He is among the most prolific and influential feminist directors, and his women- and sex-driven films (“All About My Mother,” “Bad Education,” “Volver” and “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” just to name a few) are some of the most complex and entertaining made in the past few decades.
The gazpacho scene in “Breakdown” is the first food-focused scene that comes to mind when I think of Almodóvar (not to mention the restaurant in “Volver”), but last night, we rewatched “Talk to Her,” which doesn’t have much to do with food with the exception of one seriously well-crafted detail.
Lydia, the seemingly fearless bullfighter who ends in a coma after getting gored in a fight, has just met Marco, the journalist who becomes her boyfriend by the time the accident occurs a few months later. He drops her off at her mansion in Madrid (*swoon, Spain*) and before he can pull away, he hears a blood-curdling scream and she runs out of the house and back to his car.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. “There’s a snake in the kitchen,” she breathlessly replies.
Marco goes back in the house to kill the snake, an act that brings tears to his eyes. (Marco cries frequently in this film: At a play, a concert and now after killing the snake. We find out later that he’s crying because he’d had to kill another snake for a woman he loved years before.)
We find out that snakes are the one weakness of the fierce, stereotype-crushing matador, so much that she refuses to go back into the house ever again. She promises to buy all new clothes and find a new place to live, all because of this slithering creature packed with symbolism.
Almodovar could have chosen a rat or a cockroach or any number of critters to scare Lydia, and he could have chosen any room in her massive house to make it appear: a closet, the swimming pool, the living room, the porch.
But he chose a snake. In the kitchen.
Just try and convince me that wasn’t a conscious choice by our beloved director.
Since the days of Eden, snakes have represented both sexual and moral temptation. They embody evil and deceit. The kitchen, as we well know, is traditionally a woman’s domain, but not for Lydia, who’d rather command (and then kill) a 1,000-pound bull in the male-dominated bullring than battle a small snake in her own kitchen.
As convivial as kitchens can be, they are also often a place of loneliness for women who find themselves isolated by their domestic obligations. Solitude is one of the most striking themes for all the characters in “Talk to Her.”
When Marco offers to stay the night at a hotel after the snake incident to comfort the still-shaken Lydia, she replies: “No, I have to learn to be alone.”
She gets her wish later in the film, spending her final months lying unconscious on a hospital bed with Marco unable to bring himself to touch or speak to her. In a nearby room, we see the opposite relationship taking place between Alicia, a dancer who is also a coma, and Benigno, her caretaker whose affection for the unconscious woman gets creepier as the movie progresses. Day and night, he is by her side, telling her stories, rubbing and massaging lotion on her body, bathing her, cutting her hair, tending to her as a mother would a newborn.
Benigno tells Marco: “A woman’s brain is a mystery, and in this state, even more so. You have to pay attention to women, talk to them, caress them, be thoughtful occasionally. Remember that they exist, that they’re alive and they matter to us.”
Not to spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it, but Alicia ends up coming out of her coma while Lydia passes away. (Read into that what you will about the impact of a doting-yet-violating caretaker versus the one who can’t physically or emotionally connect with the woman in need of care.)
The reversal of gender roles in Almodóvar’s films is fascinating, and I certainly don’t have all the answers about what the snake and the kitchen means in this particular movie, but it definitely got my wheels spinning.
For you Almodóvar fans out there, what other food-related symbolism do you remember from his films?
(Oh, and don’t think for a minute I’ve forgotten that Spain is in the finals of the World Cup this weekend. Vamos, España!)