Almodóvar’s World

Almodóvar’s World

November has been melodrama month at the movies. First Todd Haynes brought us Far From Heaven, which he ought to have called Imitation of Imitation.


November has been melodrama month at the movies. First Todd Haynes brought us Far From Heaven, which he ought to have called Imitation of Imitation. Now comes Pedro Almodóvar with Talk to Her, so we can see the real thing.

When a film is as touching and true as Talk to Her, it deserves to be praised on its own. Nevertheless: I note that only one of these melodramas makes itself bigger than life through generosity, by giving its characters the boldness and color we’d all like to have. The other achieves grandeur by making life small: judging every character in advance, reducing every situation to a slogan–the sort of unexceptionably liberal slogan on which your average Democrat could run, and lose.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said that Haynes alone condescends to his characters. There’s a woman in Almodóvar’s new movie–a television talk-show host–whom the filmmaker demeans three times over. After being treated as a functionary, who exists solely to bring together the real characters, she’s made to splutter and thrash, like a frog who’s missed the lily pad. And for the third insult, she’s given nothing better to croak than this platitude: “Talking about problems is the first step toward overcoming them.”

This is serious, in a movie titled Talk to Her. The professional interviewer has cheapened conversation.

That said, all the other characters in Talk to Her are amateurs in their speech–lovers, I mean–and receive the deepest consideration from Almodóvar. That’s true even for the chatterbox concierge who charms the screen for thirty seconds; even for the prison warden who feels the full gravity of the words he says, however few. As for the major characters:

Marco (Darío Grandinetti) is a wandering writer by trade: an author of travel guides, who walks and talks as if he were himself a slim and stubble-chinned suitcase, somewhat battered by life and holding the bare necessities within. Seen from his point of view, Talk to Her would be about the loss of three loves. The first is a softly beautiful young woman, blond and needy, who made Marco wretched when they were together and makes him wretched now that she’s gone. The second love is Lydia (Rosario Flores)–fierce, lean-muscled, strong-featured, Andalusian, a woman who has sliced her way into the ranks of professional bullfighters. When she, too, begins to slip away from Marco, the third love enters: chubby young Benigno (Javier Cámara).

A voyager who binds himself to three such different types must be polymorphous in his affections–which makes Marco a good match for Benigno, the sexually amorphous stay-at-home. What would Talk to Her look like from his viewpoint? Instead of being about loss, it might be concerned with the presence of three beloved people: his late mother, for whom he cared throughout his adolescence and who still hovers in his thoughts; a young dancer named Alicia (Leonor Watling), whom he nurses in a clinic where she’s been lying in a coma; and Marco, who ventures into Benigno’s place of employment when he visits the comatose Lydia. “Talk to her,” Benigno advises Marco. He says it with an openness, a lack of affectation, that makes speech itself seem a daily miracle.

Benigno’s voice sounds light and lyrical; his gestures are rounded and smooth. “What is your sexual orientation?” Alicia’s father wants to know (a question he asks while Benigno is firmly kneading his daughter’s left thigh). The answer is the one he wants to hear: “I like men,” Benigno tells him, his face meanwhile betraying the slightest hauteur. Does this man understand nothing of life? Benigno’s feelings can’t be frozen into categories. They take shape as if they were blobs in a lava lamp–a lava lamp, say, like the one that sits at the head of Alicia’s bed. Its amniotic colors will eventually fill the screen in close-up, at the moment when candid, loving, endearing Benigno commits his unforgivable crime.

To pause and take stock: So far we’ve got a female bullfighter, a ballerina, a hunky globetrotter and the harmless friend down the hall, all caught up in a situation out of a medical soap opera. Sexual barriers don’t exist, legal bounds are broken–and none of this seems the least bit outrageous. The Almodóvar who once invited you to laugh at lurid improbabilities now has you rapt before them, as you marvel that a world full of pain is also so various and surprising.

How does Almodóvar pull off the trick? With infinite care. The meticulous symmetry of his plan should be obvious by now: Marco and Benigno, diametrically opposite types, each love two women, one who has vanished into the past and one who lies unconscious in the present. At no point in Talk to Her, though, does this scheme feel diagrammatic, because Almodóvar keeps your eye on the movement of time, not on the structure that time flows through. He’s always skipping ahead or flashing back, shifting effortlessly among memories and fantasies and present-tense events, zigzagging between Benigno and Marco. His touch is so sure that he can even spring a newly invented “silent film” on you–something goofy and erotic–and do it without spoiling a moment of high tension.

But then, Almodóvar does not pull off the trick alone. He’s got his brilliant actors, who are so right in their roles that you might imagine Talk to Her had been cast first and written later. Within a perfectly balanced ensemble, Cámara stands out as Benigno–in part because he’s been given the most contradictory of the characters to play, and in part because he’s found a way to signal the furtiveness within the well-padded body, the guile beneath the comforting flesh. It’s an extraordinarily fine performance; but then, Grandinetti is just as good in the leading-man role of Marco (who might have been the sorrowful gunslinger, had this been a western), and Flores is indelible in her every defiant gesture as Lydia, from knocking back a drink to staring down Marco to kissing her medals as she dresses for the fight.

These players, and Almodóvar, justify melodrama in the best way possible. They use its simplifications to increase the complexity of emotions. Hiss the villain and cheer the hero: That’s the camp version of melodrama, which you may still encounter (in its academic form) in Haynes’s Far From Heaven. But Almodóvar gives us melodrama with right and wrong but without heroes and villains. He uses its artifice to bring the characters closer to us–by which I mean, quite literally, those of us who are sitting in the dark.

You can look at Talk to Her from the viewpoint of Marco or Benigno, or you can watch it as someone in a theater seat. Make the latter choice, and you see that the movie is about performances: some of them given by people who live outside the story (the dances by Pina Bausch that frame the movie, the concert by Caetano Veloso that occurs as an interlude), some of them given by characters within the narrative (Lydia with her bullfights, Benigno with his imposture). The film begins in a theater, where it brings you face to face with audience members like yourself; and the film ends in a theater, where two people seem to be sensing each other, happily, wordlessly, across the void of an empty seat.

But is the seat empty? It belongs, by implication, to a missing character; yet it also makes room for you–right in the center of the screen.

The people have spoken; Eminem is king. And from where I sit, the people are not wrong. Eminem’s sort-of, not-quite biopic, 8 Mile, is a pretty good movie, shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto with a loving eye for Detroit’s decaying cityscape and directed by Curtis Hanson with a sure sense of both the exuberance and the oppression of bodies in a crowd. The picture is never more alive than when six guys are jammed into a jalopy (except, of course, when they have two or three girls on their laps). It’s never more charged with danger and adrenaline than when Eminem (here called Bunny Rabbit) takes the stage at a hip-hop battle, held before a mass of humanity compressed into a concrete bunker.

But then, nobody really wants to know about the movie. The only real question is, “How’s Eminem?” As an actor, he’s a concavity, a pucker in the screen, a drain down which the scene’s energy disappears–that is, until he raps. Too bad the screenplay (by Scott Silver) is structured as a feature-length tease; Bunny Rabbit spends virtually the whole movie refusing to rap–no, really, please don’t ask me, I couldn’t possibly–until forced into battle in the climactic reel.

And then, he’s really something. People have been calling Eminem the hip-hop Elvis; but the better analogy might be Jack Benny. Historians cite Benny as the first monologuist to get laughs at his own expense; Eminem is the rapper who plays the dozens on himself, with torrents of slant rhymes raining down across the beat.

For those who care about race, this makes 8 Mile an extraordinarily interesting movie. Eminem’s shtick as a white guy is to be the social inferior of the black folks around him. They may have very little in this world, but he has less: less money, less family, less muscle power, less respect and of course less blackness, the currency that truly counts in hip-hop. In this sense, he’s like Owen Wilson in I-Spy, who can’t compete against Eddie Murphy’s money, fame and mojo. But then, in I-Spy, the social order occasionally reasserts itself; when Wilson gets fed up with Murphy, he just has him arrested, telling the police, “The black guy mugged me.” In 8 Mile, Eminem stays beneath the underdog–and I give him credit. It must be tough to maintain the position with Mekhi Phifer and a dozen other black guys dancing attendance on you, waiting till you pick up the mike.

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