“I know a lot about desperate women” declares Marco at the beginning of Talk to Her, a statementthat could have easily come from Almodóvar himself. Although Almodóvar frequently explores the predicaments and triumphs of women in his work, he is equally committed to exploring the boundaries – or the lack thereof – between masculinity and femininity. In Talk to Her, heexamines what we consider masculine or feminine traits and behaviours and subverts them, demonstrating through their interchangeability that human nature is both fluid and universal; fluid in the sense that it is beyond what is merely prescribed by social conventions and expectations; universal in the way that all people are unified by similar fears and desires, emotions and thoughts, whether it is love, pain, hope, hate, despair or fear. For Almodóvar, what matters in life is not what is masculine or feminine but what is shared by all, for it is only from the blending of the two that a new life and understanding can emerge.
Talk to Her subverts what we as a society consider masculine or feminine. The most immediate example of this is the establishment of the man as a caretaker, in this case of women in a coma. These women do not stop being “traditionally” feminine, as demonstrated by Alicia’s period and reproductive ability, but the men taking care of them take on an almost motherly role. Granted, out of the two it is Benigno that demonstrates more “motherly” behaviour, whereas Marco’s caretaking is shown through the more traditionally male role of the protector. Nevertheless, the two men are in roughly in the same position, yet are judged differently for their behaviour, since Benigno’s caretaking is focused more on the treatment of Alicia as a woman, and Marco’s is asexual due to his strained relationship with Lydia. Regardless, the two male caretakers are united by the same hopes and fears, demonstrated by their friendship and the freedom of their emotions.
The film itself begins with the two of them shedding tears while attending the same ballet performance. Without even knowing him personally, Benigno recognises his own emotions in Marco and sees him as a fellow awed human being rather than as a man of “unmasculine” behaviour. They continue to express and share their emotions freely, culminating in tearful and raw meetings at the prison, where Benigno confesses that he has very rarely been hugged in his life. It is then disappointing and frustrating that Benigno’s desire to hug Marco is interpreted by the guards as being an indication of a gay relationship between the two, for what he is actually expressing is a human desire for closeness and comfort. On the other hand, Marco’s easy dismissal of societal perceptions – shown in his willingness to be considered Benigno’s lover – is a poignant affirmation of his ability and willingness to see people in terms of their own self, regardless of what they “should” be or how they “ought” to behave.
This is also a feature of his relationship with Lydia who is viewed with suspicion and disdain for taking on an almost mythically masculine role of a bullfighter. We see that despite her success, Lydia is still manipulated towards more “feminine” behaviours and emotions by those around her, as exemplified by her television interview where her career is being discussed – and later straight-up dismissed – in terms of her romantic involvement with another bullfighter. From what we see of their relationship, Marco does not desire Lydia in terms of her biological femininity or masculine occupation, but in terms of their mutual affinity. He and Lydia share the same passion and the same pain, for just like Lydia, Marco has also experienced a devastating break up, and his subsequent despair is not an indication of effeminacy or weakness, but an expression of the profoundness of loss.
Although Almodóvar displays human universality in moments and relationships such as these, he is nevertheless not blind to the fact that society sees otherwise. In Talk to Her, his most misunderstood character remains Benigno, who is considered effeminate and gay by “the vox populi” while he is actually a victim – or rather a product – of circumstances. Reminiscent of Psycho’s Norman Bates, Benigno – in the words of Doctor Vega – had a “special” adolescence, since his whole focus has been his ailing mother. His personality has thus taken on what are considered feminine traits since he had to take on a “female” role of caretaker. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of his considered effeminacy is that he, by his own admission, profoundly understand women due to his occupational proximity to them. Thus, his role as a beautician is not the result of his own desire to partake in a traditionally feminine ritual, but is the result of his resolution to help his mother exercise her own femininity when she is unable to. Nevertheless, in the eyes of society his behaviour is simplified as being effeminate, thereby diluting his essence and motivations to a simplistic and arbitrary conclusion.
Although it is more than possible to be bitter about these circumstances, Almodóvar resists the looming sense of despondency through humour. The women of Talk to Her are hilariously “unfeminine”; they talk about sweat, penises and taking “elephant sized dumps”, while their more standard feminine behaviours, such Katrina’s – Alicia’s ballet teacher – babying of comatose Alicia, is presented as vaguely absurd and childish. Even Benigno resolves to humour when his sexuality is judgementally questioned by Doctor Vega, darkly quizzing his colleague Rosa whether she prefers bestiality or necrophilia.
The most intriguing theme of the film, is the desire for the fusion of the male and female. This is first mentioned by the ballet mistress Katrina, who laments that there aren’t enough male ballet dancers for her ballet set in the trenches, but rejoices at the female performer’s role as the soldier’s soul. This indicates her predisposition to Almodóvar’s way of thinking and his desire to see a more multifaceted expression of the self, blurring boundaries between male and female qualities. Although it is easy to dismiss her pseudo-intellectual allusions to trees and flowers, and waves of masculine and feminine, this is precisely what Almodóvar is doing in this film. It is through his interactions with “unconventional” people such as Benigno and Lydia that Marco is able to better understand his own self and eventually find a connection with Alicia; and it is through his expression of “female” behaviour, such as crying and being visibly emotionally invested in his friend, that we as an audience learn to love and admire him.
For Benigno, the climactic moment of simultaneous desire and despair that culminates in his rape of Alicia is the result of being emotionally stirred by a silent film within which a tiny man climbs into his lover, essentially becoming her in his desire for closeness and affection. This allegorical and surreal image aims to visually demonstrate the fusion of the male and female as the ultimate expression of love and spiritual transcendence. Although Almodóvar is not encouraging us all to shrink and climb into each other, this image is the nexus of his message – that in order to live humanely we must not constrain ourselves and others with restrictive ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine, for it is constructs such as these that limit human potential. Instead, we should embrace life and emotions in their diversity, developing alongside others rather than in opposition.