Watching "Hable con ella" ("Talk to her") (2002): thoughts on art, crime, and ethics

Talk to her

After a decade of putting it off, I finally watched Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film, “Hable con ella” (“Talk to her”). I was actually on the verge of going to a local movie theater to watch it a decade ago when circumstances in my life changed and I put it on hold. But Abby and I just watched it together, partially because Almodóvar has been on my mind since I re-listened to some music sung by La Lupe a couple of days ago.

It turned out to be a fantastic film, totally gripping and moving, no slow or pointless moments, really tight. One of my favorite films of all time, surely.

It was also disturbing on many levels, as great art often is. Abby and I had some conversations about some of the issues, but there was even more still on my mind, so I decided to share them here.

Note: there are some serious spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t watched the film yet, please stop reading now and go watch it first. In any case, I am skipping important plot elements in order to focus on particular themes.

The rape

Let’s cut to the chase. In this film, a really weird guy, Benigno, who is depicted as unhealthily obsessed with a young woman ends up being one of her primary caretakers (he is a nurse) in the hospital when she slips into a coma after an accident. When we encounter him in the story, he’s already been taking care of her for four years. We see him bathing her and massaging her in a way that might be considered loving and caring, but also creepy and too intimate, especially given how he had secretly stalked her before the whole accident. Everyone thinks he’s gay (he lied to fool her father), so nobody seems to seriously question his care of her.

At the end of the story, we are led to believe (it was not depicted) that during the course of the story, he raped her and got her pregnant. Miraculously, at some point after her pregnancy was discovered, she woke from her four-year coma, but the child was stillborn.

My reaction

You can go online and see a lot of reactions to this rape, say, the IMDB forums. Some disbelieve, some try to justify her awakening as making up for his crime, others say they refuse to watch the film because they heard what the story is.

Myself, I disbelieved at first, despite the very clear signal straight from the film director himself. I thought, maybe it was the other main character, or the other man besides him. I thought this even though I knew it could not be. I found it very interesting that despite the obvious (except that I didn’t see it happen), I did not want to believe that his man, even though he was clearly weird and inappropriately obsessed with the comatose woman, did this. I examined myself and asked why I did not want to believe. One reason was that other being all weird, he came across as being very gentle and caring, both towards her (taking care of her inert body) and to the other main character Marco, who became a close friend of his. For all we knew, he was still a virgin. And she hadn’t gotten pregnant after four years of his care.

Of course, my “reasoning” was completely ridiculous. How did I know that he wasn’t molesting her for four years, and just being careful about it, and only accidentally slipping up one night after watching that silent film he talked to her about?

So, I was very uncomfortable that aspects of his personality and behavior that made me feel sympathetic to him in general led me to doubt that he was capable of something horrible. This brought up memories of being confused and cynical in the light of revelations in recent years that some people’s heroes were in fact very flawed: for example, the big Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno’s apparent role in concealing Sandusky’s repeated sexual abuse of young boys. Or Lance Armstrong finally confessing to being a drug doper in sport. Or the history of sexual abuse by priests and other leaders in many religious institutions.

It turned out that I was detached from all those cases, not having any emotional involvement with the “heroes” in question, so it was easy for me to scoff at those who went out of their way to demonize the victims and proclaim their heroes innocent. So I was pretty disturbed that just through skillful storytelling, the film director here was able, for a split second, to cause me to doubt the obvious.

Bullfighting and respect for different cultures

Another thing that disturbed me was the bullfighting. I am hardly a member of PETA, but I find bullfighting frightening and perverse.

Of course, I am slightly ambivalent about this attitude. But only slightly. OK, it’s an important cultural institution in Spain, and I am definitely not one to lightly dismiss long-standing traditions that clearly have served a purpose of some kind over centuries, even millennia. But I’m not a relativist who thinks everything’s OK somewhere. For example, there are long traditions of human slavery that “we” (in, say, the US where I live and grew up) consider not to be OK, and “we” believe that women should have the right to vote, that female genital mutilation is unacceptable, that the ancient Chinese foot binding of women was an atrocity, etc.

You could argue that it’s just sheer cultural conditioning that I happen to believe in what “we” believe, but nevertheless, I feel justified in my judgment and can’t apologize for it. So if you’re reading this and you’re Spanish and offended, I don’t know how to sugarcoat it, but bullfighting freaks me out. The best I can say is, there are probably things I believe in or do that you find disgusting also.

Cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy?

The weird thing is, even as I felt disgust at seeing all the blood during the bullfighting scenes in the film, I felt unease at my participating in a very sanitized version of the whole thing.

I’m talking about the ballroom dance “paso doble”, which is a kind of weird, transformed re-enactment of a bullfight theme. I have never actually danced paso doble in competition, but have practiced basic steps and movements, and have fantasized about being some kind of macho bullfighter. See, in most of the standard ballroom dances, the focus of display and movement is almost entirely on the follower, the woman. In only the paso doble, the man is really the focus, being the bullfighter. (The follower is, bizarrely, his cape: the bull is invisible and only implied.)

I still periodically do a paso doble dance workout. When I do this dance workout, you can bet I’m not thinking about bloody bulls or the possibility of being gored to death. Somehow the whole thing has been sanitized. I feel slightly weird about this “Anglo” appropriation of a cultural tradition. I would say I feel slightly weird about the other sanitized and standardized Latin ballroom dances too (rumba, cha cha, samba) that have “authentic” roots from, for example, Cuba and Brazil.

But I feel only “slightly” weird, because cultural borrowing and appropriation is something that has always happened. I don’t think we can or ought to stop it, any more than I can go around sniffing that a lot of “Chinese food” in American restaurants is not much like what I know to be more “authentic”. The best I can do is know the difference, rather than reject evolution or borrowing of traditions. So, for example, I have watched videos of Cuban salsa, which differs from urban North American studio or club salsa. I did study “Argentine tango” after engaging in the heavily stylized and very different ballroom tango. I think these can all reasonably coexist, as long as one knows what each is and not pretend something is what it is not.

Gender roles

And then somehow everything brought me to the issue of gender roles. In the film, the bullfighter main character is a woman, Lydia. Unusual. That led me to think about other weird issues I have dealt with concerning ballroom dancing, and couple dancing in general where there is a clear separation between leader and follower. Are these dances a weird kind of anachronism? I have definitely met women who rejected or were openly uneasy about taking part in this kind of dancing, but obviously, as Abby and I have gone out dancing, we know of plenty of women who are OK with it. In fact, we often see women dancing the leader role, and admittedly less often, men dancing the follower role. I tend to think there’s not really a problem with this kind of dancing, given that people really can and do switch roles these days.

Do the ends justify the means?

Some final thoughts: what happens when we accept that something is disturbing? Especially when we rationalize away our discomfort?

For example, why did Almodóvar tell a story about a rapist who some would like to say possibly “helped” a comatose woman awake? What if that were true? Does it make his crime any less bad? And what about intent? Does intent matter in an action? Fodder for your philosophy classes.

And what about the film itself? What is the response to those who refuse to watch this film because of a rape? Has Almodóvar committed a crime by making the character a sympathetic, tragic one? Or is this “only” art? Or is it because it is high art that it is justified?

And that reminds me of the controversy over Roman Polanski, many of whose beautiful, profound films I have enjoyed through my life? He fled the US in 1977 after statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. In 2009 there was controversy after the US tried to extradite him, and a lot of film fans apparently came to his defense. Were they making the mistake of making an allowance for a great film maker that they would not have made for some random guy? Is my continuing to watch his films a crime? Should I be boycotting his films?

A lot of questions, and I think no easy answers. Of course, our actions reveal our implicit answers. What we say does not matter. What we do does.

The science (added 2014-01-05)

One thing I forgot to discuss was the matter of whether people in vegetative states are actually aware of what is going on around them. Assuming they have some awareness, that makes a lot of what happened in the film kind of creepy (but also, what happens in real life in hospitals).

Here’s a recent post about emotional awareness in patients in a vegetative state.

(Update of 2014-04-27)

A great article on vegetative states just came my way, reminding me of the discomfort I felt when watching this film.


For me, a great film is one that somehow makes me think about life and humanity in the broadest possible ways, even though I didn’t really want to. I guess Pedro Almodóvar struck a home run with this film.

Not the kind of film I want to watch every night, because then I end up spending hours thinking about stuff. But there it is.

Do you find this kind of film too disturbing to watch or to think about? Are you concerned by inaccurate scientific portrayals in film? Are you concerned about films that make you sympathetic toward someone who is not only disturbed but also a criminal?

comments powered by Disqus