film as an unconscious but expressive corpse, Watling was rigorously trained in yoga to give her the patience to play a patient suspended in time.) Most telling in Almodóvar's description, perhaps, is the importance lent to cinema, which for the director as for the main character Benigno is the source of an intimate pleasure life itself cannot provide. Moreover the cinematic image must be turned into words. Almodóvar has often spoken of how, as a child in impoverished La Mancha, he would retell the plots of glamorous movies to his family.
This retelling of cinema is at the origin of the enigmatic stills of the 1920s vamp in Almodóvar's photographs of the shoot. On an erotically charged night, as Benigno lovingly washes his naked charge Alicia, he recounts to her unhearing ears the plot of a supposed silent classic baptised by Almodóvar "The Shrinking Man". Heralded by a loving tilt up the handsome art-nouveau facade of Madrid's Filmoteca (an arthouse reference with a vengeance), the main narrative is suspended as we watch in luminous black and white the bizarre and hilarious tale of a man who becomes so small he can disappear into his lover's vagina. Almodóvar's oeuvre is full of such incongruous interruptions (the absurd mock commercials for pants-you-can-pee-in in 1980's Pepi, Luci, Bom and the Other Girls/Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón or for coffee-you'll-never-forget in 1984's What Have I Done to Deserve This?/¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?). But what's different about this latest one is that it obscures a crucial plot point that will be revealed only later.
Women weep better
As its press book claims, Hable con ella integrates small-scale intimacy with outrageous spectacle in a newly mature manner. The frank emotion of much of the film, unashamed but never self-indulgent, comes with this new, male territory. While All about My Mother's women were, according to Almodóvar, all "actresses" playing themselves in life as on stage, Hable con ella's men are "narrators of themselves" telling their stories direct to those who can (and cannot) hear them. Explaining his preference for heroines, Almodóvar once claimed that "women weep better." Now he presents us with Marco, who is moved to tears from the very first scene. The public's patience will be sorely tried by this opening sequence. A curtain rises, gold and pink, on a disturbing piece by that uncompromising mistress of modern dance Pina Bausch in which two middle-aged women, hair streaming and eyes closed, blunder about a stage crammed with chairs and tables. (The same curtain featured at the end of All about My Mother.) First-night audiences in Madrid were initially unaware that the film had started, and it's only when Almodóvar finally cuts to moist reaction shots of Marco and Benigno that the action proper begins. This principal narration, itself made up of the four main characters' stories which flash forwards and backwards in time, will be broken by 'independent units' linked symbolically but not literally to the main action. These (the silent movie, the musical interludes) serve, in Almodóvar's words, as a "slap in the face" for the audience who are torn away from one promising plot line only to be confronted with another.
Typically, however, Bausch's company returns at the end for a final, more festive dance piece, to bring down the curtain once more. And for all its transparency, the film is full of such aesthetic patterning. In a nod to Amores perros it is split into three unequal parts signalled by intertitles giving the names of three mismatched couples: Benigno and Alicia, Marco and Lydia, Marco and Alicia. Repetition brings Woolf's virtues of humanity, humour and depth. In spite of the men's many differences, Marco will learn to tend to his mute lover just as Benigno tends to his. Lydia will fall victim to the bull, as did Alicia to the traffic accident. Much later brave Marco will take up the position at the window from which timid Benigno spied on the dance academy where Alicia attended class.
These fluid identifications extend outwards from the plot to create visual echoes. When Marco visits Benigno in prison, the faces of the two friends are superimposed, reflected in the sterile glass of the separate cubicles to which each is con?ned. Almodóvar exploits symmetrical framing too. The two women, when comatose, are placed side by side on a balcony that overlooks a wood. Their unseeing faces are turned to one another in what Almodóvar dubs "telepathic communication". Nor does Hable con ella lack the vivid colour and attention to visual detail for which Almodóvar is famous. It's not surprising that the bull-fighting scenes (remarkably ungory) are a stylish treat. Less expectedly, Almodóvar bathes the clinic in tones of warm mustard and ochre, eschewing the cold blues and greys stereotypically associated with such a sombre setting.
Indeed more than any recent film of his, Hable con ella exploits the heat (Spanish 'calor') of colour. Associated with the passionate Lydia is a heightened vision of Andalucía (actually shot in the province of Cordoba) with its rich, red earth and porcelain-white baroque chapels. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, fresh from his triumph with Alejandro Amenábar's The Others, devises smoothly flowing camera movements, a world away from the trendily nervous trembling of, say, Amores perros. Composer Alberto Iglesias, recently awarded the Goya or Spanish Oscar for his work on Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia, contributes a typically nuanced, classically influenced soundtrack. The supporting cast boasts Geraldine Chaplin as Alicia's tense but tender dance teacher - a clear sign to Spanish audiences that Almodóvar is aiming for the outer reaches of the art movie which Chaplin inhabited some 30 years ago with such films as Carlos Saura's Cria cuervos.
So much hallowed professionalism can be wearing, however, and Almodóvar's casting of Javier Cámara in the creepy central role of Benigno is more adventurous. The bald and unprepossessing Cámara (here provided with a convincing wig) has hitherto been underestimated. Known for unsympathetic roles in television drama series and buffoonish parts in big-grossing dumb comedies, he stands revealed here as a moving and complex player, one who opens up the "beautiful cave" behind an apparently two-dimensional character. Transcending Benigno's isolation, he is able to convince us, for a moment at least, of what he says to his new friend Marco: that his tender attentions to the unconscious Alicia make for a deeper relationship than the majority of marriages. If Marco's silence is eloquent (Darío Grandinetti's eyes brim fiercely with desire and distress), Benigno's prattle is no less moving. His endless monologue is also inspired by love, however displaced and distorted.
Life, love and solitude
Almodóvar has said that Spanish cinema is not in a good way. In spite of gaining a much trumpeted 18 per cent of the domestic market in a nation with perhaps the most frequent filmgoing habits in Europe (twice the rate of Italy and Germany), only a couple of recent films stand out. Amenábar's The Others is likely to be a unique case, playing (as Almodóvar himself remarks) as a Hollywood film in the US and as a Spanish film in Spain. Medem's Sex and Lucia is another rare local success that combines artistic ambition with commercial clout.
In this context Almodóvar's continued commitment to European production and to the Spanish language remains remarkable, particularly since after winning the Oscar he could have made any project he liked. If Hable con ella is not the masterpiece All about My Mother was, still it signals the start of a new, ambitious and risky period for Almodóvar: his next project is an erotic portmanteau movie made with Antonioni and Wong Kar-wai. In a time of dumbing down, Almodóvar's unapologetic debts to the high culture of Pina Bausch, Rossellini and Michael Cunningham are not to be belittled. While some of his audience may fall by the wayside, the faithful will not be disappointed. Rather, like Mario moved to tears by Bausch's dance, they will accept that even in postmodern times art can still touch the emotions and an accomplished artist has the right to follow his or her vision. Confined by success to his own universe, Almodóvar may find his monologue too becomes a dialogue, that he is joined in his meditations on life, love and solitude by a grateful audience that has grown weary of having its taste underestimated.