Silent treatment

Almodovar loses some luster in his bid for maturity with Talk to Her

Pedro Almodovar’s films have always exhibited a strange dramatic range, from moony and heartfelt to full-throttle kinky, and they’re as impishly irreverent as a bearded man in a nun’s habit.

Talk to Her perversely combines those impulses, equivocating between earnest and scandalous. Unfortunately, the Spanish enfant terrible’s iconoclastic artistic hysteria never rises to the surface in Talk to Her. The film gives the consistent impression of a lovably irrepressible jackass trying to court grown-up attention by putting on a suit and talking about the stock market. Almodovar has never been so bloodless and — horror of horrors — dull.

Like two ships passing in the night, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti) are two men joined by a shared, bizarre circumstance. Both men’s love objects (and that word “object” turns out to be highly applicable here) lie in the same luxe hospital — more spa than sick ward — in lovely, Sleeping Beauty comas.

That comatose condition is a fresh wrinkle in the tempestuous relationship between journalist Marco and fiery lady bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores), who has landed in the hospital after being viciously gored by a bull.

But for Benigno, Alicia’s (Leonor Watling) four-year coma is like some warped, fateful offering from the gods. Before her hospitalization, the rapt, obsessed Benigno had stalked Alicia, even going so far as to book an appointment with her psychiatrist father in order to be closer to her. Once Alicia is in a coma, the lonely Benigno uses his nurse’s training to become her attendant, tending to her like some living doll as he ties her hair in a silk bow and offers lingering thigh massages with scented lotions.

Despite his cuddly appearance and kindness, the pudgy, pitiful Benigno comes across as the kind of creep so sure of the purity of his own desires, he can justify anything. And Benigno soon does justify anything in a nosedive for narrative kink that is reminiscent of Brimstone and Treacle’s icky denouement.

While Marco, who only recently became involved with Lydia, flounders about how to help her, the saintly, patient Benigno gives him instruction about the proper care and handling of any woman, comatose or not: Talk to her. Benigno is established as a kind of seer into the female soul, though others may see his insight as more than a little twisted and sexually stunted. Gradually Marco and Benigno become soul mates themselves, united in a brotherly devotion to their remarkably passive love objects.

There is a kind of warped Catholicism at work in Talk to Her, where these women become like living Virgin Mary shrines to Marco and Benigno’s (and Almodovar’s) increasingly abstract, idealized vision of female perfection. In contrast, Marco and Benigno are tiny, weepy, confused creatures dwarfed and bewitched by the enormous charisma of these women. Though Almodovar seems to be expressing a sincere and loving appreciation of all things female, his form of devotion is bizarrely displaced — he reveres women by placing them horizontal and speechless in a bed — and let’s the men do all the talking. Only Almodovar could make a film about relationships in which one-half of the lovers have the agency of a turnip.

The filmmaker intercuts his story with vignettes in which Pina Bausch’s avant-garde dance troupe performs several silent but urgent numbers that parallel the verbal atrophy of Lydia and Alicia. But all is not high-toned metaphor when it comes to other, poetic kinds of communication. In one deliriously Almodovar sequence, Benigno recounts a troubling silent film he’s just seen to his buddy Marco. In Talk to Her’s most memorable moment, Almodovar shows the story, in shimmering black-and-white, of a scientist who has taken a shrinking potion and is reduced to the size of a chicken nugget. Despite his diminutive scale, the scientist is so consumed by passion for his full-size lover, he strips down to his bad self and crawls like a brave spelunker into the curly-haired portal of her enormous vagina.

Almodovar has always embraced the lowbrow in his love of such outrageously unpredictable action, not to mention his garish color schemes. Though Almodovar is more polite and calm than usual in Talk to Her, the film still has the ludicrous, pulpy machinations of a soap opera operating beneath the surface, where rape, pregnancies, break-ups, suicide, imprisonments and bitter rivalries arise despite half of the cast being in a coma.

But Almodovar has lost some of his kicky energy and unique charms in his movement into more adult territory. Talk to Her makes one long for the delightful bad taste, good humor and jaw-dropping shock of prime Almodovar circa Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or the more persuasive blend of camp and emotion in All About My Mother.

Ultimately, Almodovar’s effort to shuck off the cinematic short pants in Talk to Her reaffirms the fact that maybe growing up, at least for an artist, is not always a good thing.