The Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar has two magnificent obsessions: the way that people are bound together by transgressive, all-consuming love, and the way that people are torn asunder by transgressive, all-consuming love. These two heads of the same beast merge with alarming ease in Almodóvar's new Talk to Her (Sony Classics), his gentlest—and, for that reason, his most disconcerting—romance. In his earlier works, Almodóvar transformed crazed obsession into outlandish black comedy: Matador (1986) deliriously chronicled the romance of a Bluebeard and a Black Widow, and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1990) was The John Hinckley Story with Jodie Foster finally recognizing the depth of her stalker's passion and running off with the wacko. Talk to Her doesn't come right out with its sympathy for those who love without borders. It has you hooked before you even grasp the scale—or the grandeur—of its perversity.
The movie opens with two men watching a Pina Bausch dance piece called "Café Muller," in which two stuporous females writhe around the stage while two males move chairs and tables out of their way. One of the men in the audience, Benigno (Javier Cámara), recounts the piece—and the whole evening—for a beautiful young woman whom he's lovingly massaging. But she doesn't answer: It turns out that the girl, Alicia (Leonor Watling), is stuporous herself, having been in a coma for four years after an auto accident, and Benigno is her near-full-time caretaker. The other man at the show is a journalist named Marco (Darío Grandinetti), who falls for a skinny-faced female bullfighter named Lydia (Rosario Flores) after she's publicly jilted by her longtime lover. When Lydia is violently gored, Marco finds himself in the same clinic as Benigno, whose advice on what to do during the endless bedside vigil is the film's title.
There is no telling where Talk to Her will go from its first half: Will this be an inspirational, Douglas Sirk-ian soap opera in which these women wake up under the loving care of their men? Or is there something disturbing about talking to and caressing supine, unconscious women and regarding it as a relationship? The extraordinary thing about Talkto Her is that it's both these things at once—and more: a meditation on the ways in which couples communicate, or don't. A study in loneliness. A story of friendship based on little but shared longing. Tenderly, with intertitles that seem to well up out of the celluloid, Almodóvar winds back and forth through time to show how Benigno first encountered Alicia—before her accident—and where Marco and Lydia were heading emotionally when the bull ripped open her throat. The director makes no editorial distinctions between "holy" and "unholy" love, just as Alberto Iglesias' transcendentally beautiful chamber score miraculously weaves together the plaintive and the ominous. Passion is passion, and whatever form it takes is more enlivening than its opposite.
There isn't a whisper of camp in Talk to Me: The dialogue scenes have a flat, understated realism. It's the wiggy interpolations that hint at these peoples' inner lives: the Bausch overture and finale; Alicia's ballet; the sorrowful, languorously slowed-down bullfighting; and especially the black-and-white silent film called The Shrinking Lover that Benigno relates to the unconscious Alicia. Almodóvar created it, and its surreal Freudian landscape is one of the mostly wildly funny—and believable—portraits of desire ever put on film. The movie is the strangest experience: a matter-of-fact thing that swallows you whole.