Billy is an unusual short (71 minutes) documentary feature, first screened at the Seville European Film Festival in 2020 and scheduled to be released in Spain in September 2021. It is another of the UK premières that have been offered by HOME at this year’s ¡Viva!. The film opens with a sequence that appears to come from a European Western (actually El hombre que mató a Billy el Niño, Spain-Italy 1967). A young blonde cowboy on horseback is being chased across across a dry scrub landscape into a small town by a group of ‘Federales’. A voiceover tells us that this isn’t a Western, although there are guns, chases and sheriffs and good guys and bad guys – but it’s too early to reveal them. All this while a woman dashes out of an adobe house to bring in her child in an almost direct hommage to the opening of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The voiceover tells us that in fact this is a film about events only a relatively short time ago in a location that is also not too distant. This is immediately followed by a montage of talking heads all giving descriptions of ‘Billy the Kid’. A close-up of a pistol being fired at the camera turns into an animated credit sequence, also re-calling Leone, announcing ‘Billy’. This is certainly an arresting opening and soon the voiceover returns to tell us that Antonio González Pacheco, a police inspector in the Social Political Brigade of the Francoist regime in Spain during the late 1960s, died without having been tried for his crimes of torture and murder despite the demands of his victims and their families. The coronavirus delayed the post-production of the film and it also took Pacheco and one of the witnesses to his crimes. When shooting began Pacheco was alive, now he is dead but the need to expose his crimes remains.
As the witnesses began to identify themselves as members of various anti-fascist political parties that they joined as university students and young activists, I remembered the Spanish political thriller that featured in ¡Viva! 23, Seven Days in January (7 dias de enero, Spain-France 1979) that offered a compelling fictionalised account of the police and fascist ‘guerrilla action’ against communist lawyers and activists which threatened to derail the transition towards democracy in Spain following Franco’s death in 1975. What I certainly wasn’t aware of was the extent to which young anti-fascists were active in Madrid during 1968 when student protest spread from Paris, Berlin, London, California and Mexico across the world. It seems to me now that those Spanish students faced a much more serious threat to their very survival, certainly compared to most student revolutionaries in the UK (though not those overseas students being tracked in the UK by intelligence services). Here in Billy we meet several of those Spanish student activists and other young activists, now in their late 60s or early 70s but with vivid memories of the late 1960s. As one of them puts it:
You could see how the police acted, how they tortured, how they repressed, how they shot for real – they didn’t shoot rubber bullets.
The witnesses constitute a diverse group of men and women who belonged to a variety of communist and anti-fascist political parties which didn’t necessarily agree on tactics. Some were determined to rely on words and the democratic process, others believed in direct action, including armed struggle. Writer-director Max Lemcke and his crew have access to a diverse range of material, including footage of demonstrations and street battles, newsreels and personal archives. Much of it is accessible for any audience but some probably means much more to Spanish audiences. A witness reminds us that it was difficult to find ‘important books’, to hear songs (such as the Victor Jara one used here) and watch movies in this period.
But who was ‘Billy’ and how did he acquire the name? Antonio González Pacheco arrived at university in Madrid in 1968 and in 1969 became a Junior Inspector in the ‘Social Investigation Brigade’. He quickly became a leading player in the ‘Dirty War’ waged by the police and fascist gangs against any left organisations. I think the term ‘Dirty War’ is used to deliberately link to the similar activities in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries. The ‘Transition’ to democracy was was slow and although democratic elections produced a conservative government it did not have a majority. There was a major issue about the refusal to legitimise the Spanish Communist Party and a concerted effort by the new government to declare various Amnesties and not to investigate the activities of Francoist crimes against the people at that point. These are some of the issues discussed in Billy. Some historians mark the end of Transition with the failed coup d’état of 1981 and the election of the majority government of the PSOE or Spanish Socialist Party (a centrist party by the standards of most of the witnesses in Billy). The crucial point is that the torture and murder of leftist political activists as practised by Pacheco/’Billy the Kid’ did not stop in 1975 but continued into the 1980s.
‘Billy’ is portrayed in Seven Days in January and we get to see clips from that film and to hear the witness statement of the actor who played him. He got his name because he was a show-off who liked to parade his weapon and he was something of a dandy. Different witnesses explain how the torture terror worked and how the murders happened. The vivid descriptions are shocking and so is the observation that the fascists in the police force, just as the fascists in the élite, made the transition to democracy without being investigated or imprisoned and keeping their positions in many cases. The 1970s also saw an ‘International’ organisation of fascist police groups with meetings arranged with similar groups in Italy and West Germany.
I found the testimonies riveting, although the plethora of different political parties and revolutionary groups was a little confusing. The documentary is not publicly-funded or made by a media corporation. It was completely crowd-funded and all the contributors are listed in the long credits. It can therefore be a partial account (Francoists were invited but declined to be interviewed), though some of the witnesses have different views about direct action. The filmmakers have, however, decided that too many talking heads in long sequences would make the film unwatchable for any but the most diehard supporters. They have therefore used the Billy the Kid film as well as a Lucky Luke animated version of the Billy the Kid story and even an old black and white TV advert for Nesquik similar to the ‘Milky Bar Kid’ UK ad from 1961. The witnesses describe Billy in different ways – as a clown, as someone almost ‘deified’, as a sinister man, loathed and feared etc. The name stuck from his earliest university appearances but not everyone thought it was a good idea to repeat the nickname. I see the problem for a filmmaker wanting different material but I think there is probably too much of the feature film material shown – which does suggest Billy as the ‘hero’.
Fifty years is a long time to wait for witnesses to be heard. I’m glad I was able to see this film which has a repeat showing at HOME, Manchester on Saturday 21st August at 12.45. As fascism begins to rise again across the globe it’s important to introduce younger audience to this history and these victims of torture.
After two ‘smaller’ independent films, my third ¡Viva! title is a more mainstream comedy drama. I’ve again chosen to go with the direct translation of the Spanish title into English, since the ‘given’ English title doesn’t make much sense. This is a familiar narrative, probably most recognisable as referencing films such as The Odd Couple (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, 1968), but really any narrative in which seemingly disparate characters are thrown together and must find a modus operandi of some kind. The setting is Sevilla and an oldish apartment block in a now desirable part of the city. Sara (Juana Acosta) is senior manager in an insurance company, an attractive but rather serious and stressed woman on the brink of 40. She is being shown around an apartment by Óscar (Carlos Areces) a seemingly not very competent estate agent. The apartment is going at half the usual price and eventually the reason for this unusual sale becomes clear. There is an ‘inconvenience’ – the current owner must be allowed to stay on until she dies. Lola (Kiti Mánver) is in her mid 70s with a history of heart problems and she smokes, drinks and eats too many sweet and fatty foods. Óscar gaily announces that she won’t last long and refers to her as an ‘inconvenience’. The fact that Sara rebukes him suggests that perhaps she isn’t quite as cold as she first appears.
This is a quite glossy and beautifully-presented ‘Scope comedy that offers a familiar story in an attractive city. It is certainly funny and and sometimes quite moving. It’s not giving too much away to note that the two women are both lonely and for not dissimilar reasons. They will initially be at loggerheads but will also each grudgingly admire the other at times. Óscar provides a kind of running joke by popping up at regular intervals in various service jobs, none of which he can hold down for long. His incompetence is something the two women can agree about. In terms of timing and performance it is perhaps worth noting that Carlos Areces and Kiti Mánver are both alumni of Almodóvar productions. Juana Acosta is well cast as the business woman with her own problems beneath a polished veneer. Director Bernabé Rico is making his feature film début after several shorts and a decade of producer credits. Cinematographer Rita Noriega is also a features debutant. The script is by the director and Juan Carlos Rubio (based on his own theatre play) and the music is by Julio Awad.
I did find the film entertaining and I enjoyed the performances and the presentation, but I think that the relationship between the two central characters could be explored further, including their back stories. The basic premise (about a half-price apartment that Sara sees as a sound investment) refers to a real social issue in Spain – the rising cost of housing. This and Sara’s lack of a work-life balance, which means that she hasn’t yet decided whether she wants to have a child, point the way towards a richer social comedy that might have more resonance while remaining a mainstream entertainment. The dramatic element might be a little more developed too. El inconveniente is showing again at ¡Viva! on Saturday August 14th at 18.00 and Friday 20th August at 20.40. It would make a good weekend ‘fun film’. This trailer (no English subs) gives a sense of the rapid-fire dialogue:
This second ¡Viva! film at HOME in Manchester turned out to be not quite the film I expected, though I still enjoyed it. It is promoted as a ‘road movie’ and though that description is certainly applicable, in part because it includes some familiar genre elements, the film doesn’t fully commit to the road movie narrative and the actual distance travelled is not very far. But in terms of ‘changing’ the central character Nora, the film does deliver.
Nora (Ane Pikaza) is a woman in her early thirties who is experiencing a form of midlife crisis. She has had a relationship that hasn’t worked out and she still hasn’t found a job that gives her real satisfaction. She has tried looking for new openings that might make use of her talents (which include drawing skills), but so far no luck. She is looking after her grandfather who is in serious decline and has a close friend who is perhaps using her as a bastion against her own marriage difficulties. And, finally she doesn’t really get on with her parents. Dad is supportive but Mum is critical. When her Argentinian grandfather is finally at peace, Nora sets off in his old Citroën Dyane van (an ‘Acadiane‘?) in the classic attempt to ‘find herself’ and to put his ashes where he wanted them to go. Her family’s Argentinian roots will show through with grandfather’s music on the old cassette player and Nora’s occasional tango moves as she enjoys her freedom.
The central part of the narrative is very enjoyable partly because we get to see the stunning countryside of the Biscay and Gipuzkoa regions of the Basque country. Nora is not a good driver but she survives and meets strangers who each help her and possibly teach her something. The actual journey itinerary is not clear but she appears to be travelling East along the coast and eventually crosses the border into France. Her grandmother is buried in Ciboure, a small town just over the border. The film is a Spanish-French co-production so this may simply be a requirement of the deal. This is a multilingual film and Nora turns out to speak Spanish, Basque, French and English to the different people she meets and when she finds a bookshop just over the border she finds herself using all four languages in the space of a few hours.
The road movie usually ends with the protagonist in a new place having changed as the result of their adventures. In this case, Nora will first return home and then sally forth again, knowing what she wants. That seems a satisfying resolution to me. The film is the second feature by writer-director Lara Izagirre, a Basque native who trained in New York and Barcelona before returning home. The film is presented in Academy ratio for no particular reason that I can discern, but the presentation works well. Nora is an interesting character and Ane Pikaza gives a strong performance. One of the things about Nora that I like is that she is prepared to say no and sometimes to behave ‘badly’ when she, not unreasonably, refuses to go along with someone else. She is not a naïve young traveller. She has something to offer and she will find a way to use it.
Nora seems to have been well received in Spain and I don’t see why it shouldn’t travel successfully to other territories. I’ve always wanted to travel to Northern Spain. The film helped to convince me and once the pandemic is under control, perhaps I’ll go. In the meantime, Nora is a good advertisement. I can recommend the film and future screenings at ¡Viva! are on Sunday 15th August at 18.00 and Wednesday 18th August at 16.00.
Great news! ¡Viva!, Manchester’s Spanish and Latin American Festival returns for its 27th edition, running from Friday August 6th until Sunday 22nd August. Usually held in the Spring but with 2020’s festival being delivered across two programmes in 2020 because of Covid restrictions, ¡Viva! returns in the height of Summer 2021. It’s a cracking programme with 18 films, 11 of which are UK premieres. There will be the usual ‘added value’ features of introductions by the curators and recorded contributions by filmmaker guests. Café Cervantes, a free but ticketed event on Saturday 21 August, offers you an opportunity to share your thoughts about the films you’ve seen while practising your Spanish with native speakers and other festivalgoers. The programme includes eight Spanish features but also has space for some of the smaller Latin American producers such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Columbia and Dominican Republic plus a trio of Chilean titles. I’ve seen just one of the films so far and I can fully recommend the terrific Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares, Mexico-Spain 2020).
The festival opens on August 6th with the UK premiere of El Robo del siglo (Argentina 2020), the entertaining true story of a 2006 bank robbery, one of the most famous and complex heists in Argentinian history. There is a strong contribution by Spanish films this year including El Año del descubrimiento (The Year of Discovery, Spain-Chile 2019) an epic (200 minutes) documentary by Luis López Carrassco offering a fascinating insight into contemporary Spain, through the lens of recent history told by the locals of Cartagena, a naval city in southeast Spain. The year in focus is 1992. The festival notes suggest that this is “a rallying cry to the left and centre left to mobilise against unchecked capitalism and the far right”. On a lighter note La boda de Rosa (Rosa’s Wedding, Spain-France 2020) is a romantic comedy by Icíar Bollaín and Nora (Spain 2020) by Lara Izagirre offers a road-trip through Northern Spain in a Citroën Dyane 6.
El Inconviente (One Careful Owner, Spain 2020) by Bernabé Rico is a comedy drama in which a young woman moves into a flat only to discover that the former owner, an older woman, is still legally there. The two must find a way of living together. La Última primavera (Last Days of Spring, Spain 2020) by Isabel Lamberti is a début feature, a drama set in Europe’s largest shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid. Las Niñas (Schoolgirls, Spain 2020) by Pilar Palomero is another film set in 1992 about a young woman finding her own identity in a convent school setting. It won several Goyas for the creative women behind the production including script, camerawork and direction as well as Best Film.
Los Fuertes (The Strong Ones, Chile 2020) is an acclaimed gay love story by Omar Zúñiga, set in a Chilean fishing community and described by The Hollywood Reporter as a “queer festival darling”. Salvador (Colombia 2020) by César Heredia is a romance drama set in the 1980s in Colombia and Apenas el sol (Nothing But the Sun, Paraguay 2020) by Arami Ullón is a documentary exploring the diversity of indigenous peoples in Paraguay and focusing on the under-represented Ayoreo people. Diablada (Chile-Venezuela 2020) tells the true story of a serial killer who operated between 1998 and 2001 and Pseudo (Bolivia 2020) by Gory Patiño, Luis Reneo is a ‘social thriller’ set in La Paz. Mosh (Dominican Republic 2019) by Juan Antonio Bisonó tells the story of a 16 year-old dancer who lives with her mother and her cousin, Gerónimo, an aspiring rapper. The festival brochure tells us it offers a dazzling riot of colour, music and movement that is by turns poignant, funny and tense”. Jason Wood, HOME’s Creative Director: Film and Culture and author of the Faber Book of Mexican Cinema will introduce Nuevo orden (Mexico-France 2020) by Michel Franco.
I hope this is enough to whet your appetite – you’ll find the other equally exciting titles in the full listings. ¡Viva! is always a favourite festival for me. I won’t be able to get there this year but thanks to the curators I’ve got the chance to preview some of the films and reviews will appear here. If you can get to Manchester do give it a whirl and enjoy the chance to see the best of recent Spanish and Latin American cinema. Festival Bookings are now open and further details of all the films can be found on the ¡Viva! pages of the HOME website.
Thanks to the curators: Rachel Hayward, Head of Film, Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, and Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s Senior Visiting Curator: Film.
Pedro Almodóvar’s short film (30 minutes) made during the 2020 lockdown in Madrid is currently streaming on MUBI. I was not sure what to expect from one of my favourite filmmakers working in English for the first time and featuring only Tilda Swinton and a collie dog – apart from a brief appearance by Agustín Almodóvar. I read afterwards that Pedro was relieved that working with Ms Swinton turned out to be straightforward. He’d been very worried about working in English. The Human Voice is loosely based on the short theatrical performance piece written by Jean Cocteau in 1928 and staged for the first time in 1930. It has since been performed by a host of female stars, including Anna Magnani for Roberto Rossellini’s L’amore (1948) in which it is paired with another short piece, Il miracolo. Almodóvar had first referenced the piece in Law of Desire (1987) and it then provided inspiration for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).
This version of The Human Voice has received much more attention than most short films, partly because of the the unusual circumstances of its production and release during the pandemic but also because of the combination of Almodóvar and Swinton. In formal terms and in its production values, the film is a familiar production from El Deseo. The mode is melodrama and the glories that an experienced team can produce are evident in the lush score by Alberto Iglesias, the cinematography of José Luis Alcaine and the production design by Antxon Gómez. Editor Teresa Font, art director María Clara Notari and others all have at least one earlier Almodóvar production under their belts. From the stunning opening titles through the design of the two studio sets, the presentation of sound, colour and mise en scène delivers everything that we might hope for. I won’t spoil the ending which is slightly different, but the main setting which takes up the bulk of the 30 minutes is an apartment built within a sound stage and presented to us as precisely that, a construction emphasising its own artificialty as it references familiar scenes from Almodóvar’s films, especially the balcony with flowers that features in slightly different versions in both Women on the Verge and Tie Me Up!, Tie Me Down!. But this is very much up market Madrid as evidenced by the costumes and the paintings and the ‘designerware’. Almodóvar emphasises the references with the books and DVDs that his character has lying about the apartment, copies of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956) amongst others, the only jarring note being a copy of Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003) – but maybe that’s just me. The books include works by Alice Munro, Truman Capote and Edna O’Brien but many of these references are only visible if you freeze-frame the image. As in most of Almodóvar’s choices, these ‘significant objects’ are carefully chosen. There is a print of a watercolour by Alberto Vargas, whose 1940s paintings of Hollywood female stars became iconic as a form of Hollywood sexuality, and a 17th century study of ‘Venus and Cupid’ (Sleeping Venus) by Artemisia Gentileschi.
The role of ‘the woman’ is seemingly constructed to offer a star actress the opportunity to demonstrate all she can do. Almodóvar makes the role even more challenging by adopting modern technology, thus depriving the actor of a key prop. In the original stage production and presumably in the later Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman (on TV) performances ‘the woman’ is featured for much of the time in a telephone conversation with the lover who is leaving her. The woman has a physical telephone and a cord linking the telephone to the receiver. She can manipulate the ‘phone and the cord. Swinton however has ear-buds/ear pods and a smartphone in another room. She is effectively delivering a monologue as she moves around the apartment. I found her performance riveting but also slightly unreal. I think her voice, as the title suggests, is the key to the narrative – and, of course, Almodóvar is possibly not able to judge how it sounds to British audiences. I’m not sure if he is a better judge of American voices? This sense of the artificial ‘performance’ voice matches the presentation of the set which straddles a form of realism but also the excess of melodrama and consciously presents its artificialty.
I’m not sure whether the whole thing works for me. As someone who doesn’t use a smartphone and has never tried ear-buds, I generally don’t like to see people wandering about, speaking to themselves. I’m also not really a Tilda Swinton fan, though I admire her acting skills and some of her key performances. In this film the camera is often very close to her face, offering us every detail of her skin and bone structure. She is brave in her wholehearted performance but I guess I just don’t feel the emotion. There are complicated questions about how emotions work in melodramas. In one interview, with Almodóvar we discover:
an otherworldly Tilda Swinton – a cross between David Bowie and Deborah Kerr, according to Almodóvar himself – as an emotionally trapped woman who retains her anonymity, just as in Cocteau’s play.
The vivid primary colours and especially the red dress make me think of Michael Powell and Deborah Kerr, and also of Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. I’m already trying to imagine the Deborah Kerr of Black Narcissus in the role of ‘the woman’. She had a similar background to Swinton and a similar voice but I have had a very different emotional involvement with her screen presence. With Kerr as Sister Clodagh I am emotionally drained, but with Swinton I’m emotionally distanced. I thought it might be an issue of social class but the two actors have a similar background. Kerr was much younger (and potentially vulnerable) when she worked with Powell, perhaps that is important?
I’ve picked out Tilda Swinton’s performance but there are other elements of the narrative. She does have a companion, the dog Dash also pining for the lover, and there are separate discourses of camerawork and of fashion and designer culture (the latter which I feel powerless to interpret). The film is certainly a noteworthy achievement by Almodóvar and Swinton but I’m looking forward to the next feature. Two have been discussed in trade press reports and the first, Parallel Mothers with Penélope Cruz and Rossy de Palma is said to me opening at Venice in September. It sounds more my kind of thing. The second is likely to be an adaptation of the novel A Manual for Cleaning Ladies by Lucia Berlin – a novel which is, I think, in the piles of books on the table in The Human Voice.
Here’s a short US trailer for The Human Voice:
I think that when this short was released in UK cinemas it was accompanied by a pre-recorded Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton.
Talk to Her is part of MUBI’s current streaming programme of Pedro Almodóvar films. I assumed I’d seen it and I remembered that several friends and colleagues rated it highly. It also won its writer-director a writing Oscar. But when I started to watch the film, I could remember nothing about the narrative. I think it must be one of those famous films that you know about without seeing properly. It may be that the casting fooled me – none of the leads are Almodóvar regulars though Darío Grandinetti as Marco later appeared in Julieta (2016) and Javier Cámara as Benigno in I’m So Excited (Spain 2013). On the other hand, several of the secondary roles are taken by familiar faces. Talk to Her is a different kind of Almodóvar melodrama. In some ways a quieter and more restrained narrative it also has a striking score by Alberto Iglesias, an extraordinary fantasy sequence and the usual exquisite art design of the more familiar melodramas by Almodóvar’s team. The subject matter is potentially ‘disturbing’ and perhaps the impact of the film comes from its delicate treatment, almost like an anti-melodrama. For many film scholars and critics the film represents a peak of creativity.
The film is written as a series of scenes over several years that are introduced by on-screen titles. Some of the set-ups are recognisable from earlier and later films by Almodóvar. Two men, Marco and Benigno, sit next to each other at a dance theatre performance of Café Müller by Pina Bausch, though they don’t yet know each other. Benigno lives in an apartment that offers a view down into a dance studio where he sees a young woman, Alicia (Leonor Watling) being coached by an older woman, Katerina (Geraldine Chaplin). Marco is a writer who one day finds himself watching a female bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores). He decides to write a profile of her for a magazine and she will eventually become his girlfriend. Some time later the two men meet in an unusual situation in which the two women they have been watching are both in a coma after separate serious accidents (Lydia is gored by a bull). The men begin to get to know each other. Benigno is an unusual young man who has trained as both a nurse and as a beautician. He has managed to become the main carer for Alicia in a small hospital facility known as ‘El Bosque’. There are other (female) members of Alicia’s care team but Benigno spends most days and nights with her, maintaining her body in excellent condition and, of course, talking to her. Marco is also unusual as a highly sensitive man who Benigno remembers from the theatre performance because Marco cried in response to the emotion on stage. The two men form a strong bond that becomes important for each of them. Benigno allows rumours about his sexuality to circulate but he tells the other workers that he isn’t gay.
I won’t spoil any more of the plot if you haven’t yet seen the film. It is a highly complex and sometimes surprising narrative with an emotional climax. As an Almodóvar film it is consistent with his adoration of beautiful women and his interest in male relationships. The script is indeed remarkable. When the film was released in the UK in the summer of 2002, Sight & Sound invited two well known Spanish film scholars to write about it. Paul Julian Smith wrote a feature for the July 2002 issue and José Arroyo reviewed the film for the September issue. These two writers are aware of the reception of the film in Spain and they are able to spot all the numerous cultural references. Almodóvar is the cover star of the July issue and tagged ‘putting the ‘A’ in art film’. Smith’s piece is given the heading ‘Only Connect’ and the kicker is a suggestion that the film is a change of direction for Almodóvar. With the advantage of a nearly twenty years retrospective view, how should we view the idea of a change of direction now? Looking over the seven features completed since Talk to Her, it seems to me that they represent a mix of stories, genres and ‘personal’/autobiographical interest by the director. What has changed is the nature of art cinema and the status of a filmmaker like Almodóvar both in Spain and Hispanic cinemas and in global cinema more generally.
Smith describes the reception that Talk to Her received in Spain and the promotion of the film by Almodóvar himself – something that he has become increasingly skilled in organising and presenting. Like many writer-directors, Almodóvar tells us things about himself and why he has included scenes in his films etc. I’m always a little wary of these comments as his promotions of his work are performances in themselves and possibly just as fictional. His comments are useful guides or ‘ways in’ to his films but I’d rather rely on the listings of cultural references in his films by scholars and what I can determine by my own and other more informed readings that are available. In this case there are a number of interesting issues. The first is about the gender discourse in the film and whether its focus is the male relationship between Benigno and Marco or the story of the women – both of which in Almodóvar’s films are informed by his own sexual history and by the women who have inspired him. As Smith argues, there is an initial ambiguity about Benigno’s sexuality. Smith also comments on the way in which Lydia is presented during her ‘robing’ as a bullfighter, with an almost fetishistic focus on the constraints the tight costume creates across her breasts and thighs. Arroyo suggests that the narrative presents Benigno as “his mother’s daughter” and Lydia as “her father’s son”. Sexual ambiguity pervades the narrative.
The second issue for Almodóvar watchers is the inspirational source for his aesthetics in the film. Unlike the maternal melodrama, fuelled by the director’s affection for All About Eve (1950) which informs All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her draws upon Rossellini and Antonioni (according to Almodóvar himself) to enable “the intensity of emotion with transparency of style”. I’m quoting Paul Julian Smith’s reading of Almodóvar’s statements here. Smith refers to the ‘classic neo-realism’ of Rome, Open City (1945) and adds the “hip Mexican urbanism of Amores perros (2000)”. I haven’t seen the latter film by Alejandro González Iñárritu so I can’t comment but the Rossellini reference makes sense. Smith also mentions Almodóvar’s reference to Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (1999) which was adapted as a film in 2002. I saw the film but I don’t remember it well enough to make the connection, apart from the narrative shifts between the stories of different characters during different time periods.
For Smith the cumulative effect of the above and a range of other elements of the film is to create a distinctly arthouse aesthetic. He goes as far as suggesting that the appearance of Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Alicia’s dance tutor is a clear sign to Spanish audiences that Almodóvar is “aiming for the outer reaches of the art movie”. I’m not sure that stands up or the claim that the first few minutes of the film (the dance-theatre sequence) is alienating as an opening. However the cultural references and what Smith calls an “aesthetic patterning” do add up to a rich and compelling narrative. I think I prefer José Arroyo’s conclusion that Almodóvar manages to present a complex story as “simply told”, presenting “a range of feeling at once precise and endlessly evocative”. The more I think about the reception of this film (and its promotion by Almodóvar), the more I am reminded by the similar reception of Julieta in 2016.
The one aspect of the film I haven’t discussed is the most controversial aspect of the story – and that is something I think viewers should come across without any previous knowledge. What I will point out is that Almodóvar presents the whole question through a fantasy dream sequence and that this sequence, several minutes long, is matched by other ‘performances’ by the dance-theatre troupe and by musical sequences, one staged as part of the narrative by the Brazilian singer and musical legend Caetano Veloso. Talk to Her is a joy and I don’t understand how or why I didn’t appreciate it first time around.