Hable con Ella (Talk to Her). Directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Madrid: El Deseo S.A., 2002.

Reviewed by Meredith Barges

Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con Ella (Talk to Her) is an exploration of the violability of the female body, with repeated scenes of both symbolic and actual violations of the female form. Like Almodóvar’s other films,1 it is also a play on gender, alternately subverting and reinforcing conventional dualities: male/female, mind/body, private/public, object/subject, aggressive/ passive, helpful/helpless, violator/caregiver. Because of its extraordinary use of signs, the film can be an excellent starting point for applying and examining poststructuralist feminism as a critical method. In the classroom, students might map out the many operative symbols and dualisms in the film and then examine places where gender conventions break down – particularly in the characters of Benigno and Lydia – and what the consequences are for these characters.

The plot centers around Benigno, a male nurse who cares for Alicia, a woman who has been in a coma for four years, in a hospital setting. Benigno, whose name literally meaning “benign” or “harmless,” is presented as a sympathetic character who understands the female psyche, spending hours talking to his patient, thereby affirming her humanity beyond her inert body. But Benigno has an unhealthy, overreaching obsession with Alicia, and we later learn that, despite his name, Benigno is all but benign.

The subtext of violation begins early on in the film, when the kitchen (female sign) of a woman bullfighter, Lydia, is invaded by a snake (male sign), and later her body is gored by a bull (male sign). The narrative takes a complex turn when Benigno, while undressing and massaging the comatose Alicia, begins to describe a black-and-white silent film he has just seen called The Shrinking Lover, in which a shrunken man, 2-3 inches in height, climbs inside the vagina of his sleeping lover. Beningo tells Alicia that the shrunken man “stays inside her forever,” an oedipal turn, suggesting both the safety of the womb and sexual gratification. It is presumably during this subnarrative that Benigno rapes (and impregnates) Alicia. The parallel of nonconsentual sex and unconscious women is too much to ignore. The plot twists again when Benigno’s violation is portrayed as an act of love because it eventually causes Alicia to wake up from her coma during childbirth.

Many film reviews problematically describe Hable con Ella as a love story. It is worth exploring in a classroom discussion or through a short writing exercise whether it is Benigno’s seemingly “feminine” qualities—of being nurturing, sensitive, caring, selfless, understanding, and communicative—that, for many viewers, obscures his final act of violation.

1 In particular, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), Kika (1993), and All About My Mother (1999).

Meredith Barges is the editor of UUSC, an international human rights organization based in Cambridge, MA. She studied critical theory and film at Smith College and the University of Chicago.