I’ve seen Pedro Almodovar’s “ Hable con ella” several times but yesterday was the first time on the big screen and despite my familiarity with it (if it possible to become familiar with such a work), its awful, mysterious power was undiminished.
After the slump into mawkishness and self- parody circa the mystifyingly popular “All about my mother”, “Hable con ella” represents a return to the dark, death-driven Almodovar of “Matador” and “ Atame!” rather than the jocular farceur of “Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” and some of his earlier films (apparently Almodovar was recently awarded an Alabaster Oedipus at the Vienna film festival in recognition of his work as “ World’s most Freudian film-maker”).
It’s odd that Almodovar’s reputation generally rests on his strengths as a comic and his ostensible skill in portraying women ( especially given that in this movie the central female figures are largely comatose and that Benigno confesses, not in despair but in beguilement “ a woman’s mind is a mystery, in this state doubly so”) when in fact he’s probably the most disruptive, troubling (that word again) filmmaker aside from David Lynch to command such a large, an in Almodovar’s case, middlebrow audience.
Basically, “Hable con ella” is the tale of two men whose lives intersect in the coma ward of a hospital. One, Benigno, an ephebic, holy innocent of indeterminate sexual orientation is nursing (in a professional capacity) the woman he fell in love from a distance ( she danced in a ballet school directly opposite his flat) while attending to his bed-bound mother. The other, the more worldly –wise Marco, is a reporter and traveller who has struck up a relationship with a female bullfighter after seeing her interviewed on TV and then pursuing her, ostensibly in order to write a piece for “El Pais”.
The opening sequence closely allies the two men, (indeed, they may simply be two halves of one man) still strangers to each other, watching the first of the two dance sequences that bookend the piece ( the film’s opening shot is in fact a middle-aged woman in what appears to be a hospital gown, writhing , eyes closed at the front of the stage before hurling herself (or being hurled by some unknowable inner compulsion) across the room and into the far wall as “a man with the saddest face I (Benigno) have ever seen", desperately tries to push the chairs that litter the stage out of the way in order to give her a clear passage. (Is this all we do? Is this the best we can hope to do, hope to limit the obstacles and the injuries that the Other encounters as they are driven blindly onward, alternating between tortured flight and moments of catatonia? Is it the most we can ask of others for ourselves?) Benigno is as interested in Marco as he is in the performance, noticing that he weeps, as he does throughout the film for the loss of his other half, his “true love” whose absence he feels most keenly at moments of great beauty simply because she is not there to share them with him.
Through the course of the film the two men’s lives cross in the most literal sense. Benigno ends up separated from Alicia after raping and impregnating her, ultimately killing himself in prison after an attempt to induce a coma and “rejoin “ her , believing she is still in a vegetative state. Marco, after discovering that Lydia had in fact resumed her relationship with “El Nino de Valencia” her ex-lover, prior to being gored by the bull (in what appears an act of suicide), goes to live in Benigno’s apartment and, gazing from the window as Benigno had, discovers that Alicia has awakened form her four-year coma, possibly as a result of the rape and stillbirth. The final scene implies the possibility of the beginning of a relationship between the two.
The film itself proceeds through a series of chronological shifts that leave the present-tense of the film, the linear sequence largely suspended and the theme itself, the ungraspabilty of the other’s essence, the empty, unknowable, dark heart of things, the primacy of the death-drive, are refracted through a variety of styles and idioms, so that the whole piece resembles a tone- poem more than a story per se, a meditation on the old quote from Paul Valery that “ God made everything out of nothing but the nothingness shows through”. The Arcadian sequence in which Caetano Velosa hauntingly re-works “Paloma”, the film-within-a-film silent movie “El Amante Minguante” in which a shrinking man finally slips whole inside his lovers body, the re-occurring motifs of supine women being dressed or carried by men, the beautiful use of colour and costume always on the edge of gaudiness, the way in which the black, rippling back of the bull that Lydia sacrifices herself to after having slowly played out the death of a labouring toro before the eyes of her ex-lover earlier in the film is mirrored by the tracking shot of the swimmer rippling along below the surface of the pool before emerging into the grotto in which Caetano sings. In fact the surface richness of the film is overwhelming, proceeding through a series of interlaced symbols, motifs and visual analogies that amplify the meaning past the point of any possible “grasping” of its content.
Does that constitute the sublime?
The film makes me ask myself, whether this is the tragi-comic element in life, the pathos in absurdity, that on the journey through ourselves in order to reach each other we are destined always to miss each other, and that this missing of others, our struggling to orient ourselves, to find the thread that will lead us back out of the “Labyrinth of Passion”, this always being on the opposite shore or, like that archetype, the Cuban women that Marco writes about in his travel journals and who Benigno, in prison, imagines himself to be, gazing from her window caught in the slow throb of time and sunk, beyond rescue in her dreaming, is the inescapable truth of our condition. (“Only connect!” Ok, But how?)
It’s a chilling, chastening film and about as “gentle” (the description in Greenwich Picturehouse’s leaflet ) as a kick in the stomach. Love, for Almodovar isn’t the anaemic, benign, tritely redemptive non-force of Hollywood, it is instead a destructive reality- shattering, and violently invasive force, a form of torment,a sickness, an attack that must be met with equal agression. Love is not incompatible with violence and violation, quite the opposite, it’s akin to rage. Why does Antonio Banderas headbutt Victoria Abril unconscious and kidnap her in “Atame”? Because he loves her and “true love” will always overflow and erode the reality principle. Why do the lovers shoot themselves at the point of orgasm in the deeply uncomfortable conclusion to “Matador” (“ watch me while I die!”)? Because “true love” is the quest for extinction in the other. “True Love” is not what we aim for at all, what we aim for, what we want are “relationships”, a kind of being-together that holds itself apart from love and falls in line with values of liberal tolerance and respect. “Love, actually” is the dangerous state that we have to expunge, medicalise, persecute. People often comment on how “democratic” Almodovar’s camera is, (a principle he took to inflammatory lengths in the superb, vastly underrated “La Mala Educacion, the most Hitchcockian of his films, his most adroit reworking of “Vertigo.”, the final shot of which is the word “desire” zooming out to fill the frame) but really it’s a feigned detachment and in the end he’s full of tenderness for his suffering monsters , deformed by love,who have not or cannot learn to suffer in the right ways, or deform themselves on the general model.
Also recently viewed:
“Sophie Scholl”: Considerably better than Julia Jentzh’s last film, the dismal “The Edukators”, though Sophie’s earnest Protestant doggerel and hunger for martyrdom had me rooting for the Nazis by the halfway mark.
“Adam and Paul”. Day in the life of Dublin-junkies that rightly makes being a junky look about as glamorous as bowel-cancer, better than the execrable, irresponsible “Trainspotting” by a country mile, nowhere near as good as Peter Mullen’s “Orphans”, which it closely resembles.