"Talk to Her": Almodovar's Anatomy of Women
By Tobi Tobias
Copyright 2002 Tobi Tobias
Typically, Pedro Almodovar
proposes an outrageous situation in "Talk to Her" (Hable con Ella),
his latest film. Imagine this: A lovely young dancer, hit by a car
in Madrid's perilous traffic, lies comatose -- without ideas or
feelings, as her doctor describes her persistent vegetative state.
An experienced female bullfighter, gored and trampled in the ring,
is reduced to the same limbo. Sequestered in neighboring nursing-home
rooms, each is attended by a strange lover, the aspiring ballerina
by her mentor as well -- the veteran dancer turned teacher who is
a stock figure of ballet legend.
The gaudy, bizarre twists
and turns of the film's plot, influenced perhaps by the magic realism
of the Latin American novelists Borges and Garcia Marquez, are extravagant
even for this film maker, who thrives on flamboyant, unlikely extremes.
But there's a sober, well reasoned, and calmly paced subtext operating
here too, and it has a special appeal for the dance observer. Using
this trio of female figures representing three different generations,
Almodovar examines an anatomical spectrum that runs from the peak
of natural physical blossoming through the stages in which the body
is transformed -- deformed, if you will -- in service of a vocation.
We gaze with his contagious fascination at the luscious body of
the unconscious young dancer; at the taut physique, honed by fierce
experience, of the bullfighter (during her pre-coma existence, rendered
in flashbacks); and at the body of the aging ballet mistress.
The chief focus, of
course, is on the ingenue (Alicia, played by Leonor Watling). Ironically,
this actress does not have a trained dancer's anatomy, with the
pared-down flesh, visible musculature, and prominent veins that
are the result of unremitting vigorous labor. Her body represents,
instead, the illusion of beauty, innate and unmarred, that it is
a ballerina's job to convey. A sequence of scenes gradually undresses
her, revealing generous breasts, belly, and thighs, which are at
once soft and resilient, and delectable skin -- smooth and glowing.
The camera serves as the viewer's proxy in caressing this glorious
young body, offering not merely visual delight, but a vicarious
tactile pleasure. The erotic element of touch is reinforced by the
pretext for the intimate contact: As part of the care essential
to maintaining an inert body, it is forever being massaged. This
being Almodovarland, the masseur is none other than the male nurse
whose perverted yet oddly sympathetic desire for the young dancer
made him her stalker before she was felled and now puts him in a
position to imagine himself her devoted lover.
At first he's content
to run his hands along the passive dancer's inner thighs, his knuckles,
fingertips, and palms stroking, pressing, and kneading the flesh,
all the while remembering to "talk to her," because, as he instructs
the bullfighter's lover, that's what women need and want, conscious
or not. But the ravishing quiescent flesh proves to be as tempting
as a ripe peach, and he eventually succumbs to his own cravings.
Impelled by the fantasy of a movie he's seen, he rapes the girl,
leaves her pregnant, is found out, jailed, and driven to suicide
by his irreparable loss. Lo and behold, childbirth, with the infant
conveniently dead, works a miracle! The young woman is restored
to consciousness, embarks on a rigorous course of rehabilitation
under the unrelenting tutelage of the ballet mistress, and awakens
to the attentions of the bullfighter's erstwhile lover (the bullfighter
having moved from a state of suspended animation to a perhaps merciful
extinction, from living death to the real thing). As I've indicated,
the story is surreal. But it is not frivolous. It prompts a number
of notions worth mulling over, one being that, when all is said
and done, the young dancer remains most striking and memorable to
the filmgoer as barely animate flesh.
Unlike the young woman,
who exemplifies flesh untouched by experience, the bullfighter (Lydia,
played by Rosario Flores) represents the honed-to-essentials anatomy
of a mature ballet dancer. Her face is a slim oval, dramatically
vivacious in private life, set in a stern mask of concentration
when she confronts the violent beast who is a kind of mythical antagonist.
That face has a lot of earned lines. The woman's narrow body is
perennially taut, on the alert -- as if the muscles had long ago
forgotten how to yield to languor -- and it tightens even further
in the ring. Formed by the discipline of her calling, it is charged
with a fervent energy that is psychic as well as physical.
For Almodovar, the similarities
between the bullfighter's metier and that of the classical dancer
-- both highly artificial and strictly codified -- are evident.
A scene in which the bullfighter is dressed for her appearance in
the ring discourses at length on the parallel. An anonymous attendant,
like a dancer's dresser, garbs the woman in her "costume," smoothing
cerise stockings up her extended legs, which are next inserted into
knee-length trousers encrusted with embroidery. Similarly, her torso
is sheathed in a weskit and then a bolero jacket, both heavy with
gold decoration like the chasing on medieval armor and stiff enough
(like a classical dancer's boned bodice) to stand without a body's
support. Encased in these garments, the bullfighter is shaken down
so that her flesh settles into them. Last, a cummerbund is cinched
so implacably around her midriff, you wonder that she can draw breath.
The bullfighter's relative passivity in this scene is a mark of
her professionalism. Businesslike, she submits to the ritual robing
that is the prelude to her work. In spirit, she has pledged herself
to her exotic, exigent undertaking; her body serves as constant
evidence of this commitment.
The ballet mistress
(Katarina, played by Geraldine Chaplin) is a model of what a long
life dedicated to classical dancing can to do to a body. Every bit
of excess flesh is stripped away, so that what remains visible seems
to consist of skin and skeleton alone, with the life force all in
the brilliant eyes. The woman's face, though beautiful in its way,
has the wizened-monkey look of canny old age. The posture of her
small, narrow frame is maintained by a ramrod spine military types
might envy; this fiercely erect carriage is second nature, instilled
from childhood. Her head, gracefully poised, is held proudly, as
if proclaiming a resistance to -- or perhaps defiance of -- whatever
sorrows the Fates may dare to deliver. The anatomy of the ballet
mistress recalls the stunning images of Isak Dinesen in her last
years, when the great Danish storyteller was ravaged by syphilis
and purportedly existing on a diet of oysters and Champagne, her
body on the verge of annihilation, her inextinguishable eyes blazing.
Physically, the ballet mistress in "Talk to Her" serves as an icon
for something enormous that has been accomplished and that has been
judged worth any necessary sacrifice, even self-immolation.
The film has another
element connecting it with dancing. It's framed by a pair of excerpts
from the repertoire of Pina Bausch (who figures, apparently, in
Almodovar's pantheon of minor goddesses). Bausch herself performs
in the segment (from the 1978 "Cafe Muller") that opens the film,
evoking a half-conscious figure imbued with melancholy. The thin
oval of her face is pale and worn; her attenuated arms waft like
willow branches at the mercy of the slightest wind; her body, shrouded
in a flimsy white slip dress, seems bereft of muscle tone. This
is, of course, Bausch's signature role. The excerpt from the 1998
"Masurca Fogo" chosen to close the film and underline its implausible
happy ending is peopled chiefly by the sturdy and voluptuous. Their
intimate couple-dancing leads them, logically, to the dance of life;
they lie down upon beds of flowers; the choreographer herself does
not appear. In the evolution of her work, Bausch shifted her focus
from the grim sorrows of experience to the natural, easy pleasures
of youth. Only the earlier work seems authentic. Almodovar, on the
other hand, finds his bliss in the human animal's infinite variety
and offers us irresistible invitations to share his astonishment
A word from Geraldine Chaplin, interviewed by TT in New York
City, October 10, 2002:
Ballet was my very first
love, intense as first love always is.
I studied classical
dance, eventually at the Royal Ballet School, but I'd started late
and I wasn't very good. So I stopped. I didn't leave it,
it left me. For a while my heart was broken. It was
like being abandoned by a lover. I thought if I couldn't dance I
would die. But I didn't die.
There are good things
and bad things to be said about ballet. First the bad things: It
destroys the body. All my dancer girlfriends have had hip
replacements. And their feet -- battered, horrendous -- yet somehow
(have you seen that photograph of Nureyev's foot?) strangely beautiful.
Ballet is so disfiguring, so anti-natural. And of course its physical
ideals encourage anorexia. It prevents you from doing sports when
you're young, because sports spoil the turnout. What's more, it
ruins any chance you might have to dance in a disco!
But if you are a classical
dancer, there's nothing more satisfying. Ballet is a passion, an
addiction, such a peculiar mixture of pleasure and pain. The discipline
you get from it is certainly a plus. If you've had classical ballet
training, you can endure anything.
I wanted to make my
role in the film believable. Pedro took me to a Croatian ballet
mistress who was a spectacular character. She was in her late sixties.
She had danced in many places and spoke in a mix of the languages
that had come her way. As a performer she had reached soloist rank,
I think, but her great dream was to become a choreographer. Her
head was filled to bursting with ideas about the ballets she might
create. But she was pragmatic. You can't be a dancer and not be
a pragmatist. So she became a teacher. Pedro said, "I want you to
Working with Pedro,
the interaction is magical. He's so compassionate. He knows how
to listen. He has a terrific ear for the ordinary and for the extraordinary.
And he has this tremendous gift for transforming the ordinary into
the extraordinary -- and vice versa.
"Talk to Her" (Hable con Ella), a film by Pedro Almodovar. Premiere:
March 15, 2002, Spain. U.S. release: November 22, 2002 (shown in
the New York Film Festival October 13, 2002).
Editor's Note: To read Susan Yung's Flash Review of "Talk to
Her," please click here.