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Monday, December 11, 2006

talk to him

I saw Pedro Almodóvar's Hable con ella (Talk to Her) for the millionth time tonight, this time with my students. It is such an improbably sublime movie that it's worth taking the time to figure out how Almodóvar reached such a point in his career that he could make it.

I was a teenager in the late 80's when his films hit New York and they seemed to be everywhere all at once, from the Lincoln Plaza Cinema to the Quad on 13th Street to some cinemas that aren't around anymore. For a while it seemed like a new old Almodóvar fim was coming out every month. According to Lexis-Nexis, The New York Times reviewed three of his films (Dark Habits, Matador, and Women on the Verge) in 1988 alone. I don't know how much I knew about Franco and Spanish politics at that age, but the radicalism of those early films was exactly what every teenager needs to see: absolute shamelessness about feelings and habits and sexuality.

Given the cultural and political moment in Spain, his early films don't depict a lot of consequences, nor should they have. It was a time for anarchy and zaniness and liberation, not a time for gravity and maturity and reflection. This is not a complaint: that's exactly why his early films are so great despite their low budgets and rudimentary film style. After seeing his last few films, I'm starting to wonder if he is returning to old themes but with the weight of responsibility for the actions depicted. Let's consider some examples, and I promise I'll do my best not to give Volver's plot away. It's not called Volver for nothing.

At least two of his 80's films seem revisited by Volver. In What Have I Done to Deserve This (1985), housewife Carmen Maura kills her husband and gives her son to a pederast dentist in payment for the bill. In Law of Desire (1987), Carmen Maura plays a male-to-female transgendered person who, as a boy, had had a sexual relationship with her father and had undergone surgery in order to be with him as a female. Neither film depicts any moral complication associated with what we would otherwise call child abuse. Again, I'm not criticizing, just observing.

Since All about My Mother in 1999, his films have developed an emotional gravitas and a visual lushness unprecedented in his earlier work. And lots of consequences for people's behavior: dying of AIDS, a desperate suicide after the rape of a comatose patient, and the pain that we see among the women of Volver.

But Hable con ella (2002) is unique. Here, for the first and only time, we have in Marco Zuluaga (Darío Grandinetti) a soulful and decent straight male character. The University Press of Mississippi (go figure) recently published a great collection of interviews with Almodóvar that spans his entire career. Every time his attention turns to men, he says something like this comment from 1990: 'For me, men are too inflexible. They are condemned to play their Spanish macho role.' (Pedro Almodóvar Interviews, p. 90). The key word here may be 'condemned': for as freewheeling an amoralist as Almodóvar, the only sin would be the suppression of feeling.

Marco, distinctly, is the man who feels. When we first see him at the Pina Bausch performance, he cries, and many of his narrative events throughout the film are simply episodes of crying. The one time he notably does not cry, in the flashback to ex-girlfriend Angela's wedding, he offers his absence of tears to Lydia as proof that he is over his feelings for her. No tears: no feelings.

Would it be too much to say that Marco is Almodóvar's ideal of what a man ought to be? The more I think about it, the more I think that's right. But what on earth led him to write this amazing, soulful male character? If I could ask him one question, that would be it.

(From the see-something-new-every-time department: the next time you watch Hable, notice Benigno's mother's wedding picture, shown twice in the film. The first time, it is framed on the wall as Benigno stares out the window. It is clear that a man, Benigno's father obviously, has been cropped out of the picture frame. The photo reappears when Marco claims Benigno's belongings from the prison. Here, unframed, it is clear that the husband has been removed by tearing. Wow. Now that is visual storytelling.)

Benigno: 'I've hugged very few people in my life.'


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