Friday, 5 August 2011

Comatose Women in The Forest: Hable con ella / Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)

This post is a reworked version of a twenty-minute paper I gave at a conference (‘Bitch, Witch, Whore: Representations of Women in Word and Image’) at Newcastle University in 2006.

Warning: contains spoilers.

   When I was reading about Talk to Her I came across a self-interview (on his website) (2002a) where Almodóvar made reference to Leonor Watling as having been marvellous as Alicia, ‘that sleeping beauty’ (lower case), and that set me to thinking about literary references within the film. The film concerns two ‘couples’ –the first made up of a nurse (Benigno –Javier Cámara) and his patient (Alicia –Leonor Watling), and the second of a journalist (Marco –Dario Grandinetti) and his bullfighting girlfriend (Lydia –Rosario Flores). When Lydia ends up comatose as the result of a bullfight she is placed in the same hospital as Alicia and that is how the two men come to meet each other. Talk to Her is a film concerned with the telling of tales; the audience are rarely shown ‘events’ firsthand, as characters are engaged in a series of flashbacks and a ‘re-telling’ of events. In a departure for Almodóvar, who usually draws his visual and narrative references from the cinema, this film is a tapestry of literary allusions ranging from The Night of the Hunter to Romeo and Juliet to The Hours, with the result that Talk to Her itself can be read in terms of a modern day fairytale. The upbeat ending is also in keeping with Bruno Bettelheim’s reading of the fairy story as being ‘optimistic, no matter how terrifyingly serious some features of the story may be’ (1976: 37).
   While the film focuses on the two male protagonists (Benigno and Marco), this [post] will examine the woman with whom they both interact, Alicia. She is one of a series of comatose or silent women in the narrative, and is cared for in a clinic called ‘El Bosque’, or ‘The Forest’. Alicia is at the epicentre, although not always the subject, of a series of references to archetypal literary heroines such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Alice (in Wonderland). This [post] will argue that the combination of literary references and Almodóvar’s reputation as a ‘woman’s director’ means that there is more to the representation of the film’s women, who are comatose, voiceless, and lacking control over their own bodies, than is apparent at first glance. 
     Although Almodóvar’s visual and narrative allusions most often originate from the cinema, especially classic films of the 1940s and 50s, since the mid-1990s a ‘self-conscious literarity’ (Smith 2003: 150) can also be perceived in his work. This starts with the frustrated romance novelist in The Flower of My Secret (1995) and Almodóvar’s adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel in the form of Live Flesh (1997), and culminates in All About My Mother (1999) with its references to Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding and way in which Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire marks the lives of the protagonists and shapes the overall narrative. Mark Allinson suggests that Talk to Her is a logical progression of Almodóvar’s interest in different modes of ‘performance’ (2004) –whereas All About My Mother focuses on multiple incarnations of performance, Talk to Her is more concerned with the process of storytelling although it retains an interest in the stage: the films are connected through the lowered theatrical curtain that closes All About My Mother being raised once more at the start of Talk to Her
     In his book A Spanish Labyrinth, Mark Allinson notes that Almodóvar’s tendency to subvert gender binaries and stereotypes is surprising in a country with a ‘long tradition of machismo and repression of women’ (2001: 73). There is a predominance of female characters in Almodóvar’s work (Talk to Her in unusual in its focus on two male protagonists) and this has led to him being labelled ‘a woman’s director’. However, while strong women populate Almodóvar’s narratives, in the past he has also been labelled a misogynist for his treatment of some of these same women – these accusations came out most forcefully in relation to the film Kika (1993). In relation to the depiction of rape in his films, the accusation of misogyny does not stem purely from the fact that Kika puts rape into a comedic situation (Martin-Márquez (1999) analyses the sequence in detail), but also that rape appears to be Almodóvar’s ‘trauma of choice’ to inflict upon the female characters; rapes, or attempted rapes, of women occur in five (with the rape and / or sexual abuse of minors occurring in a further three) of his sixteen films, including Talk to Her.

In the case of Talk to Her, the representation of women who are comatose, voiceless and lacking in control over their own bodies, is at first glance problematic, not least because it is men who are predominantly shown as ‘manipulating’ their bodies in these circumstances –I’m thinking specifically of sequences where Alicia, and later Amparo (a character (played by Paz Vega) in the silent film within the film), are either dressed or undressed and their naked bodies effectively put on display for the viewer whilst they are in an unconscious state. It is these sequences that best encapsulate what Allinson sees as Almodóvar’s characteristic engagement with the Spanish national obsession with religion, death and sexuality (2001: 27), as the naked female body is deified through ritual and worshiped whilst in stasis; an article by Guillermo Cabrera Infante on the film was appropriately titled ‘Homage to catatonia’ (2002).

    Despite this ‘spectacular’ representation –in the mode of ‘woman as spectacle’– the women cannot be described as mere set-dressing, and each plays a significant part in shaping the destinies of the male characters: Alicia, Lydia, and Amparo exert a powerful influence over the men in their lives before, during, and after their time in stasis. The women almost seem to take part in an alternative narrative underlying the one that is prioritised in the film, a fairytale-like dream narrative that builds on literary references and allusions to give Alicia in particular an internal world that we the audience are given access to –and it’s important in this respect that via flashbacks we encounter them as they were before they entered their suspended state, and gain a sense of their respective personalities. While Alicia and Lydia would appear to be secondary characters, it is significant that their images form the basis of the film’s main poster (that showing only the faces of the two women with Alicia facing right in silhouette, in blue, and Lydia, in red, facing forward), and that Leonor Watling in particular is centre stage in much of the publicity material and the images that circulated at the time of the film’s release. 

Almodóvar has commented that the challenge for Watling and Flores was to give the impression of being alive at the same time as their faces had to give the impression of being in a remote place, a mysterious place (2002b). This would suggest that there was supposed to be something going on under the surface –as Benigno says to Marco, “El cerebro de la mujer es un misterio y en este estado más” [“A woman’s brain is a mystery, in this state even more so”].
     The names of the two comatose women are important in this regard because they give us clues as to their destinies: Marco comments to Lydia early in the film that in naming her as they did, her parents effectively gave her her destiny (Lidia spelt with an ‘i’ rather than a ‘y’ signifies ‘bullfighting’ in Castilian Spanish); and in the case of Alicia, her name gives us our first literary reference and explanation for the dream narrative. Alicia is clearly named after Alice, of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which firmly positions her comatose body as being in a dream-state and crucially signals that like Alice she will return to life, unlike Lydia who dies without waking from her coma. Furthermore, there is the suggestion that Alicia awakes essentially unchanged despite her adventures whilst dreaming: Benigno cuts her hair in the same style as it was when she had her accident four years earlier so that she will recognise herself when she wakes up; and when she awakes we are given no evidence that she has knowledge of the events in the clinic. 
    An element that further signals that Alicia is following the travails of her namesake and has gone ‘through the looking glass’ is the recreation of her real bedroom, in her room at the hospital. The illusion of safety and familiarity conjured up by the home-from-home touches is later undermined by a flashback not only reveals that a mirroring is taking place but also shows how Benigno acquired his knowledge of what Alicia’s bedroom looks like. Her bedside tables are covered in items such as her lava lamp (representing Alicia’s suspension in time), photographs, and the book that we see she was part way through reading at the time of her accident –The Night of the Hunter. The bookmark marking her page signals that her life has ‘stopped’ part way through her personal story and the choice of this particular book suggests that she is currently immersed in a dangerous gothic fairytale.

     Inspired by the true story of a serial killer known as ‘The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell’, The Night of the Hunter tells the story of two children on the run from a Preacher who wants to know the whereabouts of stolen money hidden by their late father; told from the point of view of the elder child, John, the story is permeated with references to fairytales and childhood rhymes. While Almodóvar (2002b) says that an homage is being paid to the book by Davis Grubb and not the 1955 film version that it was made into by Charles Laughton, one can see a connection between Talk to Her and what David Thomson describes as the ‘fairytale vision, the pattern of innocence and menace’ (1999: 20) inherent to Laughton’s film; in the flashback to his furtive foray into Alicia’s bedroom while posing as a patient of her father, Benigno’s actions take on a sinister and disturbing feeling that was previously absent. This scene is the second time that we see the book by Alicia’s bedside (the first being in the hospital in the present) and its reappearance highlights that Benigno’s position as Alicia’s nurse in the present is not mere happenstance; like The Night of the Hunter, Talk to Her is the story of a pursuit, and however innocently intended by Alicia’s pursuer, the pursuit becomes more unsettling as the narrative unfolds.  
     The fairytale references continue in the choice of name for the clinic: a clinic called ‘The Forest’ and full of comatose women can only point us to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In relation to Snow White, Alicia’s paleness is contrasted with Lydia’s darker skin but the paleness of the actress Leonor Watling is also something that is commented on in profiles and interviews (for example, see Ponga (2002)). But the strongest link is to Sleeping Beauty. Of course Sleeping Beauty is stirred from her slumber by the intervention of someone who has fallen in love with her (note that this attraction is one-sided because she is asleep at the time of their first encounter) - this most commonly happens via a kiss and indeed Marco is woken by the memory of a kiss when he falls asleep in Lydia’s room at the hospital. But earlier versions of the Sleeping Beauty story involve a prince having intercourse with / raping a comatose Beauty, resulting in childbirth (Warner 1994: 220). Each successive version of the tale has changed elements to make it more palatable to the intended audience, but Almodóvar takes us back to the original, although in his own inimitable style and incorporating Alicia’s love of silent cinema. 
      Benigno has taken up Alicia’s former pastimes and at the point where he recounts a silent film he has seen, Almodóvar cuts to a silent film filmed in the black and white expressionist style of the 1920s. The film is surreal in terms of its content – it’s titled ‘The Shrinking Lover’ and it probably has to be seen to be believed- however what it shows is a seemingly consensual sexual act (seemingly because the woman on whom it is enacted is asleep at the time). Allinson notes that Benigno’s re-telling of the silent film is the culmination of the system of reported speech, flashback, and the telling of stories within the film: events are always shown at one remove (2004). Hence the silent film obscures an event that the audience only finds out about much later: Benigno’s rape of Alicia. As José Arroyo writes, the ‘silent film does not so much reflect what’s happening in the clinic as forcefully dramatise it from an oblique angle’ (2002: 79). 
    This is Almodóvar’s most sensitive handling of rape in his films, although it may remain problematic for some because the film does not pass judgement on Benigno and makes it difficult for the audience to pass judgement since, as his name suggests, he has been a kind and benign presence in the film. His devotion to Alicia has also been made manifest before our eyes and the silent film essentially dramatises a desire for physical closeness and a desperate act of love –although this could also be read as self-justification on Benigno’s part since it is he who is re-telling the film. Almodóvar accomplishes this non-judgemental stance mainly because the dramatisation via the silent film shows a couple engaged in mutual affection but also because it offers the possibility that Alicia could remember it as nothing more than an unsettling dream, which ties in with Bettelheim’s reading of the Sleeping Beauty story:
Whether it is Snow White in her glass coffin or Sleeping Beauty on her bed, the adolescent dream of everlasting youth and perfection is just that: a dream. […] During their sleep the heroines’ beauty is a frigid one; theirs is the isolation of narcissism. In such self-involvement which excludes the rest of the world there is no suffering, but also no knowledge to be gained, no feelings to be experienced. (1976: 234)
Despite the problems with Bettleheim’s reading of Sleeping Beauty’s sleep, there are elements of the silent film that would give credence to it being read as a projection of Alicia’s imagination: the alliteration of the names of the characters (Amparo and Alfredo) with her own; the silent film echoing Alicia’s voiceless state; the ‘revelation’ of Amparo’s body in the film reflecting Alicia being undressed in reality; and the reference to Alicia’s namesake when Alfredo drinks a potion and starts shrinking. This offers the possibility of Alicia escaping the trauma of her rape. So just as her physical appearance remains unchanged during the narrative (due to Benigno’s attention to detail and the fact that the audience does not see her during the resulting pregnancy), as far as the audience knows at the end of the film Alicia remembers nothing of the events at the clinic and her father has ensured that there has been no publicity –although she is woken by the physical trauma of childbirth, the child dies and Alicia is not shown to have any knowledge of this having happened.      
     In regard to the ‘relationship’ between Benigno and Alicia, Almodóvar has commented that a love story requires only one person to love passionately. Furthermore, the love that Benigno has for Alicia is elevated to the status of the love Romeo had for Juliet via the circumstances of Benigno’s death. Not knowing that Alicia is once again in the ‘land of the living’, or has regained consciousness, he makes a decision to leave his own living nightmare and attempts to be reunited with the love of his life (he kills himself). There are a series of missed and late messages in this sequence of events that echo the end of Romeo and Juliet.

    Within this series of missed messages, Benigno’s suicide is telegraphed to the viewer via the mise-en-scène which contains a collection of images linked to suicidal women –beside Marco’s mobile phone is a photograph of Lydia, whose behaviour in her final bullfight seemed almost suicidal as she was distracted by her relationship problems, and through the copy of the Spanish edition of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, references are being made to both Virginia Woolf and to Ophelia, (a detail of) the painting of whom by Sir John Everett Millais is on the cover of the book. The Hours follows a day in the lives of three women in different eras, all of whom have a connection to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), and all of whom are driven by a sense of desperation: Virginia Woolf is herself one of the three women and the book opens with an account of her suicide by drowning. In Hamlet, Ophelia drowns herself having been driven mad by the contradictory expectations placed on her, and Millais’s painting of her shows her floating on her back in the water, seemingly either dead or unconscious, thereby invoking the women of Almodóvar’s film, but nonetheless apparently in a state of peace. Within this triangular framework of references Benigno is therefore positioned as a tragic (and feminised) figure driven to desperate and fatal acts. If anyone were to save this feminised Benigno it would surely be Marco, who is portrayed within the narrative as a rescuer of (desperate) women, but as the mise-en-scène signals via the close-up of the dead Ophelia’s hand, Marco is already too late to save Benigno.

   Again, as with other events in the film the audience learns of Benigno’s death second-hand as we hear his voice explaining his actions to Marco as his distraught friend reads the letter that he has left behind. Bettelheim makes an important point about the delivery of a tale, saying that 'To attain to the full its consoling propensities, its symbolic meanings, and, most of all, its interpersonal meanings, a fairytale should be told rather than read' (1976: 150). The film’s structure of a series of flashbacks and re-telling of events works in combination with the literary allusions to archetypal heroines to create a fairytale-like narrative level to the film where the women are central rather than peripheral characters. The men may be the tellers of the stories that make up the film’s narrative threads, but they are stories about the women they encounter, which supports Shawn Levy’s reading of Almodóvar’s reputation as a ‘woman’s director’ as owing more to his focus on women and their stories than the actual circumstances that the women find themselves in (1994: 62). For the audience, in our being told these tales rather than merely observing events firsthand, the ‘consoling’ elements of what at first glance is a dark and unsettling narrative come to the surface, as Alicia emerges from the darker side of the looking-glass to participate in what is an optimistic and hopeful beginning to her new adventures outside of her coma-induced wonderland.  

[An extended and much more detailed version of this piece (which has a slightly different title and focus to the conference paper) was published as an article by Studies in Hispanic Cinemas.]

Allinson, M. (2001) – A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodóvar, London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.
        (2004) – ‘Telling Stories / Performing Dramas: Almodóvar’s Hable con ella’, lecture given at the University of Durham, 05.02.04.
Almodóvar, P. (2002a) – ‘Auto-entrevista’, on his official website.
        (2002b) – ‘Director’s Commentary [with Geraldine Chaplin]’, Hable con ella DVD (Region 1).
Arroyo, J. (2002) – ‘Review: Talk to Her / Hable con ella’, Sight & Sound, (September), pp.76-78.
Bettelheim, B. (1976) – The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Harmondsworth Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Cabrera Infante, G. (2002) – ‘Homenaje a la catatonia’, El País, 25th August, p.26 
Levy, S. (1994) – ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down’, Film Comment, May / June, pp.59-62. 
Martin-Marquez, S. (1999) – Feminist Discourse and Spanish Cinema: Sight Unseen, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ponga, P. (2002), ‘Leonor Watling’, Fotogramas, April, pages unknown.
Smith, P.J. (2003), Contemporary Spanish Culture: TV, Fashion, Art and Film, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Thomson, D. (1999), ‘A child’s demon’, Sight & Sound, 9: 4, pp.20-22.
Warner, M. (1994) – From the Beast to the Blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers, London: Chatto & Windus.