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Rape and redemption in the west: Pedro Almodóvar's 'Talk to Her'

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is main site Editor of openDemocracy.

Summary: Pedro Almodóvar’s film “Talk to Her” reimagines one of the most potent narratives of European romantic literature, the violation of innocence, and from it evokes a renewed sense of liberated possibility in human sexual relationships. Rosemary Bechler reels in astonished delight.

poster for 'Talk to Her'

Talk to Her: "a film about incommunication between couples..."

Pedro Almodóvar’s acclaimed film, Hable con Ella (Talk to Her) has as its central subject the rape of a young woman in a coma. So also do two of European literature’s finest works: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, was published serially in 1747–8, and was the first romantic novel – it gripped the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic; Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, Marquise of O... (1808) is one of the best short stories ever written and was stunningly adapted by Eric Rohmer in 1975 into a film that won the special jury prize at Cannes.

Both Richardson and Kleist take an apparently revolting theme and transform it into a window overlooking our deepest hopes and fears. I had thought that what the two masterpieces achieved was no longer possible until, spellbound, I watched their art and insight leaping back into scintillating and subversive life in an act of original cinema.

How does Almodóvar measure up against his two distant predecessors? What does he take from them, and what, from the new millennium, might he bring?

Loneliness

All three works have at their centre a preoccupation with the ways in which human beings – particularly men and women – are totally dependent upon each other for their happiness, yet cursed by a separation seemingly impossible to overcome. Loneliness, Almodóvar suggests, would have been the other possible title for his film. The Spanish filmmaker's quartet of characters, just like the bewildered protagonists described by Richardson or Kleist, have to work things out through all the errors and extremities of their lives, in so far as they do so, for themselves: they are alone with their lives.

One result is the sheer oddness of these works. In their respective periods, they have all caused consternation. Visionary and deeply alienated, they don’t belong in their own times. Talk to Her audiences often find the tale quite bewildering. We might guffaw throughout the seven minutes of the slapstick silent movie, “Shrinking Lover”, which Almodóvar places at the film’s centre. But it soon becomes clear enough that this strangely haunting sequence coincides with and indeed takes its meaning from the dreadful deed which it accompanies and perhaps even causes.

scene from 'Talk to Her'

The lover's gaze: Benigno looks through a window in his mother’s apartment

In Britain’s Times Literary Supplement, 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, which is as true for its literary predecessors, as it is for the film, 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.

As in Marquise von O, the treatment of the central act of rape deprives it of revulsion. Instead, in the universe of Almodóvar film, as in Kleist’s war–zone, or in the divided correspondence of Richardson’s epistolary novel, 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.

Moreover, none of these tales of rape–and–redemption confine their gaze to the rapist and his victim. In each work, the act takes its meaning from the conventions, the alternatives, the mores and fashions governing such relations as parental ownership and authority.

Clarissa’s publication and exceptional, indeed “global” success in the 18th century coincided with the rise of the bourgeois, and its domestic relationships between men and women. The novel’s extended critique of the laws concerning family aggrandisement, marriage and property, is taken up and extended sixty years later by the chasm between home and military fortress in the Marquise von O. In both cases, regardless of how the author assesses the act, the rape, in its sheer, selfish Romantic excess, fractures the old dispensation: the “I’ll do this for you, if you do that for me” bad faith of curbed desire which underpinned the everyday reality of money and marriage. In Talk to Her, the act of rape again both breaks society’s rules, and somehow makes the status quo a thing of the past in the process, revealing the inadequacy of what is taken for normal, desirable or sane.

Richardson and Kleist were writing and imagining before Freud. The visionary impact of both their stories may now be seen as a foretaste of modern psychoanalysis: quests for a rediscovered innocence through increased consciousness. But in the postmodernist universe of Almodóvar’s film, this source of authority has joined the traditionally punitive forms – religious, ethical and legal – as a further shackle. Whether you take the heroine’s psychoanalyst father, or the medical authorities in the clinic in which so much of the action takes place, both simply add to the repressive categorisations, false binary oppositions and guilt which we yearn to move beyond.

No – life has moved on since the 18th century, but it has hardly alleviated our isolation, one from the other. The only talking cure available is the one which Almodóvar’s hero Benigno tries out, against the odds and all scientific wisdom, by talking incessantly, despite her coma, to the woman he loves.

And yet, Talk to Her does perhaps show us that miracles have moved on. Almodóvar’s landscape may be littered with dead forms of authority, but there are compensations – wondrous new ways of looking at human interaction in the round, and reminding ourselves, as Richardson’s Clarissa once put it, that “the World is but one great family”.

Indeed, this is where we touch upon the entirely innovative contribution – you might call it a breakthrough – which Almodóvar brings to what can now be seen as a mini–canon. It is one of the paradoxes of Richardson’s originating genius that at the very moment that he founded the modern romance, he was most convinced of the inadequacy of what has deliciously passed ever since for romantic love, writing to a friend: “Now, Madam, if that passion is not little and selfish that makes two vehement souls prefer the gratification of each other, often to a sense of duty, and always to the whole world without them, be pleased to tell me what is.”

In Talk to Her, Almodóvar has discovered deep in the alchemy of cinema, a way of proving, at least to my ultimate satisfaction, that it takes more than two to tango. In doing this, he liberates us from some of the remaining constraints of our approach to gender relations. But could he have done it without the achievements of those earlier storytellers? I invite you to judge for yourself.

Clarissa

Samuel Richardson became one of Britain’s favourite sons as the country emerged as Europe’s most progressive society. Born a year after the “glorious revolution” of 1688, he rose from humble beginnings to international fame and fortune as a printer, publisher, and then bestselling novelist.

Like William Hogarth’s Tom Goodchild in The Industrious and Idle Apprentice, Richardson married his master’s daughter, and followed the path laid down in his first published work, the advice book, The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum: or Young Man’s Pocket Companion, to achieve high office through his own industry, being elected Master of the Company of Stationers in 1753.

His first novel, Pamela, was a moralising but archetypal story of a servant–girl whose determined defence of her sexual virtue is rewarded by her eventual marriage to the reformed rake, Lord B. It was a runaway bestseller in 1740, when Richardson was 50 years old. The novel swept Britain and North America, and was translated into eight European languages. As a novelist, Richardson’s influence was unparalleled.

You might expect such a direct beneficiary of the remarkable explosion of entrepreneurship which transformed British publishing in the “age of enlightenment”, to celebrate the new prosperity, consumer luxury and social mobility of the period. Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, was also a blockbuster. It appeared in seven volumes, and followed its predecessor onto the bookshelves of Europe, where it has preserved its mythic status ever since. But it was very different.

illustration from 'Clarissa'

Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Robert Lovelace – "the most charming villain in English literature".
Wikipedia/Fred Hayman (1708-1776). Public Domain.

It tells the story of a fatally attracted pair; a virtuous young woman, Clarissa Harlowe, who resists parental pressure to elevate the family fortunes by marrying the odious moneybags, Solmes, only to fall prey to the seductive libertine, Robert Lovelace – the most charming villain in English literature. Pursued, abducted, and imprisoned in a London brothel, she is, after her escape and recapture, eventually drugged by him and raped. She goes into a decline and dies.

Instead of reflecting a world where a system of newly discovered, immutable Newtonian laws reveals to man an ordered universe and God’s infinite, scientific wisdom, Richardson’s novel posits a universe of restless “Strife and Contrariety”, structured around the letters chiefly written by the two protagonists to their respective confidants. Turning his back on the rational, pragmatic and above all, optimistic tendencies of his age, Richardson revisited the great theodicy of England’s previous civil–war–torn century: John Milton’s attempt in Paradise Lost to “justifie the ways of God” to men: ways that meant defeat, sin and suffering.

So Lovelace is compared throughout to Milton’s Satan, circling around this intelligent and high–principled young woman as Satan tempts his Eve. Lovelace also sets out to subject the woman he says he loves to a trial of her virtue, to discover for himself whether she is an “angel” or a “mere woman”. Clarissa’s introduction to Lovelace’s cronies is a wonderful rewriting of Milton’s “Infernal Debate”. Her dim memory of the “joy–suppressed emotions” of the rapist’s gaze recalls the perverse self–defeat of Milton’s fallen Lucifer, an “archangel ruin’d”.

Nor does Clarissa suffer solely at the libertine’s hands. Provoking the unrelenting ire of her father and brother, her first prison is at home in Harlowe Place, citadel of bourgeois patriarchy, and pretension. By the time the prostitutes in London dress up as aristocrats to deceive her, there is no section of society to which Clarissa can turn. Each begins to reflect the other in a nightmare hall of mirrors from which death alone can deliver her. Written in letters, the novel contains all the urgency and tension of personal communications set down “to the moment”. Throughout a hugely long work, the claustrophobia and sheer inescapability of her fate is amazingly palpable.

The letter in which Lovelace announces the rape is perfunctory, probably the shortest in the novel:

”And now, Belford, I can go no farther. The affair is over. Clarissa lives. And I am Your humble servant, R. Lovelace.”

Over fifty letters later, we have Clarissa’s own account of what she can remember of “the man and his behaviour”, as she succumbs to the drugs: “Never saw I his abominable eyes look, as then they looked – triumph in them! fierce and wild.” Meanwhile, Richardson plunges his heroine into a “strange delirium; now moping, now dozing, now weeping, now raving, now scribbling, tearing what I scribbled as fast as I wrote it – “ and prints incoherent fragments of her dishevelled thoughts and nightmare visions at different angles to each other on the page.

But perhaps the strangest aspect of this very strange novel is that we are now only halfway through Clarissa’s story. It is one of the features of corrupt matter as personified by Lovelace that he wrongly identifies physical possession as a definitive moment in his bid for power. Clarissa recovers to so greatly enhanced a stature as noble heroine, that as in the vivid, masque–like dream where Lovelace sees her soaring out of his arms to her native heavens, she has moved inexorably beyond his reach, and ours.

Everything begins to change. Lovelace learns that his testing of Clarissa’s virtue has destroyed the only thing he could ever love. Moreover, he has been the unwitting tool of her divine deliverance. Thanks to him Clarissa’s encounter with evil has transformed a merely good–hearted young girl into a Christian saint purified through her suffering, her ecstatic dying embrace reserved for Christ the Bridegroom. Lovelace is no less of a seeker than Clarissa, but in the words of William Law, the divine known as “the English mystic” who was close to Richardson’s circle of intimates, evil “cannot help itself to that which it wants, but is always working against itself.”

This strange, compelling vision of a fallen universe in which evil exists so that good should come to know itself, is driven by an opposition of quasi–sexual contraries. Richardson’s male and female protagonists offer Romantic love to European literature as a high critique, a standard for happiness as for virtue, celebrated in minute psychological, sometimes sadomasochistic detail.

As the story unfolded, Richardson’s readers grew increasingly alarmed. He began to receive urgent requests to reform his rake and permit the pair to live happily ever after. In subsequent editions he was to add several thousand small but cumulative revisions to argue his case. But from the first, volume after volume cut off all of Clarissa’s exit routes.

Precisely because this was a sentimental age “given up to diversion and entertainment”, his readers were appalled. If the rape scandalised their sensitivities, Clarissa’s death three volumes later was a national crisis. Nor was the reaction confined to Britain. It is said that the ship carrying the final volume to New York was greeted by hundreds of expectant readers on the quay, calling out to know if Clarissa still lived.

For two centuries afterwards, authors great and small attempted to erase the aftertaste, the peculiar pain and sweetness of Richardson’s work from their memories. From Rousseau to Daphne du Maurier, they tried to rewrite the encounter between a rake and a saintly young bourgeoise, so that it had a happier ending. On the whole, such was the scale of Richardson’s challenge to the secular and materialist values of the Enlightenment – they failed.

Marquise von O

By any stretch of the imagination, in his own time or any other, you would not have chosen Heinrich von Kleist as the man to succeed. A self–proclaimed misfit, this “surpassing genius – one of the greatest, boldest, and most ambitious poets Germany has produced”, as Thomas Mann described him, was to kill himself at the age of thirty–five in a suicide pact with a fatally ill young woman, saying: “I am going, since there is nothing left for me either to learn or to gain in this life.”

Yet from the determined opening words of his first, extraordinary short story, he seems to have set himself the task of retelling the tale in a way which, once and for all, would erase such concepts as diabolical evil and original sin from human experience and human rhetoric, and celebrate everything most human that remains.

scene from 'Die Marquise von O'

Eric Rohmer's film, Die Marquis von O (1976)

“In M., an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O., a lady of excellent reputation and the mother of two well–brought up children, announced in the newspaper: that she had, without knowing it, become pregnant, and would the father of the child she was to bear kindly declare himself since she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.”

It only takes so many words for Kleist to throw down his gauntlet to a readership he knew to be nervous and conformist. He sets himself no less a challenge than to write a story taking a woman who conceives a child out of wedlock, to the detriment of her own and her family’s reputation, and a man whose cowardly act of rape is directly responsible, and turn them into the triumphant hero and heroine of a love story with a happy ending, whom we will envy if not applaud.

Nor is there anything evasive or sentimental about the story he will tell. Born into an ancient Prussian aristocratic family with eighteen generals to its credit, Kleist “lost” seven years in a regiment of guards stationed in Potsdam, horrified by the brutality of a soldier’s life in and out of active service, before he managed to procure his release as a young lieutenant of twenty–one years old. So, in deciding to replace the decadent libertine, Lovelace, with a warrior–hero closer to Milton’s original Satan, he is making a calculated literary intervention, but also committing himself to writing about what he knew well.

The story opens with the commandant, the Marquise’s father, informing the women and children of his family that now the fortress he oversees is under attack, he will “act as though they were not there”. Kleist, like Richardson, gives us a world polarised between male and female principles: destructive war, impetuosity, violence and bravado on the one hand; female nurture, bourgeois domestic manners, and tender caring on the other.

As if he wishes you to understand that he has no illusions about the act of rape, Kleist’s first narrative decision is to send in his Russian hero, Count F. to save his heroine from mass rape in the midst of the battle:

“In vain did the Marquise, tugged hither and thither by the fearful pack fighting among themselves, call out for help to her women fleeing back in terror through the gate. She was dragged into the rear courtyard and there, vilely maltreated, was falling to the ground when, drawn by the lady’s screams, a Russian officer appeared and with furious blows dispersed the beasts who were lusting for that prey. He seemed one of heaven’s angels to the Marquise. Ramming his sword handle into the last man’s face, so that the murderous savage took his hands off her slim waist and staggered back with blood spewing from his mouth, he addressed the lady courteously in French, offered her his arm and led her, stricken dumb by all these scenes, into the wing of the house not yet caught alight.”

Of course there is nothing straightforward about a heavenly angel who rams his sword handle into a man’s face, and who will shortly do everything he can, possibly for his own reasons, to prevent the names of her attackers being reported to their general – to no avail, since they are discovered, taken outside and shot.

Typically, as with Kleist’s switchback syntax, this momentary glimpse of a hero could not prepare us less for what comes after. What if, Kleist must have asked himself, such an angelic deliverer, no sooner than he has saved the swooning heroine, finds himself tempted to take advantage of her in her unconscious state? Could that be an act of love? What kind of man would do that? How could we forgive a woman who loved him in return?

Nor was this the only task of reversal that Kleist set himself in this story. Jean–Jacques Rousseau, appalled by the father’s curse which Richardson had added to Clarissa’s woes, had comforted himself by rewriting her story in La nouvelle Heloise to include a moving reconciliation scene between father and daughter. Kleist, characteristically, decided that his short story would go further than both. Kleist’s Julietta, like Clarissa, a “lady of excellent reputation”, similarly fails in her attempts to convince the world of her innocence. Her parents, cursing her, abandon her to her fate, while her brother tries to punish her further by threatening to take away her children.

Julietta, however, is galvanised by this last injustice. She imagines that a child conceived in such a mysterious way must have something divine about him. She bolts with her children to the country, where, to avert the shame, she advertises for his father to step forward, whomever he may be: the event with which the tale begins.

This is her turning–point. From now on, her mother will test her for honesty and find her everything that she claims to be. Her father will be won over from murderous rage, to ecstatic, erotic, mutual redemption and reconciliation. Indeed it is this capacity for redemption which seems to come closest to what we might call Kleist’s object of desire. So Count F., to convey what Julietta means to him, tells the story of a youthful encounter with a swan on his uncle’s estates, when he “had thrown dirt at this swan, which had then gone silently under water and had arisen again pure white.”

Again and again in this odd tale which, like Clarissa, is full of recounted dreams, nightmares and half–memories, experiences much more comfortably kept apart – tenderness and sadism, filial and sexual love, chivalry and rape, angels and devils, run into one another. All the familiar categories collapse in a heap as desire erupts through the classical surfaces and apparent order of the rational, daylight world.

Only once this mannered world breaks down, can we see how isolated everyone was, before the Count arrived. In its own time, Kleist’s story was almost universally reviled, particularly by women; one literary magazine opined that “even to summarise the plot is to ostracise oneself from polite society.” But for later, luckier generations of readers, Kleist had demonstrated that only in a state of self–forgiving anarchy will new meanings begin to combine and regroup, taking us to what must surely be one of the most extraordinary happy endings in the whole of literature.

Talk to Her

In Talk to Her, we are on a fresh visit to this same place, where taboos may be overcome so that new truths are glimpsed. Almodóvar updates for our times the Kleistian tightrope walk between scabrous jokes and tragedy. Simply to relate the film’s plotline is to invite and defy the same kind of ridicule as the Marquise of O:

”Among the spectators of a Pina Bausch dance spectacle, two men are sitting together by chance. They are Benigno (a young nurse) and Marco (a writer in his early forties)... The piece is so moving that Marco starts to cry. Benigno would like to tell him that he too is moved by the spectacle but he doesn’t dare. Months later, the two men meet again at a private clinic where Benigno works. Lydia, Marco’s girlfriend and a bullfighter by profession, has been gored and is in a coma. It so happens that Benigno is looking after another woman in a coma, Alicia, a young ballet student... During this period of suspended time between the walls of the clinic, the lives of the four characters will flow in all directions, past, present and future, dragging all of them towards an unsuspected destiny.”

Men who cry; not one but two women in a coma; a female bullfighter mortally afraid of snakes; a slightly chubby male nurse who is a virgin at twenty–five and falls in love with a ballerina – as if there were not quite enough to snigger at here, Almodóvar gives us the story of “The Shrinking Lover”, in which a scientist inadvertently swallows a shrinking potion and is condemned to roam erotically over the giant landscape of his lover’s body, before finally diving into her vagina in an act of reverential total immersion, which gives her some pleasure as well.

Pedro Almodóvar is a bold and shameless storyteller. In the 1950s – “a bad time for Spain” although “a good one indeed for the film industry”, as we learn from his online biography – having lost his faith in God, thanks to the bad religious education he received from the Salesian and Franciscan fathers at school in Extremadura, he started going “compulsively” to the cinema. He would tell the stories of films to his sisters, noting soon enough that they preferred his “inaccurate, delirious versions” to the original. It was a skill he would not lose with his childhood.

Just such an act of munificent story-telling constitutes the central, mysterious act of Talk to Her: Benigno, a male nurse, feels compelled to tell his comatose patient Alicia, with whom he is alone on the night shift, the story of the Spanish silent movie he saw at the Cinematheque which so disturbed him - and while we are being treated to footage of this film within a film, an event takes place in that room at the private clinic which will change the lives of all the main characters.

How could it happen and what does it mean? What we learn is that the comatose patient becomes pregnant.  Subsequently she gives birth to a dead foetus, and is herself brought back to life in the process.

Almodovar, veteran of legal battles against an ‘American Puritanism’ is a master of calculated risk. In his web-site ‘self-interview’, the European auteur cannot wait to congratulate himself on this particular narrative invention.  Urging those of us who have seen the film not to give away this part of the plot, at the same time he cannot resist pointing out how cleverly he has used the silent movie as a ‘blindfold’ for the male nurse’s actions. This is as close as we will get to the event at the film’s centre, from which the melodrama inexorably unfolds, to take us triumphantly, magisterially, once again, through moving tragedy to the most elaborated, yet simplest of happy endings.

We start with a stark enough chasm: the Pina Bausch performance which opens the film shows us women dancers, eyes shut, trapped in their own tragic universe, while a man rushes around the stage clearing a pathway for them. For much of the film that follows, the two men worship at the hospital-bed altars of their respective comatose loved ones. Two sequences in which the two women are ritually, lovingly dressed ­- for worship or for sacrifice? -  ­only add to the ambiguities. Present yet absent, communicating and totally uncommunicative, the women are structurally essential to the men’s lives on whom they passively, completely depend.

Thanks to the title, we perhaps expect a modern tale about male emotional illiteracy. If so the first half of the film treats us instead to a virtuoso deluge of variations on the theme of who can and who cannot talk to each other. As systematically as Richardson when he works through all Clarissa’s options, wryly yet inexorably Almodovar teases us out of our closed mind-sets and preconceptions. It is Marco, after all, played by the quintessential Latin new man, Dario Grandinetti, who is moved to tears by the dancers, and Benigno, wishing he could tell him that he shares something of his emotion, who fails to talk to him until he sees him again in the clinic, where the conversation he initiates is the beginning of their intense friendship. Most of the talking that counts in the film takes place between these unlikely men friends. Marco is much more knowing, but he has none of Benigno’s faith.

Our next encounter is with Lydia, the female bullfighter who looks just like a bullfighter. Lydia in turn, is an example of a woman who fails to talk to her men. In what turns out to be a miniature history of uncompleted European feminism, she first attracts Marco’s attention when she refuses to talk about her affair with ‘El Nino de Valencia’ on a TV talk-show, and only agrees to talk to Marco when she catches El Nino watching them in the reflected surface of the bar. Later, fatally as it transpires, when she really wants to talk to Marco, it is too late.

Meanwhile, Benigno falls in love with Alicia whom he sees dancing in the Decadance Academy opposite, through a window in his mother’s apartment. Since he doesn’t hear the music she is dancing to, she seems to be absorbed in an interior melody. Used to tending over his narcissistic mother, he is not at all deterred by this lack of reciprocity. Later, as her nurse, he embarks on marriage plans which he is sure his comatose patient would welcome, confiding them to his friend. Marco explodes, ‘A woman’s brain is a mystery, and in this state even more so!’ to which Benigno replies that he is sure that the unconscious Alicia and himself are happier and communicate more than many a married couple.

So it proceeds: female males and masculine females; couples united in their preoccupation with past unhappy love affairs, one of whom talks, not noticing that the other does not. Each story complicates and twines itself around the others. Just when Almodovar has convinced us that going for the whole set, he has exhausted all the combinations, it turns out that he has merely been limbering up. Now, the real dance begins.

For what unfolds before us, enveloping all four characters, is a post-identity dance where both the dancers and their genders seem to overlap, merge, dissolve and reform in new combinations, as if they were part of one human thread going through its various states of carbon to an ‘unexpected destiny’.

One of the things Benigno does for Alicia, the comatose object of his desire, while he cares for her over four years, is to pursue her favourite cultural activities such as the art house cinema and dance shows. In order to ‘talk to her’ about them, he goes to see Pina Bausch performances, and learns to enjoy the silent cinema, as if nothing short of becoming the loved one will overcome the separation between them, or serve to express his love quite as well. No wonder that the moment which tips him over the edge is his re-telling of the story in which the Shrinking Lover disappears ecstatically into the body of his partner ‘for ever’. However ludicrously, they become one.

Benigno - angel or devil? ­- is a villain-hero new-minted for our times: the holy fool whose gentle words exhort us to look behind the surface of things, offer the cryptic advice which makes up the film’s title, and tell the story that causes all the trouble. Almodovar teases us over Benigno’s sexuality, before creating maximum Kleistian confusion by allowing Benigno to tease us about this as well. Javier Camara acts with a juggler’s skill, moving back and forth between the retarded gentleness and sudden, slanting canniness of a Laurel and Hardy duo in one body, well before his character’s transformation at the end of the film. Like Count F., quite apart from not knowing exactly what he has done, we never know what he knows, how he can say those things, or what move he will make next.

The world, not surprisingly, understands little and cares less. Marko returns from his travels to find Benigno in prison, separated from his Alicia and unable to learn what has happened to her. The Segovia jail, where inmates are to be referred to as interns, as the receptionist informs Marco over a booming intercom, is in fact a monument to inhuman separation. From the moment Marco enters, like the one-way mirror in Wim Wenders’ ‘Paris.Texas’, its barriers taunt us with the impossibility of intimacy.

Yet miraculously, here at the nadir of reciprocity, the friendship between the two men burgeons, each acquiring some of the traits of the other. Benigno is a thinner, fiercer, more desperate man: Marco mellows, recovering from his own sense of loss out of a new sympathetic understanding. In the panes of glass which separate the interns from their visitors, their reflected images lie on top of each other, as if it is they who are now becoming one person, their separation as unbearable as any between the lovers.

And gradually, mysteriously, the two lives merge. Marco moves into Benigno’s apartment, inheriting the pictures of Alicia and his view over the dance academy. It has all the potential of a second male outrage ­but is even less objectionable than the first, such is the haze of forgiveness and self-forgiveness which has been spreading itself imperceptibly over the narrative. At this other end of the film, Marco will finally apply the mysterious lesson he has learnt from Benigno, when he talks to him beyond the grave, telling him of the new lease of life which has brought Alicia back from the dead.

There are further miracles to come. Marco finally meets Alicia at another Pina Bausch performance. Alicia asks him if he is alright, and he replies, ‘Better now’. Their first conversation, which begins their new relationship, feels ­- as new relationships do - as if it should have taken place in the beginning, but could never have taken place before: as if it is the perfect culminating point in this dance movement between four lonely characters, whose lives intertwine in such a way, that, although two die, two more are able to find their way to each other. Out of such profound pessimism, there emerges, perhaps for the third time in as many centuries, a rare optimism: a more humane faith, in which briefly, while the ravishing dance lasts, we can all partake.


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