One of the best: Talk isn't cheap

Pedro Almodovar explores uncharted regions of the human mind and heart in Talk to Her (Hable con ella). The writer-director seems to get better with every film, and this one ranks among his best. It's a melodrama with a few kinks, yes, but it's also a piñata filled with entertainment.

During MGM's golden age they would often spice up a film by interrupting the story for a concert or nightclub performance, a dance number or a fashion show. Almodovar opens and closes with Pina Bausch ballets. Somewhere in the middle, Caetano Veloso sings a song and there's a newly created silent movie, Shrinking Lover, which seems to be another diversion, but later proves essential to the plot.

At the first ballet two strangers are seated next to each other. They don't speak, but Benigno (Javier Camara) notices that the dance makes Marco (Dario Grandinetti) cry. They will meet several months later (the film jumps around in time a lot but not confusingly) at the private hospital where Benigno works as a nurse assigned exclusively to Alicia (Leonor Watling), who has been in a coma for four years.

What brings Marco to the hospital is that Lydia (Rosario Flores), the bullfighter he's been seeing, has been gored by a bull and is also in what the doctors call a "PVS– Persistent Vegetative State," from which she may never emerge.

Marco is not as adept as Benigno at engaging in one-sided dialogues with the comatose. Benigno tells Alicia about everything he does– which isn't much because he has no life outside the hospital and frequently works double shifts. When he sees a movie, he describes it to her in detail, not unlike Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The backstory is brought out in both conversations and flashbacks. Before the accident that brought Alicia to the hospital, Benigno had virtually been stalking her, having first seen her from his window studying dance at Katerina's (Geraldine Chaplin) academy across the street. In hopes of meeting her he booked a session with her father, a psychiatrist, who questioned the sexual orientation of what was then a 25-year-old virgin.

Until shortly before that, Benigno had devoted his life to caring for his mother, who never left their apartment, even before she got sick. For her sake he had studied nursing, hairdressing, and other skills he could use in her service.

Marco is a writer who had volunteered to interview Lydia for a newspaper after seeing her walk out on a bitchy, prying TV host. At the time, she was going through an ugly breakup with another matador, known as El Niño. She refused to be interviewed by Marco, but events conspired to keep them together long enough that they wanted to spend still more time together.

The story continues with a combination of eventssome expected and some total surprises. Katerina speaks the truth in the film's last words: "Nothing is simple. I'm a ballet mistress, and nothing is simple."

Almodovar's style, too, becomes ever more complex. He creates visual poetry from mundane hospital procedures and delights in finding ways of stretching bodies across the full width of the screen. Trust me, you don't want to see a pan-and-scan version.

Like the Shrinking Lover interlude– and how ironic that a woman in a coma should have been fond of silent films– Talk to Her is often funny and touching at the same time.

Almodovar has the same influences as Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven) and Francois Ozon (8 Women), but he uses them to move cinema into the future rather than the past. Talk to Her is the next step in the evolution of the melodrama. Not that there's anything wrong with either approach when these three men from different countries use them to create three of the best films of 2002.