I recently attended a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s film Talk to Her (Hable con Ella). It made me really angry, and some of the responses to the film have made me even angrier. I haven’t seen any other Almodóvar films, so I can’t discuss it in the context of his oeuvre, but I understand that rape and abuse are common themes. I also understand that he considers himself a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that his work can’t be subjected to feminist critique. I’m not going to go into every detail or layer of this film, because I want to focus on its portrayal of rape. Depictions of sexual violence in art and the media absolutely impact our perceptions of the crime in real life.
For those who haven’t seen the film but don’t mind major spoilers, these are the principal characters:
Marco: a handsome, art-loving writer who is in a relationship with–
Lydia: a bullfighter who becomes comatose after being badly injured by a bull, and dies without waking from the coma,
Benigno: a nurse at the care facility where Lydia is admitted, who is tasked with the care of–
Alicia: a young ballet student who has been comatose for four years, after being struck by a car.
Marco and Benigno become friends, and Benigno recounts his…experiences…with Alicia. It transpires that Benigno has an apartment across the street from Alicia’s ballet school, and he became obsessed with her before she went into the coma. In the beginning, the audience is led to think that maybe Benigno is just a shy guy with a crush. One day he sees Alicia drop her wallet, and he rushes to return it to her. They chat and he walks her toward her apartment. Benigno is desperate to see Alicia again, so he makes an appointment with her psychiatrist father so he can get into their apartment. *danger alert!* After the appointment, he sneaks around their house, goes into Alicia’s room and steals her hair clip, and then runs into her as she comes out of the shower. She screams and he tells her that he’s totally harmless and he just wanted to see her again. *danger alert!*
The next time Benigno sees Alicia, she’s lying in a coma in the facility where he works as a nurse. Her father wants someone to be with his daughter at all times, and Benigno is recommended for the job. Although Alicia’s father initially has reservations–he obviously doesn’t know about Benigno’s history with his daughter–ultimately Benigno and one other nurse are tasked with Alicia’s care.
Benigno is completely infatuated with Alicia, and to an extent lives vicariously through her, bizarre as that sounds. He’s taken on her interests, going to dance performances and watching films, then coming back to the hospital to tell her about them. He cuts her hair and gives her manicures and puts make-up on her face. He tells her about painting his apartment and how nice it will be when they live there together. Eventually, he tells Marco that he wants to marry Alicia, explaining that they get along better than most married couples. *danger alert!*
“Alicia cannot, with any part of her body, say ‘I do,’” Marco splutters. He tells Benigno not to tell anyone else or he’ll get in trouble. What he should have done, of course, is tell the hospital authorities right away, because *danger alert!* this is NOT normal. Alicia is comatose. She cannot express her own thoughts, emotions, or opinions. She is unable to articulate what she wants to happen to her own body. She is completely helpless and dependent. She is, to someone like Benigno, perfectly suited to function as a beautiful blank slate onto which he can project his own fantasies. (And I do think it’s fitting that she’s a ballet dancer, because trust me, fantasy projection comes with the field.) He has placed her on a pedestal of ideal, mysterious womanhood, and has created a relationship that exists only in his mind. If Almodóvar is making a point about silenced women being placed on pedestals of mystery rather than treated as real human beings with their own thoughts and feelings, and being mainly considered useful for alleviating a man’s Profound Loneliness and making his life worth living, I completely take it. I just don’t like the way the next events are handled.
After Lydia’s death, Marco leaves to travel abroad. Back at the hospital, the staff have realized that Alicia is pregnant, which means only one thing–someone raped her, because a comatose woman CANNOT consent to sex. I shouldn’t have to clarify that point, but I feel that it needs to be emphasized. And I’m happy to say that the hospital staff call it what it is–rape–and that Benigno goes to jail, where he receives a diagnosis of psychopathy.
To a certain extent, Marco plays the role of the audience. We see Benigno as Marco sees him; perhaps an eccentric but basically harmless person who devotes his life to caring for Alicia–although, if you’re paying attention, you should be creeped out by a lot of things he says and does. When Marco returns home he visits Benigno in jail, and is both appalled by the crime and insistent that he’s still Benigno’s friend. He finds out that Alicia gave birth to a stillborn baby and, shockingly, came out of the coma. He tries to convince Benigno’s lawyer that Benigno should be informed, but the lawyer, thank goodness, puts his foot down and says that Benigno does not deserve to know that Alicia is out in the world rebuilding her life. Benigno decides to take an overdose of drugs to put himself in a coma, and instead kills himself.
Then comes the part I like least: Marco visits Benigno’s grave and tearfully tells him that he woke up Alicia. By raping and impregnating her?! No, thank you. Marco then sees Alicia at a dance performance, and it’s implied that they’re going to begin a relationship. I don’t know if this is meant to be romantic, but my advice to Alicia is to run far away from anyone who aided or abetted Benigno’s behavior.
Because Benigno is not harmless. He stalks Alicia. He invades her home. He tells her father that he’s gay to make him less suspicious, and he falsifies Alicia’s menstrual charts so that the other staff don’t catch the pregnancy. He’s not a hopeless romantic, he’s a psychopath, and he’s very good at manipulating people’s emotions. He even manipulates us, the audience.
I definitely see value in art that causes the audience to empathize with people who do terrible things, provided that it brings the audience to the point where they viscerally understand the horror of empathizing with that person. Unfortunately, I don’t think this film succeeds at doing so, and there’s a very clear reason why: there are plenty of people in the world willing to identify with a rapist, to minimize or rationalize or excuse his behavior as the product of love or loneliness or misunderstanding. (I can’t comment on the validity of the psychopathy diagnosis, but I will say this: a lack of empathy, a charming demeanor, and an ability to manipulate are hallmarks of the disease. And Benigno knows exactly what he’s doing–that’s why he tries to throw people off the scent of his crime.)
My boyfriend and I were discussing the film, and he provided an apt counterexample (yes, I know it invokes Godwin’s Law): you can make a movie about Hitler, from Hitler’s perspective, and the vast majority of people on the planet still won’t empathize with Hitler, because they know he did terrible things. No one says, “Well, he started a war and orchestrated a genocide. What’s wrong with that?” But make a film about a man raping a comatose woman, and there will be people who say, “Well, he had sex with her because he loved her. What’s wrong with that?” We aren’t yet at the point in our culture where his actions are going to be universally condemned. Want to know how I know that? Comments.
A woman at the screening delivered her opinion that the film was about “honoring women,” because the men frequently serve them or help them, and I wanted to yell, “You don’t honor women by raping them!” But that would have felt awkward, so instead I’m writing about it on my blog. I tried searching for feminist analyses of the film, and was surprised that I didn’t turn up very many results. Judith Flanders writes in the Times Literary Supplement:
In Talk to Her, Benigno (note the name) is presented as Alicia’s saviour, despite the fact that he has not only raped her, but, before her accident, stalked her. Almodovar has said, “for there to be a loving relationship it is only necessary for one person to love”.
He is as confused as Benigno. While it is true that very often in a relationship there is one who loves and one who is loved, the one who is loved, in whom consciousness is usually considered a prerequisite, has a choice: to accept or reject the love offered. In a coma, choice is removed…
Lydia and Alicia are not silent because they have chosen to be so, but because they have had choice taken away from them.
Almodovar wants to explore friendship, loneliness and lack of communication, but by removing volition from the discussion he suggests that the only time men can communicate is when women are physically disbarred from joining in: they are present, so men can look at their breasts (which they -and we -do rather a lot of), but their mouths are stopped. In a scene of such importance that Almodovar repeats it twice, Lydia says to Marco just before she is injured, “We have to talk”. “We have been talking”, he replies. She shakes her head: “No.
You’ve been talking. Now we need to talk about me.” She never talks again.
The rape scene is supplanted by a short film about a tiny man who climbs into his sleeping lover’s vagina and lives there forever. I interpreted the short film as Benigno’s belief that what he was doing was right and for Alicia’s benefit. Culture Snob describes the film-within-a-film and concurs with my interpretation:
But in context, the short film represents the way a nurse justifies to himself his rape of a comatose patient. Shrinking Lover is a gorgeously rich and manipulative metaphor, with its playful tone reflecting the nurse’s mindset and turning an act of sexual violence into bawdy comedy. Audience ambivalence is the product of something so ugly being treated with such tender avoidance, and I don’t begrudge anybody their discomfort with Almodóvar’s approach; he appears to want to diminish the rape so that it doesn’t interfere with his intended narrative effects.
I think there are two basic approaches to depicting rape in film, without falling into the trap of eroticizing violence: either don’t show it at all, or show it in a really brutal fashion. Showing the rape through the short film is an interesting approach, but there are still people who are going to see it as justifying or minimizing the rape, because of the particular aesthetics of how it’s portrayed. A more erudite example of this phenomenon is demonstrated by Rosemary Bechler in Open Democracy:
Almodóvar has been taken to task for his careless misogyny. Elsewhere, he is criticised at least as strongly for an unforgivable slur on male sexuality. Neither attitude is able to accommodate the child–like compassion and innocence which those who love this film detect. Yet a stark question remains for these enthusiasts: what kind of innocence is it that can ignore, if not forgive, the rape of a helpless, comatose patient?
The answer…is that love is the real miracle and it somehow redeems the rape through which it is expressed: the “somehow” of such redemption is what this art explores.
[T]he treatment of the central act of rape deprives it of revulsion. Instead, in the universe of Almodóvar film…what begins as a polarisation between the male and the female principle, undergoes a magical sea–change. The rape victim is given a mysterious rebirth of her own a second chance at happiness far greater than her first. A world bed–rocked in pessimism, in Almodóvar words – ‘solitude, disease, death and madness’, finds itself illuminated by a slanting beam of self–forgiveness and human solidarity.
Oh, spare me. Spare me the childish innocence and the notion that love redeems rape. The love of a rapist means precisely nothing to a woman in a coma who is unable to reciprocate in any form. And how would you know that Alicia gets “a second chance at happiness far greater than her first?” Is there anything in the film to suggest that? Rather than living as a happy young 20-something with a burgeoning ballet career, she was in a coma for five years, under the care of a creepy stalker who rapes her, which results in a forced pregnancy and a stillbirth. And I don’t count Marco as a greater form of happiness.
As a commenter on Filmleaf observes, the rape essentially functions as a kiss from Prince Charming, awakening the beauty from her slumber. That idea makes me deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
On the Kamera film site, we get commenters decrying the film for its problematic portrayal of rape, and others saying that the rape is all in their heads, and that Benigno is just trying to wake her up because he loves her. Others praise its ambiguity–and normally I’m quite happy about ambiguity in film–but not when the subject is rape, because talking about rape in ambiguous terms gives actual rapists a license to operate. It creates a culture in which it is very easy for them to excuse their predatory behaviors, and to depend on other people for support in doing so. Violating a comatose person is unambiguously rape, full stop.
But I was really appalled by the comments section at the MUBI film forum. One person suggests that the film is “about how sometimes love can create morally awkward situations, and how morals can sometimes stop people from loving.” Darn those moral compunctions about raping people! It’s just so awkward, you know? Then another commenter jumps in to say that he wasn’t “particularly impressed with the ending, because I believe that despite the rape, Benigno still deserved Alicia’s love more than Marco.” No no nope just stop. Benigno doesn’t deserve anything from Alicia. He stalked her, raped her, and impregnated her without her consent. Even if he hadn’t done any of those things, he would still be a nurse doing the job he was paid to do. Caring for her wasn’t actually an act of selfless beneficence; that’s just how it appeared to Benigno’s mind. Alicia isn’t remotely obligated to him. She was in a coma; she had no choice in the matter. The commenter then goes on to say that Benigno was stupid for ruining his chances with Alicia by raping her, because she totally would have come out of the coma and fallen in love with him otherwise. Because the really bummer thing about rape is that it ruins the rapist’s future chances with his victim, am I right?
I’m pretty sure that if I came out of a coma and realized that for the past few years total strangers had been washing me, dolling me up (which I think is pretty macabre, quite frankly), manipulating my limp body into various positions, and charting my every bodily function, my first thought wouldn’t be, “Oh, how romantic!” Because that thought is absolutely terrifying. It represents the ultimate loss of control.
That, and the fact that Alicia’s last memory of Benigno is of him stalking her in her own home. I doubt she would go for him.
But on the plus side, the film opens and closes with choreography by Pina Baush, so the real moral of the story is that everyone should drop what they’re doing right now and watch Wim Wender’s documentary Pina, because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.