Talk to Her (2002)

Spanish title: Hable Con Ella
Spain, 116 minutes, colour, English subtitles

Production: An El Deseo production
Director/Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Executive producer: Agustin Almodóvar
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Production designer: Antxon Gomez
Editor: José Salcedo
Ballet scenes: Pina Bausch

Benigno Martín: Javier Cámara
Marco Zuluaga: Darío Grandinetti
Alicia Roncero: Leonor Watling
Lydia González: Rosario Flores
Katerina Bilova: Geraldine Chaplin
Rosa: Mariola Fuentes
Doctor: Roberto Álvares
Niño de Valencia: Adolfo Fernández
Alfredo: Fele Martínez
Amparo: Paz Vega

Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her) has a short, bittersweet, musical dream sequence in which a main character, Marco, realises how good his life could have been with a beautiful woman who is now in a coma.

It also has a seven-minute excerpt from an imaginary silent film that looks like a dream sequence - but isn't - and contains the film's most startling images.

This Spanish movie set in modern-day Madrid is a complex, multi-layered drama with a wildly original storyline.

It reaches the level of a work of art thanks to splendid photography, music and acting brought together by writer/director Pedro Almodóvar.

Born in 1951, Almodóvar is Spain's most acclaimed present-day director with a string of international hits like High Heels (1991) and Bad Education (2004) to his credit often featuring kooky characters with unconventional lifestyles.

In the late 1970s, he was a leader of the movida, the cultural movement of Spain's post-Franco era in which the traditional gave way to the new and people - especially the young - realised they could now think, dress and behave just the way they wanted.

Hable Con Ella is a mature work looking at friendship, love, obsession and sexuality and is by turns sad, funny, tragic and thought-provoking.

It is also about how a morally offensive, even shameful, sexual act can have a good and beautiful result. (Almodóvar based the film on a real-life incident in Romania in which a young comatose woman was raped).

Benigno (Javier Cámara) is a shy, reclusive male nurse who looks after Alicia (Leonor Watling), a young ballet student now in a coma after an accident.

Marco (Darío Grandinetti) is a dour, virile travel writer who also ends up by the bedside of a vegetative woman, Lydia (Rosario Flores), a female matador who has been gored by a bull.

The women remain fully functioning but are motionless. They hear nothing. Their eyes sometimes open but they do not see.

Benigno is obsessed with Alicia. He cares for her lovingly, speaking to her endlessly, washing and massaging her until his attentions go beyond what is ethical.

Meanwhile, ballet teacher Katerina Bilova, played by Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie's daughter) also tries a talking cure, referring to Alicia as her 'little sweet potato', but to no avail.

'Alicia is practically dead. She cannot feel anything for anybody,' Marco warns Benigno, who spends four years trying to prove his friend wrong.

If all this sounds overly sombre, the sparkling film has plenty of humour. Marco 'splits up' with Lydia after her former lover, the bullfighter El Niño de Valencia (The Boy of Valencia), shows up at her bedside.

Benigno replies in all seriousness that there was 'something in their relationship' which didn't quite work. He then decides he wants to marry Alicia. After all, he knows her more intimately than many husbands know their wives.

The film explores voyeurism. Benigno spies on Alicia before her accident and at one point is discovered by her prowling around outside her bathroom. The audience also gets a good look at her naked body as she lies in bed in a persistent vegetative state.

Almodóvar also celebrates the diversity of human beings. For example, the hospital authorities think Benigno is gay yet he is deeply in love with a beautiful woman. Many critics have used the word 'creepy' about him. He describes himself as 'harmless.' (Benigno is Spanish for benign).

Lydia has a slightly masculine quality and a macho job (a bullfighter) yet is a sweet, yielding, feminine woman in love. She is not afraid of bulls but has a phobia of snakes.

There is no doubt about Marco's masculinity although he weeps at least four times during the movie, challenging the old adage that 'boys don't cry'. He also has a particularly nice line in long, languid looks through half open doors.

Hable Con Ella is filmed in rich hues of orange, red and brown. Even when Marco and Lydia leave Madrid on a trip they visit a part of Spain with red earth. Almodóvar includes the bedside scenes in this warm colour scheme, aiming to move away from cinema's traditional portrayal of hospitals as cold and clinical.

Indeed, the majestic musical score and intimate photography give almost mystical significance to simple shots like a hospital patient being tucked up with a sheet.

A highlight of the film is the black and white silent movie sequence, Amante Menguante, inspired by the American science fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which Almodóvar morphs into something startlingly novel.

Silent film hero Alfredo (Fele Martínez) takes a potion and becomes so small that he ends up wandering around on the body of the sleeping Amparo (Paz Vega). He goes for a walk on her breasts and even climbs inside her vagina, his attentions giving her sweet, sexual dreams.

The silent film is about a man who penetrates an unattainable woman while she is asleep and is thus of crucial importance to the main storyline of Hable Con Ella. Benigno decides to make love to Alicia.

Almodóvar later said in an interview that the silent film was meant to hide what was going on in the hospital. He stated: 'I wanted to cover it up in the best cinematic way and in an entertaining manner. Benigno had become like a friend of mine. Sometimes you don't want to see things that your friends do.'

Alicia's subsequent pregnancy triggers the sad, touching events which conclude the film. There are several marvellous, unexpected plot twists which it would be churlish to reveal.

The dream sequence, meanwhile, happens while Marco is at the hospital. We see Marco in close-up as focus is pulled between him and the stricken Lydia.

The scene cuts to a swimmer in a pool and a moving performance by Brazilian singer's Caetano Veloso of the classic composition about lost love, Cucurrucucú Paloma, to an audience of cool and trendy people.

This is a shamelessly romantic song about a man so deeply troubled by the loss of his true love that after his own death he returns to his home every morning in the form of a weeping dove.

We witness an intimate conversation between Marco and Lydia, after which Marco awakes, still feeling her kisses on his lips.

'The song gave me goosepimples,' says Marco. The same could be said of the whole movie.