Coincidence, chance, fate, whatever it is that drives a Pedro Almodóvar pelicula, there always seems to be a guiding force moving proceedings along, whether dealing crushing blows or handing great fortune upon its characters. In Hable con ella it is mixed blessings: two lonely men, both infatuated by two very different women, find themselves united when the objects of their desire suffer accidents which put them in long, deep comas. For Almodóvar this represents a break with his traditional lines of enquiry: so often a great director of women, trying to penetrate their world which he has been denied merely by dint of his gender, this is a film about men, and that eternally unknown mystery to them of the opposite sex.
We begin, as in his previous film Todo sobre mi madre (1999), with a performance, this time a piece of dance, with two women gracefully moving about a stage littered with chairs. A man enters, the women scatter, knocking over the wooden props. In the audience are Marco and Benigno, who do not know each other yet, both entranced by the production. Marco is a journalist, and another day catches sight of a female matador, Lydia, appearing on a trashy talkshow (now there’s an Almodóvar trademark) and storming off when asked about her ex-lover, also a famous bullfighter. Something in seeing this prompts the writer to ask his editor to allow him to write a profile of her, which is agreed to. On meeting, he admits to her that he is drawn to women like her, and a stroke of Almodóvarian fortune thrusts them together.
Flash-forward, and Lydia has a dramatic ‘accident’ with a bull, which puts her in a vegetative coma. At the hospital, Marco meets Benigno again, who is a nurse tending to another girl in a coma, Alicia, a dance student, who it turns out the young man used to watch train from his bedroom window across the road. Benigno, like his name, seems a harmless, unthreatening fellow, lonely after having cared for his sickly mother up until her recent death. The two men are like light and dark – Marco, still haunted from losing a prior love jaded from experience, and Benigno virginal and innocent – so unlike each other, yet they find common ground in their shared predicaments. Benigno, thinking himself more in tune with his female patient offers Marco one piece of advice – hable con ella: ‘talk to her’. If the men are contrasting, then so to are the women: despite the similarities which the director clearly wants to draw between bullfighting and dancing, there are clear differences: the colourful adornments and costumal complexity of Lydia’s matador outfit in stark contrast to the simple white gown which the unconscious Alicia wears in her hospital bed, the blood-soaked bull next to the elegance of the dancer.
Almodóvar’s films are often populated with female dialogue: chit-chat, gossip, and more serious matters which men generally seldom would admit to talking about with their male friends. Yet his films are not aimed strictly at a female audience; i feel that his films are often a means by which men can venture into the cinema and gain a window of insight into what women really talk about to each other, whilst still holding their arthouse heads held high. Here though, this kind of talk is kept to a minimum – save for some idle staff-room gossip about Benigno’s true sexuality, and one woman’s charming description to a friend about her ‘elephant sized’ defecation. What the elegant setup of this film allows is for men to talk to each other about women – in one particularly great moment, Lydia and Alicia have been brought together, and Marco speculates at to if they weren’t comatose, ‘what do you think they would be talking about?’.
If this is a film about loneliness, then it is also about voyeurism and co-dependency. Aside perhaps from the angelic and mostly prone Alicia, the other main characters seem to be living their lives through someone else: Benigno through Alicia and latterly his deceased mother, Lydia through her former amor Niño, and Marco at first for his ex-love, then by Lydia’s bedside, before finally assimilating much of Benigno’s identity. The nurse by definition works for the benefit of others, and Marco too in his capacity as a travel journalist acts as a cipher for other peoples’ experiences. As they conduct their bedside vigils, we have to question how much do we ourselves live our lives through other people – is this not, to an extent, what love is? ‘Love’, of course, is never a simple concept in the Almodóvar world, much like in the real world, and sexuality is ill-defined at best. Benigno pretends to be homosexual in order to get the job tending to Alicia’s bedside, but is he ‘sexual’ at all?
The much celebrated, perhaps over-praised, Todo sobre mi madre wore its artistic influences on its sleeve – John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977), Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) – and here there is a segment which pays tribute to silent films gone past, a bizarre Freudian B-movie the details of which are probably too spoiler-filled and quite frankly bizarre to reveal to any readers who have not seen the film yet. The interlude would seem an amusing exercise in style were it not for the fact that the key turn in the narrative occurs here – what is its significance? There is much to debate here, but once again, not without seeing the film first.
Hable con ella is my most favourite of Almodóvar’s films, though it could be construed as his most least auteurist work. Certainly there are most of his trademark elements present: the driving, mysterious plotting, vibrant use of bright colours, sexual confusion, an emphasis on theatricality over narrative realism. But while most of his films are to one degree or another built from his background in exploitation cinema, Hable con ella feels his most honest: his best statement about what it is to be a man in the world, wanting to be close to women, perhaps even be one, but never being able fully to understand their mysteries, their sheer incomprehensibilities from a male standpoint.