Film critic Matty Byloos closes a review of Talk to Her with the following quote, “In order for consummation, there must be complete consumption. One loses one’s self to the other,” an ending that suggests that love is not about fulfillment but instead about sacrifice. But I would counter with a quote from author and filmmaker Debbie Ford, “Live your dream or live someone else’s.” In Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar provides the viewer with rare glimpse into the secret lives of men. Much is made of the effeminate characteristics of the character Benigno and the masculine behaviors of the character Lydia, but this is all by way of the human mind electing to compartmentalize that which is too uncomfortable to accept. The easy camaraderie which develops between Benigno and Marco, including the long and tender dialogues that the Western world traditionally associates with feminine discourse, is the director’s manner of inviting us inside of the emotional landscape of two men who are enduring a reality that is very unique and separate from the everyday lives of others. Notice that I refer to this as the Western view of interactions between males, and I deliberately draw this line as the Eastern world (including countries with divergent belief systems such as Japan and the Arabian Peninsula) typically encourages and even has special names for the love and tenderness that is found in a purely fraternal society. So, to return from this digression, Almodovar gives us male characters who talk in an openly emotional manner because he is shaping the vision of the internal communion that Western men often experience (without words) to the mystification of women. In a study supported by both Harvard and Princeton’s schools of medicine, it was determined that men “feel most closely connected” when involved in an activity. In short, Dr. Matthew M. Okida and his staff confirmed that the male psyche identifies actions taken with the building of emotional rapport, thus it would be far outside of the norm if Marco and Benigno did not become completely bonded as they shared the daily activity of tending to the physical needs of women who were beyond helping themselves. But because this is film, Almodovar needed a device by which he could demonstrate the depth and quality of the connection between the two men. In a world wherein the trappings and proofs of love are defined by the female sex, it is not surprising that the director chose language as the medium to convey this singular connection. Many of my peers have referred to the conversations as being “beyond credibility”, but it is just this stereotype that the director forces the audience to confront.
Lydia’s sexuality is never brought into question, despite her very masculine profession as a bullfighter. And when she runs from the snake in her home, a very Freudian insinuation if ever there was one, we behave as though this scenario has no bearing on her sexuality. Taken even further, Lydia is killed by the horns which pierce her body; she has played the man’s game and in losing must pay the ultimate price, her life is forfeit. Still, neither the critics nor the audience question her sexuality, the ease with which she dons the accoutrements of a man’s life. Nor do we question the agony in her gaze when her hair is unbound; the metaphorical return to her feminine self. Yet poor Benigno, despite the insinuation that he has impregnated the object of his affections; he is portrayed as being of dubious sexual inclinations, at best.
I believe that Almodovar’s greatest point in this film is the questioning of gender roles, the assumptions that we make about humans based upon our social conditioning. When the doctor enters the vagina of his patient, critics and viewers alike see this as a metaphor for love’s all encompassing power, that loving mean entering into a union wherein the individual self is absorbed. But I believe that Almodovar intended this vignette as a visual summation of the destructive power inherent in relationships. Benigno lives an emotionally truncated life because his mother engaged in what we now call emotional incest. That is to say that she obtained her emotional and physical fulfillment by engaging in an inappropriate relationship with her son. Certainly his skills as a caregiver were needed, but many children have served in this capacity and still been able to grow and form appropriate adult attachments later in their lives. We know that Benigno’s mother went beyond the bounds of normalcy because of the emotional instability that he displays later in life. He was absorbed into his mother’s love to his detriment and later in life, when he connected with Alicia; Benigno was absorbed in his own vision of love, once again to his own detriment. The dictionary defines love as a positive, motivating force, yet popular culture defines love as a power to either wield or succumb to. There exists a tremendous dichotomy between what love is and how it is perceived; poor Benigno fell into this abyss, never to be seen again. He defined love as the ability to serve with utter devotion, but that is a one way street and because he had never learned that love must travel in both directions he ran afoul of the laws which govern our society. Confronted by a world wherein his definition of love is an anathema, Benigno had no choice but to end his own life, to be absorbed into his ideal of love.