One of the most striking elements of Pedro Almodóvar's second-act career reinvention as a "serious" filmmaker is how far he's come while changing so little. The marvelous new Talk To Her has elements that wouldn't have seemed out of place in an Almodóvar film of 20 years ago: a female matador, a dance instructor with a colorful enthusiasm for the avant-garde, coma patients, sexual confusion, an unspeakable act of perversity, and a generous sense of forgiveness. By the time of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the director even had a grasp on the cinematic craftsmanship needed to place all those elements in a work of unlikely beauty. But since The Flower Of My Secret and its follow-ups Live Flesh and All About My Mother, Almodóvar has traded pop punch for a minor key, and found new possibilities for drama in the process. Talk To Her opens with another of the director's trademarks, a pair of unexpectedly intersecting lives. Two men sit next to each other at an unusual ballet in which apparently sightless female dancers stumble across the stage, the obstacles in their path cleared at the last possible moment by a male dancer. One of the spectators, reporter and travel-guide author Darío Grandinetti, is moved to tears. The other, a nurse (Javier Cámara), doesn't seem to react until the next day, when he relates the event to his favorite patient: ballerina Leonor Watling, who serves as Cámara's confidante and possible object of desire, even as she lies in a coma that's stretching into its fourth year. It's almost as if any event, even a hinted-at attraction to the handsome man sitting next to him, doesn't become real for Cámara until he relays it to Watling. As their one-sided relationship carries on, Grandinetti strikes up a relationship of his own with Rosario Flores, a bullfighter whose performances have taken on an increasingly self-destructive tone. When another catastrophe reunites Cámara and Grandinetti, Almodóvar uses flashbacks and, in one remarkable sequence, a fabricated silent film to explore the relationships of all four principals in greater depth. Almodóvar is a great admirer of actresses—All About My Mother ended with a string of dedications to some of his favorites—and his films can always be counted on for their female performances. But here, men carry the weight of the film, particularly Cámara, whose unflagging gentleness hides a swirl of confusion. His character is so kind, and so eager to love, that everyone around him seems to forget that love can do damage, even as they return over and over to visit patients who most likely will never acknowledge them again. In one passage of unexpected grace after another, Talk To Her finds the gentle rhymes between tragedy and moments of happiness, and between the despair and rapture that keep its characters in the thrall of love.
More from The A.V. Club