Reality is never absolute. There are many truths.  Love is always ambivalent. Knowledge can be challenged.  Identities constantly change their shape. This is the territory of Pedro Almodovar.  His films explore the landscape of ambiguity, where nothing is certain.  He forces us to tolerate the intolerable, confront the unknown.   .

 

In the first few sequences of ‘Talk to Her’, two strangers, Benigno and Marco sit side by side sat mesmerised by the drama being enacted on the stage in front of them.  Two woman, driven mad by distress and dressed only in slips, are dancing distractedly in a deserted café while a man runs ahead, clearing the chairs out of the way so they don’t hurt themselves. Marco weeps silently.  He understands desperate women.  Benigno notices but is unmoved. 

 

Each man has his own story.  Marco, grieving for the loss of his fiancée, meets Lydia, who is a matador and has just split from her lover.  He wants to write her story, but before they have a chance to get to know each other, she is badly gored in the ring and lies in a coma in a specialist neurological unit. 

 

Benigno is a nurse on the same unit.  His patient is a beautiful young dancer, Alicia, who has been knocked over by a car.  But Benigno had met Alicia before her accident.  He had spent hours gazing at her through the window of his apartment while she trained in the dance studio opposite.  He had chased after her when he saw her drop her purse in the street,  walked her home, then made an appointment with her psychiatrist father so that he could see her again.  And once in the apartment, he had entered Alicia’s bedroom and stolen a hair grip.  Alicia had ran into him coming out of the shower.  Two days later she was knocked over.

 

After the accident, her father had employed  Benigno to take care of his daughter.  He cares for her with all the intimacy of a lover, talks to her all the time, massages her body, wants to marry her even.  Under Benigno’s intensive care, Alicia becomes pregnant.  Benigno is accused of rape and is imprisoned in a high security jail. Then Alicia wakes up. 

 

Marco, by this time, has become Benigno’s friend.  Benigno encourages him to talk to Lydia.  He can’t, but her ex-boy friend, also a bullfighter, can. Marco leaves.  He visits Benigno in jail, but promises his solicitor not to tell him that Alicia has regained consciousness.  But Benigno takes an overdose and dies anyway.  Marco moves into Benigno’s apartment.  He sees Alicia though the window and meets her.   

 

 

Almodovar’s narrative is replete with ambiguity.  Benigno is a kind gentle man, who  exploits the unconscious girl in his care.  He appears to be more a woman than a man, and is assumed to be homosexual, but probably isn’t.  The way he massages Alicia, while intensly caring, is very erotic. Lydia, on the other hand is more a man than a woman, but the scenes of her being dressed for the bullring are very eroticised.  Lydia  conceals her ongoing affection for her ex-boy friend from Marco.  Marco conceals Alicia’s awakening from Benigno.  Marco seems straight, but he cries a lot and is clearly very bonded to Benigno. At the end of the film, Marco even takes over Benigno’s identity, moving into his apartment and developing an attraction to Alicia. 

 

Truth and lies, reality and fantasy create a narrative that swirls and coils like the smoke from a cigarette.  But isn’t that so true to life?  Do we ever really know what we think, what we stand for?   We may pretend to, because we have to; others depend on our loyalty and consistency,  but our feelings are evanescent; they change according to circumstances.  Deep down, we can never rely on anything very much.  We just have to live our life as if we could.    

 

Almodovar, like many artists and writers, explores the ambiguities of his personal  narrative through his art.  He was born in La Mancha, home of Don Quixote, an earlier contradiction.  Like Benigno, he was brought up without a father and with an unhealthy and burdensome obligation of care for his mother.  His sexuality was also somewhat ambiguous, or at least secretive, and he sought help from psychotherapists.

 

The missing father is significant.  It is the father, who symbolises authority, providing the structure that contains the child through fact, law and reason.   The mother needs be much more emotionally ambivalent.  So many of my patients have grown up in an environment where the father has, for whatever reason, been absent.  They struggle with issues of meaning, identity and reality.      

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The narrative we listen to as psychotherapists is never the truth.  It’s a story that  makes life bearable.  The psychotherapist’s task to decode the narrative in order to discern the hidden meanings.  It therefore behoves the psychotherapist not to interpret too early or too much. A therapist should never seek to impose his own reality.

 

Like all of us, patients are seeking an answer that will help them.  Nobody can live with the unknown for very long.  So if they cannot accept the narrative they have, they need to adopt a credible mythology which works for them.  Therapists trade in understanding and forgiveness.  They should therefore use their understanding to guide clients to aspects of their own truth that are most functional, most helpful. Truth, after all, is relative.  

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