Talk to Her and Auteur Theory: The Value of a Critical Approach

Sometimes the application of a critical response can limit rather than expand our understanding and appreciation of a film.

‘Talk to Her’ is a 2002 Spanish film that is written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. When studying Almodovar, I frequently came across recurring traits that are evident, not only in ‘Talk To Her’, but in the majority of his filmic catalogue. Hence, using the auteur theory to understand ‘Talk to Her’ and Almodovar is helped my understanding of the director and the film. The directors of the French New Wave movement – particularly François Truffaut – created the auteur theory in the 1950s. It focuses on the role of the director in creating new visions and redefining cinema. This theory pointed out many stylistic or narrative traits that are synonymous with a certain director’s film. In the case of Almodovar, he is known for his intertextual references, his love of melodrama, the controversy explored in his films, and the role of strong women.

Pedro Almodóvar’s early life was in rural ‘La Macha’ which he described as being rife with oppression and personal abuse. He moved to Madrid when he was eighteen in 1970 ‘to experience independence in the new consumer society’, alongside exploring filmmaking. He became a part of ‘La Movida’, a title that was adopted by a rising counter culture movement in Madrid that Almodovar belonged to. It was a collection of young artists and political exhibitionists in the underground film scene. However, the underground film scene became overground after Franco’s death in 1975 as there was an end to the censorship his reign had enforced. Almodovar and his early films were central to this new, sexually liberated scene, and gender issues, sexuality and inequalities were explored and represented for the first time.

One prominent trait of Almodovar’s work is intertextuality. This becomes apparent in the very first scene of ‘Talk to Her’ as Café Müller, a dance-theatre piece by Pina Bausch, is presented for the audience. By using a real choreographer and a pre-existing dance, Almodovar is demonstrating his love of dance and the theatre, thus he is compelled to employ the medium a couple of times throughout the films, namely the opening and closing scenes. The dance is used to develop the narrative as a foreshadowing allegory; when the two tragic female dancers fall down, they symbolise the women in the comas. The man moving the chairs out of the way, trying to prevent any harm to the women represents Benigno and, to some extent, Marco to, as he tries his absolute best to keep them safe, just like Benigno and Marco will later on in the film. Almodovar uses parallels and intertextual references throughout the film, such as in The ‘Shrinking Lover’ scene. ‘Shrinking Lover’ is a parody of a 1930s expressionistic film and reflects the life of Benigno and his dysfunctional maternal relationship with his domineering Mother. At the same time, it represents the ‘sleeping beauty’ of Alicia, and Benigno’s desire to become closer to her, physically merging with her during the rape just as Alfredo ‘merged’ with Amparo. The comedy and surrealist nature of the scene masks the horrors of the rape, presenting it in a romanticised way. The ‘Shrinking Lover’ scene represents allegory and intertextuality, but also the melodrama of the relationship between Alicia and Benigno.

Many of Almodóvar’s films can be classified as a part of the ‘melodrama’ genre, and ‘Talk to Her’ is no different. The genre of ‘melodrama’, which is ‘emotional adult drama’, interested Almodovar greatly and can be linked to his own films. One way melodrama is demonstrated is through the one-sided and atypical relationship between Alicia and Benigno. When Benigno is seen dressing Alicia during the early part of the movie, the scene is captured through a high angle shot looking down on Alicia’s naked body. Despite the nudity, she is not objectified; in contrast, it’s actually presented clinically and is quite depressing as it is evident that she can’t dress herself, even in the ‘prime of her life’. Later on in the movie, on the other hand, just before the rape, when Benigno undresses Alicia the camera is not shown as a high angle, but at a low angle. This allows for more intimacy and objectification; due to the fact Alicia is wearing make-up and is dressed up in a certain way, it appears as if she is going on a date. This is an example of how the bizarre relationship that is central to the narrative in ‘Talk To Her’ classes the film as a melodrama. To add to the melodrama of the narrative, Benigno ends up committing suicide by accident, hoping that instead he would end up in a coma to be with Alicia, naïvely miscalculating the consequences of his actions. Nevertheless, Alicia is miraculously brought out of the coma and survives the traumatic incident, therefore the film ends on a hopeful note.

Almodovar is famous for ending his films in a hopeful way to, in a sense, make amends for any depressing of disturbing aspects of the film the audience were previously subjected to. In ‘Talk to Her’, this is demonstrated in the relationship between Marco and Alicia. Through various cues, the filmmakers indicate to the audience that they are now free to feel content. The empty chair between Marco and Alicia represents Benigno, showing that he is no longer a barrier between the two of them. The music, once sombre, is now uplifting, and the light illuminates Alicia’s face as she smiles back at Marco. Most telling is the dance, the salsa, which is a very flirtatious and intimate dance. To juxtapose the dance during the opening scene, the mise en scene of this closing performance shows a stage of a lush, verdant paradise, as opposed to the wasteland of toppled chairs we saw earlier. This is couples with the various shades of red (the colour of love and passion) filling the screen, and the bold “Marco y Alicia” title to highlight the start of their relationship. The audience feels now that, after all her complex trauma, Alicia deserves to be loved and, through his maturity and evolution throughout the film, Marco is now capable of loving her. But, as stated earlier, Almodovar commonly ends his films on an uplifting note, such is the case in his 1999 film, ‘All About My Mother’. Though the film’s narrative revolves around the tragedies that HIV and AIDS can cause, it manages to end on somewhat of a miracle. Despite Lola transmitting HIV to Rosa, and despite the risks that were put on the unborn child because of this, the baby is born healthy and the HIV disappears. While, unfortunately, this is quite unrealistic, it ends on a joyful note that leaves the audience content. This also adds to the film’s melodrama; the use of the score, coupled with the exaggerated semi-realistic drama of the narrative, demonstrates Almodóvar’s ability to create a classic piece of cinematic melodrama.

Another prominent melodramatic relationship in ‘Talk to Her’ is that of Marco and Benigno. In their initial meeting, Benigno seems more transfixed on Marco than the actual performance in front of him. This initial sympathy quickly develops into a greater bond between the two men, and Benigno is the catalyst for Marco’s maturity and emotional development. This largely comes about when Benigno suggests to Marco that he can connect with Lydia through ‘talking to her’, though this is met with great scepticism and Marco questions what Benigno can possibly know about ‘the heart’ and women due to his sheltered and abnormal upbringing. In one sense, Benigno is like an innocent child who is completely deluded about the nature of adult relationships. On the other hand, he possesses one major trait that Marco does not, the same trait that caused Marco’s relationship with Lydia to fall apart. Benigno understands what a relationship needs to be like, how one needs to engage with the personality of a woman, to care for her and love her, and to treat her like a separate being. Marco never engaged with Lydia, shown by how Lydia says in the car she needs to talk to him, to which Marco says they have been talking for an hour. “You, not me” comes Lydia’s reply, showing that there is no connection between their dialogues as Marco was too self-obsessed. However, due to his relationship with Benigno, Marco evolves into a more mature and understanding man. He becomes more like Benigno. Never is this more obvious than when their looking at each other through the glass in the prison. Here, their reflection overlaps the two faces, like they are superimposed. This is calculated to highlight our identification of Marco with Benigno. Both are lonely, and both love one another in their own way.

The exploration/discussion of gender, sexuality and morality shown in ‘Talk to Her’ that is different to what is considered ‘normal’ and mainstream demonstrates the controversial nature Almodovar liked to incorporate in his films. Due to the Franco regime, censorship was high, but after his death, ‘La Movida’ pushed cinematic boundaries and capitalized on a newly liberated scene. In ‘Talk to Her’, this is represented in two different ways: the socially controversial aspects, and how the dark subject matter is presented to the audience. In regards to the former, it is shown by unconventional character traits and how stereotypes are often subverted – Benigno is of undefined sexuality and acts quite feminine, acting as the carer for Alicia, while Marco is supposed to be masculine, though he cries often and has a very close bond with Benigno that some would argue transcends generic male friendship. The dark subject matter I referred to is not just the rape, but the response and reaction to Benigno beyond the rape. There is no doubt that Benigno is portrayed as psychologically troubled throughout the film, and yet he still appears gentle and caring – a deeply tragic character that the audience sympathises with. Even after he commits the atrocity of rape, it is difficult for the audience to turn on him, and thus the film bleeds into the moral grey area. Are we supposed to abandon everything we have learned about Benigno after this one deed? Some would argue yes, while others would bring forth debates about his mental illness, his troubled upbringing, and the fact that when he raped Alicia, he did not believe it was a violation – rather, he did it to merge with her, to become closer to her. Almodovar wants audiences to leave the cinema and think about the characters and events, and this is the key point of moral discussion in ‘Talk to Her’. Such controversy is also evident in ‘All About My Mother’, where the controversial element is AIDS. Estaban’s father is described as a monster, an “epidemic” for carelessly spreading the virus around. Alongside that, social commentary is also prevalent due to the fact that the father, now ‘Lola’ is a transgendered woman. It’s a statement by Almodovar that in the world of New Spain, filmmakers can be inclusive in their productions. Both films are amoral, and make the audience think about moral debates and the controversy they have witnessed.

In Almodovar films, women are very powerful. The director clearly valued and included strong women in his films, saying it was a ‘matriarchal struggle against patriarchal fascism’. This might by the trait Almodovar is most known for, and it evident in a plethora of his films. In ‘All About My Mother’, the film is a tribute not only to Almodovar’s late mother, but to women in general and the qualities of women. Estaban’s mother survived through unbearable tragedy and heartache, refusing to crumble in the face of adversity. In ‘Volver’, a 2006 Almodovar release, Almodovar presents there a story of the three generations of women in the same family; men are almost invisible, but the women are strong and energetic. It shows women banding together to take out the abusive patriarchy. Naturally, to return to ‘Talk to Her’, the two main leads are still presented as strong characters despite being comatose for the majority of the feature. Lydia is independent and masculine, working as a bullfighter, a profession typically dominated by men. Alicia, on the other hand, is shown to be out and enjoying life after recovering from her coma, despite the trauma that she was subjected to.

An understanding of the auteur theory, in all these ways, can help viewers to understand how complex ‘Talk to Her’ is, and how ingrained several traits are in Almodóvar’s filmography. When studying the film in relation to the auteur theory, one may find that this critical method does not limit appreciation at all. Rather, it expands appreciation, yielding a more lucid and enjoyable film experience.