Neil Young’s Film Lounge – All About My Mother & Talk To Her

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ALMODOVAR DOUBLE BILL

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER

9/10

Todo sobre mi madre : Spain 1999 : Pedro ALMODOVAR : 106 mins

TALK TO HER

6/10

Hable con ella : Spain 2002 : Pedro ALMODOVAR : 112 mins

Almodovars two Oscar-winning movies show how, at his best, he so nimbly combines the aspects of comedy, tragedy, camp excess and raw emotion that distinguishes all his work and also how easy it is for the mixture to go slightly askew. All About My Mother (which won Best Foreign-Language Film in 2000) is a masterpiece: a hugely entertaining and involving ensemble-piece by a great, humanist storyteller working at the height of his powers. While Talk To Her (Best Original Screenplay, 2003) doesn’t work to anything like the same degree, its nonetheless an intriguingly offbeat take on modern emotional relationships.

The plot of Mother is too byzantine to synopsise fairly, but the basic story involves the fortyish Manuela (Cecilia Roth) who, following the accidental death of her teenage son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) in Madrid, returns to the native Barcelona shed fled while pregnant. Though her search for Estebans father a transsexual now known as Lola (Toni Canto) seems fruitless, she hooks up with long-time pal Agrado (Antonia San Juan) and the pair help out a nun, Rosa (Penelope Cruz), who has fallen pregnant to Lola. Meanwhile Manuela ends up working as an assistant to theatrical grande dame Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) appearing as Blanche in a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Complications ensue.

From his title on down, Almodovar makes full and open reference to the classic 1950 Bette Davis movie All About Eve from which we see dubbed extracts when Manuela and Esteban watch a TV showing in the opening scene. And there are also several passages from the Streetcar production – in which Manuela ends up appearing herself as Stella. Almodovars achievement is to interweave aspects of these forebears (plus John Cassavetes Opening Night) into a vibrantly original, defiantly melodramatic canvas entirely his own. With fine contributions from Affonso Beato (cinematography), Alberto Iglesias (score) and, of course, a remarkable array of (mostly female) acting talent, All About My Mother is intelligent, funny and piercingly moving.

Talk To Her doesn’t quite cohere into such a satisfying whole there’s more of a cobbled-together, improvised feel, resulting in a more uneven piece of work. While Mothers sprawling menagerie of characters buzzed with unpredictable vigour and life, Talk To Her never seems very far from contrivance and implausibility. At its centre are two couples nurse Benigno (Javier Camara) and his comatose patient, ballet-student Alicia (Leonor Watling); and travel-writer Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and his bullfighter girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores). When Lydia is gored in the ring, she too falls into a coma which is when the two men become friends. Their relationship is tested, however, when it seems Benignos affection for Alicia may have intensified to the point where a taboo has been breached

Despite Camaras sympathetic portrayal of the tragic Benigno, the film never quite recovers its stride after we realise what he’s been up to with the dormant Alicia and the apparently miraculous result of his attentions may well be too tasteless for many viewers. Up to this point, however, its very easy to go along with the symmetries and undulations of Almodovars typically ambitious screenplay especially as he includes several lengthy set-pieces of dance and music from Pina Bausch and Caetano Veloso respectively. The latter a nocturnal performance of virtuouso guitar is seductively atmospheric, even if non-Spanish-speaking audiences may not find it advances their understanding of the story very much. And, as the camera pans the appreciative audience, Almodovar devotees will spot an in-joke when Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes the two stars of All About My Mother – are shown sitting close by each other, paralelling the opening scene in which Benigno and Marco sat side by side at a Bausch performance. Its a sly, amusing little in-joke but may also serve to remind viewers that, for all Talk To Hers merits, Almodovar is capable of so much better when everything falls just right.

18th August, 2003
(seen 10th August : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young