A Miracle’s Underside

Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella) (2002)

Sony Pictures Classics

Like Ernst Lubitsch, Pedro Almodóvar is a director with a touch. This touch casts a light and a spell over beings and objects to reveal a world in all its shades and relations. The trademark turns of Almodóvar’s plots could pass for soap opera: an unlikely (or miraculous) recovery from a coma through a shocking pregnancy (Talk to Her); organ transplants and a long-lost trans mother (All About My Mother); a grandmother back from the dead, and a mother who turns out to be her daughter’s sister (Volver). Volver and Talk to Her put the exploitation of family and personal trauma and drama on display—Agustina, who’s dying of cancer in Volver, and Lydia, the lovelorn bullfighter in Talk to Her, run off the sets of prurient, scandal-mongering television hostesses. The Almodóvar touch transforms soap-opera plot points into facts of life. A summary of such a work, however accurate, can only give the wrong impression; it wants our eyes for color and our ears for melody, and a kinesthetic sense responding to rhythm, and only when we give this of ourselves does the story lay claim to us. 

For instance, at the heart of Talk to Her is this damnable event: Benigno (Javier Cámara), a male nurse, rapes and impregnates Alicia (Leonor Watling), a coma patient in his care—which, by a blasphemous miracle, prompts her to recover from her coma. A thoughtful friend of mine confessed that she’d loved this film at first (or perhaps, as she suspected, was seduced by it), but, upon watching it a second and a third time, could no longer tolerate the mischief it makes. The Almodóvar touch wore off, and it left the whole thing looking nakedly sordid. The more she thought about it, the more offended she felt by how beautiful this sordid tale was permitted to appear. I wondered whether she’d rather that Alicia had not recovered at all.

I am distrustful of moral retrospect when it shuns the evidence of the senses, which can recover the life in any situation. If spontaneous joy is a representative response to the film, why not regard this response with curiosity? The film’s disarming beauty (which I invoke as an obvious fact rather than merely to praise it) arises from its overt theatricality, its direct appeal to the senses, the simplicity and transparency of its formal repetitions, and the symmetry of its love plot. Its constraints allow us to see the facts of what happens from different angles, in different orders, from different points in time and space, and to construct a world from these facts. Rather than question whether the film deserves to be so beautiful, we might take beauty as a starting point, and be brought to see something we’d otherwise turn our backs on: a recovery not only of a young woman from a coma, but of the force of life in the face of moral judgment, flouting moral outrage—life as its own proof, needing nothing further. If there’s one good about which the film does not equivocate, it is the good of being alive. It’s more than the moral tingling you get from watching a film in which the evil aren’t punished and the good aren’t rewarded. Here, the good comes of the evil matter-of-factly, literally. It’s an impious recovery, a curative violation, a gift that also takes away.

Not all that Alicia loses in her coma can be fully recovered, unlike the wallet that Benigno sees fall from her purse while he watches (or watches over) her from his window—returned to her, in what is chronologically their first encounter, with nothing missing. In her coma, she loses her power to consent. Whatever else she may have lost by the end of the film, she undeniably loses four years of life. Though we see her in physical therapy with her dedicated dance teacher, Katerina, it would be another sort of miracle for her to resume life as a dancer after four years in a coma. The look on her face, watching from the sidelines a dance class once hers, is enough to warn off a sanguine view of recovery and its prospects. 

If the good that comes—the recovery—is equivocal, so too is the evil, to the extent that it has brought about the equivocal good. And for another reason that’s harder to talk about: Benigno—though his crime is heinous, his delusion alarming, his pathology indisputable—is shown to us only in unfeigned gentleness. It’s a quality never contradicted by what we see. In the end, Benigno kills himself, but even his suicide seems an act of clear, deep sadness, not proof of a guilty conscience. He just doesn’t want to live without Alicia. There’s no revelation of the evil that seems necessary for the commission of such a crime. In the scene containing the elision—retrospectively implying the rape—Benigno never loses his air of gentleness, though we see him in a moment of discomposure, affected more than usual by the sight of Alicia in her nakedness. We’re given all the necessary facts to deduce what happened, but we’re not to catch Benigno in the act.

Instead of the crime, we get a beguiling silent film, erotic and tragicomic, called Amante Menguante (the shrinking lover), framed by Benigno’s narration. Amparo is a scientist, whose boyfriend Alfredo makes an impetuous sacrifice in a bid for her attention, a protest against her chiding him for selfishness. Rashly, he swallows the mysterious experimental “diet formula” she’s concocting (which hasn’t been tested on humans!). He shrinks and shrinks until he’s so tiny that there’s nothing left for him but to be carried in her purse, a tender innuendo made explicit when he waits for her to fall asleep and dives into her through her vagina—his petite mort and hers coordinated so that, as Benigno tells the comatose Alicia while massaging her with rosemary alcohol, he’ll live inside her forever. Amante Menguante blends its comedy and tragedy physically, like a dance, concentrated in the image of the tiny Alfredo removing his tiny clothes (how did they get tiny, too? Did Amparo make these for him, in her tender desperation over his predicament?), wriggling into the huge, stylized vaginal opening, the last we see of him the bottoms of his elfin feet, receding. One thing Almodóvar is not, at least in this film, is pornographic. At this most intimate moment in the film within the film, the sexual anatomy is granted a kind of modesty, appearing as though fashioned carefully but whimsically out of foam rubber. We see Amparo’s face, her orgasm translated in the opened mouth, bit lip, rapid eye movements, but with a modesty imparted by closed lids, unconscious, wrapped up in sleep as she is. It’s all there in black and white (in counterpoint to the vivid color suffusing the rest of the film), so literal as to be fantastic. And Benigno’s literal-mindedness is one of his liabilities.

There’s a lacuna, not for us to fill in, but for us to traverse, if we’re to believe Benigno capable of the crime. And we must believe him capable just as he is, without any subtraction from his apparent good (for his gentleness is a good), nor any addition of evil (for his pathology leads him to justify an evil). That is, we must accept the evil in him sufficient to accomplish the crime, and the good insufficient to prevent it. We do not get to believe the recovery without also believing the crime. The victim of the crime is the miracle’s ground zero, in the senses of both cataclysm and foundation for renewal. If Alicia’s recovery is miraculous, the film turns the miracle over to expose its underside. 


The film gives us two dialogues about miracles. One takes place between Benigno and Rosa, the nurse with whom he works closely in caring for Alicia. Alicia needs a haircut:

Rosa: Cut it short. It’s more practical and comfortable.

Benigno: We’ll leave it like it was when she arrived here. So it won’t look different if she awakes.

Rosa: After four years in a coma, it would be a miracle. 

Benigno: I believe in miracles and so should you.

Rosa: Why me?

Benigno: Because you really need them. One could happen to you, and you wouldn’t even realize. 

It’s a weird theology of miracles. Aren’t they supposed to be undeniable? To compel belief? But the thought that a miracle can be missed if disbelieved is fundamental to how we take the film, and whether we allow it to work on us. The second dialogue is between the doctor at the hospital and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), whose girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores) was gored in a bullfight. Lydia lies in a coma, and the doctor insists that it’s scientifically impossible for her to recover, but shows Marco a magazine article about a woman who went into a coma during childbirth and miraculously awoke 15 years later (a sly foreshadowing of Alicia’s miraculous emergence from her coma during childbirth). If the possibility of a miracle hovers over Alicia’s recovery, it’s not mutually exclusive with the probability of a rape. It would be futile to take advantage of the fact that the rape is never shown, and to cling to a shred of hope that Benigno is innocent of the crime. This would be too pious an interpretation of the miraculous.

It isn’t that Benigno’s crime is redeemed or negated by Alicia’s awakening—but the violation does not poison the sweetness of her recovery. What’s recovered must be valued independently of what prompts it. It’s as though Almodóvar gently mocks the piety with which we’re apt to celebrate recovery. As if to say, “What about this?,” gesturing towards all that’s not recovered, and at what price a recovery—of any kind—may come. Alicia wakes not in the moment of the rape, but in the moment of childbirth. The miracle, if a miracle it is, must be indirect.

Benigno’s name means “benign,” which may be taken as a dark joke, or may, from a certain distance, appear strangely exact. A benign cancer does not need to be recovered from, and a benign treatment for a malignancy is useless. Through the plot in which he’s implicated and the intersection of his life with each of the other characters, Benigno’s pathology appears on a continuum rather than as a freak occurrence that may be disregarded in the final account. In a flashback, after a pretextual appointment with Alicia’s father, a psychiatrist, Benigno creeps down the hallway of the apartment-office, enters her bedroom while she’s in the shower. He departs, furtively, with his prize: her hair clip. She comes out of the shower; he terrifies her in the hallway. He tells her he’s “harmless” (inofensivo)—a woeful attempt to assuage her alarm. But a view of the film as a whole puts Benigno’s evident harmfulness in balance with his evident care. After that first encounter in which Benigno walks Alicia home, she dashes a bit recklessly across a busy street. He looks after her, in unwitting anticipation of how he’ll soon look after her, his face full of worry. When Marco tells Benigno’s landlady, who needles him for gossip about Benigno’s incarceration, that Benigno is innocent, he might not be lying. It’s just that Almodóvar does not assume the innocent are innocuous. It cannot be ignored: were Benigno unequivocally “harmless,” nothing would happen. No “miracle” would occur, no recovery.


Talk to Her organizes love’s timing with a striking economy. The sparing text on the screen cues us in to time passed, and to the three couplings that organize the film: Marco and Lydia, Alicia and Benigno, Alicia and Marco. To this, add Marco and Benigno, whose friendship spans all three. And add Lydia and Alicia, oblique comatose companions who never know each other, though they’re given a brilliant scene. They’ve been placed on deck chairs to catch some sun and fresh air. They wear sunglasses, heads tilting gently towards each other—as though, Benigno is given to say, they were talking to each other.

Marco and Lydia come together only briefly, their bond ignited by a snake. They’re both in recovery from romantic wounds. For a few months they comfort each other. Lydia helps Marco let go of a woman whose wedding they attend together (at a moment, we later learn, when Lydia is preparing to leave Marco and return to her old lover). Benigno nurses the comatose Alicia at the hospital for four years, but Alicia is conscious only for two brief encounters in flashback. The connection between Marco and Alicia begins for Marco in his friendship (and complicity) with Benigno in the hospital, starting from the moment he walks past Alicia’s hospital room, the door ajar, catching sight of her breasts. How could he help noticing?

I always want to linger with this startling moment: Alicia’s eyes open. A reflex, the doctor later explains. Yet its effect is ambiguous, vaguely chastening—a sudden look from a woman these men assume they can gaze upon at their leisure. Much of Almodóvar’s work plays with the trope of men gazing upon women—plays with it not to condemn, but to give it a good long look, from all sides. To recover a sense of curiosity about that gaze, to surprise it, to interrupt it. We the audience are given a generous eyeful, too. Yet somehow, the view of a woman’s breasts here, while perfectly lovely, works against crude objectification. With these breasts, Almodóvar recovers the body’s naked presence, the space it takes up in the world. Nowhere is this plainer than in Amante Menguante, when the tiny Alfredo waits for his beloved Amparo to drift off to sleep. He pulls aside the cloth that covers her body (a robe or a sheet), and first climbs aboard her at one of her enormous breasts, larger than himself. He embraces it with all of his might, and kisses it. It’s as if we’re all being made fun of—is this a big enough tit for you?


In answer to these scenes of nakedness, the bodies of Alicia and Lydia enter into a silent correspondence through the ritual of being dressed. Before the goring that will send her into a coma, Lydia helps a male attendant coax her body into an immaculate bullfighting costume that fits her like a glove. With a metal hook, he reaches in to secure the buttons of her bejeweled pants. It’s a portent, glancing back at the scene where Alicia’s body—after a soap and scrub by Benigno and Rosa in graceful choreography—appears from above in relief under a perfect white sheet that looks deliciously cool, her contours (those little peaks of her knees) rising as the sheet falls. A blue edge folded down, the hands of her attendants arrange half a pale hospital gown, reminding me of the dresses folded onto paper dolls. They tie this onto the back half of the gown, which we hadn’t realized lay under Alicia all the time. 

The visual correspondence between the two women in turn corresponds to the two dancers in “Café Müller” from the opening of the film (Alicia’s hospital gown even resembles the pale shifts the dancers wear). Dance has this power: to make bodies self-possessed and vulnerable at once. The entire film has almost the form of a dance. Not only because it begins and ends in dance, but because bodies repel and attract one another repeatedly, rhythmically, with variation. It isn’t a musical, but even the non-diegetic music of Alberto Iglesias seems to hold the actors and set them in motion. Irresistibly, it keeps the rhythm for them. In an interlude, an indeterminate idyll attended by Marco and Lydia, Caetano Veloso performs “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” a song whose chorus imitates the song of the mourning dove. As the song begins, we see an image without explanation of a beautiful male body—nobody we know—from above, swimming, then emerging from the blue water of the swimming pool. We do not ask why he’s there. The whole film—interiors and exteriors, colors, bodies, actions, words—moves to that music, as in a dance. The rhythm might be what keeps it—and us—from losing nerve. 

Almodóvar and the choreographer Pina Bausch (let’s call them Pedro and Pina) are two fleshly peas in a pod. One art amplifies the other. Pina’s dances are inside the film, only excerpted, but they constitute its bounds. The dance on which the curtain rises is “Café Müller,” which Benigno describes to the comatose Alicia. Two women in pale slips, their eyes closed as if in sleep, dance on a stage perilously scattered with chairs. You worry that the woman in the foreground will run into them. A man, says Benigno, with the saddest expression he’s ever seen, anxiously anticipates, moving all of the dangerous obstacles out of her way. (The second woman is Pina, in the background, a kind of double of the first, fleshier woman’s movements, but unendangered—her body wraithlike.) This dance is Alicia’s unconscious introduction to Marco, for Benigno tells her of the handsome stranger who sat beside him and wept several times during the performance. In the dance theater again at the end of the movie, Alicia will sit two rows behind Marco, noticing him before he notices her, and once again he weeps. Unwittingly, she recovers an equilibrium, gazing at him in his unselfconscious vulnerability, as Benigno had once gazed upon him, and as both men had gazed upon her.

Marco weeps in the first half of that final dance. A woman—once again with eyes closed as in sleep—travels over a row of men on their backs. One man hands her a microphone, which she holds languidly, while k.d. lang’s sultry rendition of “Hain’t It Funny” begins to play. We’re meant to see that the dancer’s lips aren’t moving, but we hear her sighs at breaks in the music: “…made love last night / Wasn’t good, wasn’t bad…” This time, the woman with closed eyes wears a summery red floral dress, and the men coordinate to convey her, giving the extraordinary impression of a body in continuous tranquil movement, not manipulated so much as wholly supported. As with the woman in the foreground of “Café Müller,” these men appear to be clearing a way for her rather than in any way determining her movement. The obstacles this time are not chairs, but gravity and the hardness of the ground. In both dances, there is a latent comedy, despite the sorrow concentrated upon the dancers’ faces—it’s like something out of a Buster Keaton film, this miraculous just-in-time resolution of impending physical disaster. There’s also comedy in the disparity between the dreaming oblivious body and the unsparing exertion of the bodies in support. (Discussing the resonance between Pina’s dancers and his characters,  Almodóvar draws attention to the power that these two women in a coma, seemingly passive, have over the two men attending to them.) At every moment of these dances, we witness a miniature recovery—of balance, of center, paradoxically of independence, recklessly ceded and unswervingly restored.

The delicate interweaving of the couples in the film into a kind of dance opens the form of the couple—the erotic form of love—onto a much more expansive and bewildering love of the world. The recovery recounted in the film is irrevocably equivocal, but in the final scene, it’s hard to feel anything except elation. Half the screen and stage is in darkness, from which emerges this procession of couples, each woman a bit different (for it’s really the women we see, their expressive backs)—different shapes and heights, different dresses, different hair, some arcing voluptuously into that little flick of the hips, some thinner, more angular in their sway, all barefoot, all obedient to the rhythm. The arrangement of couples begins to relax, and the film ends mid-dance, on one couple’s shy courtship, the woman twisting and swaying a bit, tossing her hair, the man toying with his hat on the ground with his foot. This courtship takes place before a wall of greenery up which the camera pans, on which the woman’s tresses briefly catch, and from which a series of tiny miraculous waterfalls flow, like tears.


And tears run through the film, binding the characters to one another by secret channels. Marco’s tears in the dance theater during the first scene unknowingly sow a friendship with the deranged and lonely stranger at his side. Marco’s friendship keeps Benigno from being quite cast out, for friendship ennobles. In Marco’s second visit to Benigno in jail, his reflection takes Benigno’s place for a moment in the glass between them. The baby has died. Benigno is kept from the knowledge that Alicia has woken from her coma. His lawyer tells him the half-lie, because Marco cannot, that Alicia is alive but still comatose. Benigno expresses the wish that he and Marco could embrace. The only way he could have gotten approval for a “vis-à-vis” would be if he’d said that Marco was his boyfriend, and he didn’t dare for fear of offending Marco. Marco says Benigno can tell them whatever he likes. When Benigno tells Marco that he has hugged very few people in his life, it seems an admission of unspeakable loneliness. Marco puts his hand to the glass, and Benigno reciprocates, with a kiss on his own hand, pressed to the glass. Benigno’s tears—like the one tear recounted by Buonconte in Canto 5 of Dante’s Purgatorio, which robs the devil of his soul—have a kind of grace. Whatever it is he weeps for (unlike Dante, Almodóvar would not scruple over contrition), there’s in this moment an expansion of the film’s heart for its most wretched character.

An alternation between words and silent bodies sets the basic rhythm of the film—the comatose women and the highly verbal men; words and the tears that come when there are no words; the words of the mourning dove sung by Caetano Veloso, which are not quite words. This rhythm recovers a connection between words and bodies, so that the talk in Talk to Her has a pulse. Only over time have I grown to appreciate the wonderful, humorless intensity of Geraldine Chaplin as Alicia’s dance teacher, Katerina, whose form and physiognomy suggest shades of Pina. She creates a link between the unspoken, unspeaking world of dance and the world of words. When she comes to visit the comatose Alicia, she talks about the new ballet she’s been invited to choreograph, to be called “Trenches,” set in World War I. She describes it with grandiose emphatic style, like a caricature of the pontificating bourgeois artist (though her earnestness softens it—whatever she is, she’s not in bad faith). She makes an extravagant series of pronouncements about the way life “emerges” from death—with each phrase she relishes the Spanish word emerge, making a bloom of her elegant bony hand. She’s describing a scene from the ballet where the souls of the dead soldiers—in the form of ballerinas in long white tutus—rise up in the style of the Wilis from Giselle. It’s beyond Benigno, who tries to help when she’s groping for the right words; “From death emerges life…From the male emerges the female…From the ground emerges…” “The…the…tree?” Benigno offers. She waves him away with good-natured impatience, and finds her thread. It’s “the ethereal, the impalpable, the ghostly.” Only later do these pronouncements come back—to haunt us, as it were. The cliché is revivified, recovering its literal strangeness. When clichés get snapped out of their complacency, we’re confronted with what it really means for a statement we might toss off as a consoling platitude—“From death emerges life” —to come true.

After the only conversation between Alicia and Marco, in the theater foyer during the “Masurca Fogo” intermission, Katerina approaches Marco privately on their way back to their seats. Katerina is worried about what Marco may have told Alicia (we don’t know, but can guess exactly what and how much Alicia doesn’t know about the circumstances of her recovery). He sets her mind at rest. He tells her not to wonder that she sees him around, since he now lives in Benigno’s apartment, across the street from her dance studio. He tells her of Benigno’s death. She says they need to talk one of these days. Marco says it may be simpler than she thinks. 

“Nothing is simple. I am a ballet mistress, and,” she repeats, “nothing is simple.” The film takes both of these perspectives to heart; for as she speaks these last words of the script, the music for the second half of “Masurca Fogo” begins. For once Marco’s face breaks into a smile—and whose wouldn’t—as the procession of frisky couples begins to spool out of the darkness, filling the stage to a frolicsome rhythm (it’s in the hips, and hips don’t lie). Marco looks back at Alicia, who returns the smile. There’s Katerina beside her, noticing, worrying, and Marco y Alicia appears on the screen. This signal at once indicates a conventional recovery of romantic possibility and returns us to a stage, where dancers are proving the unreasonable joy of bodily being, of which even an equivocal recovery can seem—in a certain, theatrical light—miraculous.