Clever story turns soapy

Movie Review

January 24, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



In a half-dozen movies starting with Labyrinth of Passions in 1982 and peaking with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988, the Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar has specialized in earthy, sophisticated farces that dared audiences to laugh at extreme erotic exploits and heartbreak. In Talk to Her, his biggest critical hit yet, he prods audiences to cry at what should be the stuff of black comedy: Two men's obsessions with a couple of comatose ladies.

"I'm not a `gay director,'" Almodovar once said. "I'm an absolutely male director." In Talk to Her he proves it: He's made a male weepie.

It's like a companion piece to the movie version of Michael Cunningham's The Hours - Cunningham's book even pops up, near the end, on a night table, under the title Las Horas. A string of events including death, resurrection and suicide restores the central figure, a writer named Marco, to the prospect of true happiness.

A year ago, the message of "serious" movies like Changing Lanes and About a Boy was that moral commitment to other people makes you whole. This year's message is that another person's demise can make you appreciate life.

Of course, Talk to Her, unlike The Hours, is a screen original - and Almodovar is an authentic moviemaker. In Talk to Her he modulates outrageousness into the nuanced emotional spectrum and beguiling rhythms of a deluxe "relationship movie." But he still ends up with a soap opera, albeit with concentrated soap.

The movie starts with one of Pina Bausch's gratingly pretentious modern dance pieces: Two women blindly throw themselves across a stage while a man strives to keep up with them as he flings chairs and tables out of their way. This spectacle drives Marco (Dario Grandinetti) to tears. It also deeply affects Benigno (Javier Camara), a nurse who cares full-time for a vegetative former ballet student, Alicia (Leonor Watling), and describes to her every dance or film he sees.

Soon afterward, Marco, a freelance journalist and author of travel books, sees a bullfighter named Lydia (Rosario Flores) walk off a talk show when the host grills her about breaking up with a male bullfighter. Marco wants to profile her, though he knows nothing about bullfighting. The TV scene, and one of Marco killing a snake in Lydia's kitchen, merely flirt with humor, but they lend an aura of unpredictability that keeps you anticipating wild turns in the action. The critical ones come when Marco and Lydia become involved - and Lydia winds up unconscious in the same clinic where Benigno cares for Alicia.

Benigno recognizes Marco from the dance recital and tries to help him cope with the prospect that Lydia may never regain consciousness. He oozes hope and love, urging Marco to talk to Lydia as he does to Alicia. But Benigno is a special case. He spent most of his life nursing his mother and was obsessed with Alicia before she entered the clinic - she trained at a dance studio across the street from his apartment. What keeps the movie mildly engrossing is Almodovar's casual artistry as he unfolds each character's past and shows how it impinges on the present. When the movie closes in on itself, all the carefully placed details, like Alicia opening her eyes when Marco first enters her room, fall into place. Too bad the pattern is less bejeweled than sequined.

At heart, the film pays sentimental tribute to that self-sacrificing innocent, Benigno - a Chaplinesque figure who actually is as far from Chaplin as his near-namesake Roberto Benigni. There's nothing balletic or poetic about this amiable lump of humanity, but that may be the key to this movie's popular success. His overstuffed presence cushions Almodovar's most outre material. Everyone can project his or her most tender feelings onto him as he lovingly bathes his dream girl and throws get-togethers for her with Lydia and Marco or Alicia's ballet teacher (Geraldine Chaplin).By the time he gets around to proclaiming his desire to marry Alicia, everyone can understand it.

Talk to Her is never as original or audacious as it pretends to be; even the black-and-white silent film that lifts Benigno to heights of longing, about the seemingly futile true love of an incredible shrinking man, borrows its key image from Bertrand Blier's Calmos (aka Femmes Fatales). Almodovar's movie has its share of glancing insights, like the way ex-lovers cry when they can't share something beautiful with their former mates. But you yearn for a sharp edge amid all the mush; ironically, only Charlie Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine, supplies it - she conveys the authority of a dance-master from her head down to her toes.

The movie's cinematography is sumptuous, in its own intimate way. But all that's glorious about this film is the flesh tones. There isn't enough flesh and blood.

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