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Vignette, 10-17: Flesh
"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 and joy.

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 be her."

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.

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