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Movie Review: Almodovar's latest: Girlfriends in a coma

Friday, February 07, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

"I haven't talked to my wife in 18 months. I hate to interrupt her."

-- Henny Youngman

The problem is the reverse for Benigno and Marco: The women they love can't get a word in edgewise. Well, maybe they could, but they don't -- because they're both in a coma.


RATING: R for nudity and sexual themes and images

STARRING: Javier Camara, Dario Grandiletti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores

DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodovar

Critic's call:

Related article:

Actor Camara focuses on cutting edge


Such is the practical and existential dilemma presented by Spanish master director Pedro Almodovar in "Habla con ella" ("Talk to Her"), a touching melodrama and delicious black comedy at one and the same time.

As the story opens, Benigno (Javier Camara), a male nurse, and Marco (Dario Grandiletti), a writer, have not met. They just happen to be sitting next to each other at a performance of Purcell's "Fairy Queen" -- equally moved by it but, in typical male fashion, unable to communicate/exchange emotions.

Cut to several months later when they meet again at the clinic where Benigno works: It seems that Marco's bullfighter-girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores) has been severely gored and is in a coma. Benigno, for his part, is tending to Alicia (Leonor Watling), a beautiful ballet dancer with whom he's in love -- likewise comatose.

Benigno's life has always revolved around beds. His mother took herself to one at 40 and never left, awarding her son the full-time task of caring for her (learning beautician's and manicurist's as well as nursing skills to do so) to her death.

It's a job he enjoyed, and still does. Now, his full-time devotion is to Alicia, with the full-time habit of talking to her -- confiding his secrets and secret longings -- all the while.

The subtext, or main text, depending on how you look at, is the developing friendship between the two men, who have nothing particular in common except the comas of their lovers. Silent Marco can't identify with verbal Benigno. But he's learning.

So are we -- learning, specifically, the subtle difference between a "monologue" and a one-way conversation.

The most audacious scene in "Talk to Her" is an erotic dream sequence in which a miniaturized Benigno conducts (for us and himself) a walking tour of Alicia's genitalia. Like much of the rest of the film (and Almodovar's cinematic approach generally), it is pure Luis Bunuel, brilliantly provocative and wickedly funny.

Those adjectives would apply as well to Camara's performance, which is a real thing of beauty, and to the welcome reappearance of Geraldine Chaplin in a supporting role. That greatly underrated actress, Charlie's daughter, plays the mistress of Alicia's "Decadence Dance Academy" with all the ironic aplomb of her role in Altman's "Nashville" of yore.

Director Almodovar, fresh from the success of "All About My Mother," gets stronger and better with every film. "Talk to Her" is a spiritual breath and candy mint about what he calls "the joy of narration" and the power of words as an antidote to solitude and death.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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