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Girlfriend in a Coma...oh no...

A review of Talk to Her

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*Talk to Her (R)
Sony Pictures Classics

Pedro Almdovar has a remarkable knack for crafting tragic love stories with a visual style all his own, sex scenes that are as delightful as they are inane, and films that ultimately dissolve from your memory before the popcorn has dislodged from your gums.

Talk to Her is something of an exception. It's the story of two men whose lives converge on the coma ward of a Madrid hospital. Marco (Daro Grandinetti) is an intense, Argentinean journalist who has made the professional and personal mistake of falling for his subject, the copper-toned bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) -- who is gored by her own subject.

Benigno (Javier Cmara) is Almodvar's kinder, gentler and ambiguously gay version of Scorsese's Travis Bickle. A roly-poly nurse, Benigno is the personal caretaker for Alicia, a young dancer in her fourth comatose year after having been struck by a car. Under the employ of her father, and the assumption that he is gay, Benigno bathes, grooms and makes a wholehearted effort to live his life as Alicia's conscious representative by adopting her passions: ballet and silent film. In short, he treats her like a cross between best friend, kid sister and a hydrangea.

Through a series of well-stitched flashbacks, Benigno's and Marco's back stories are revealed. Marco has lived his life responsibly, in a state of prolonged grief for lovers prematurely torn away. Benigno is the stalker you can't help but love: the sweet harmless type who is always the last person anyone suspects as a: serial murderer, pedophile or John Ashcroft speechwriter. Having spent 23 years living with his mother, caring for her because, as he describes, "She was just lazy," he conflates servitude with intimacy. Benigno meets Alicia because his apartment sits in view of her dance studio. He stalks her and through a series of ridiculously fortuitous circumstances, hits pay dirt when his nursing skills put him in just the right place after Alicia is struck by a car.

Benigno and Marco become friends as the former schools the latter in the lifestyle of existing between mourner and nurse. They maneuver their girlfriends in the sun like a couple of Florida mah-jongg champs, while Benigno encourages Marco, as the title says, to talk to her. It's a leap of faith Marco never makes, and it's arguably what keeps him from growing too comfortable in the role of caregiver. For as Benigno confesses, his four years caring for Alicia have been the best of his life.

But like most stalkers, Benigno takes it a step too far by confusing his relationship with Alicia as being somehow consensual. It's fascinating, though perhaps foolhardy, to compare Almdovar's to American films. But I couldn't help but notice that if the same script fell into the hand of a homegrown auteur, whether of the indie or Hollywood variety, Benigno would likely end up as some sort of paradigmatic poster boy for sexual depravity, fetishized beyond all recognition. What Almdovar does is portray a man teetering on a precipice between acceptable and unacceptable behavior without condemnation. Even when -- through perhaps one of the most amusing silent films ever -- he becomes a rapist.

Shunned by his colleagues, Marco is the only person who visits Benigno behind bars, where he's promptly placed for impregnating his charge. Their friendship is born of a shared grief and something of a shared collusion. It's a unique Almdovarian concoction of eroticized male friendship, grief and pathology. See it with someone you love, someone who's not in a coma.

-- John Dicker

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