P.O.V. No.28 - Good Guy / Bad Guy

Moral Twists of Perversion
- Emotional Engagement and Morality in Relation to
Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her (2002)

Birger Langkjr

Melodrama has often been considered a genre concerned with moral issues. The films of Pedro Almodovar are no exception. Some of his more intriguing films transcend common standards of morality but nevertheless become moral stories anyway. Talk to Her is both art cinema and melodrama. As with most of Almodovar's films, Talk to Her combines mainstream narration with excessive twists, especially in its orchestration of extreme dramatic characters. Thus, our emotional engagement and positive attitude towards central characters are established despite the fact that one of the characters acts in ways that cannot be defended by common moral standards.

To explain this, I will examine to what extent - and in which ways - questions of emotion and morality are interconnected. To what extent does the way we care for characters involve moral standards? The example I will use here is the character Benigno in Talk to Her, a less than bright rapist who nevertheless appears similar to many protagonists of melodrama, that is, as a virtuous character in distress who calls for both admiration and pity. Benigno is a character towards whom we can have no empathy in the sense of feeling like him, as his character is too strange for that. But the film provides us with plenty of opportunities to sympathise with him despite his immoral acts. Even though we know that Benigno's acts are beyond what can be morally justified, the story nevertheless implies another viewpoint that in certain ways aligns us with Benigno.

What interests me here is exactly to what extent and in what sense questions of empathy and morality are related - if at all. Is it possible not only to relate to but also to sympathise with or even to empathise or identify with someone who is doing not only wrong things but seriously bad things? Can we possibly forgive someone who has raped another person? Is it even possible that we can somehow feel it was the right thing to do? In some sense this is what Talk to Her seems to imply.

Identification and morality
In a well-known passage in The Republic, Plato warns the reader about the emotional impact of art. He claims that dramatic poetry "has a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters, with very few exceptions." [1] The kinds of corruption Plato refers to are not only the emotional powers of dramatic poetry as such, but also the way it makes us experience emotions that we would normally consider wrong:

[] the poet gratifies and indulges the instinctive desires of a part of us, which we forcibly restrain in our private misfortunes. [2]

According to Plato, there is a conflict between what is considered to be morally right and the kind of emotions implied by the process of identifying with the misfortunes of the characters in the fiction. Apart from Plato's specific ideas about right and wrong, rationality and emotion, and society and art, his focus is on how art and fiction may suspend our everyday moral standards. Stories may make us admire "a man we should ourselves be ashamed to resemble." [3]

Recently, cognitive theory has provided a more balanced view of the relation between cognition and emotion. In a sense, there is no cognition without emotion and vice versa. [4] But in the area of film studies, some cognitive film theories seem to imply a strong connection, not only between cognition and emotion, but also between emotion and morality. Thus, Nol Carroll defines suspense in the following manner:

Suspense is an emotion, one that in fictions generally involves an event where some outcome which we regard to be morally righteous is improbable. [5]

Carroll, however, does leave it unclear whether "morally righteous" is only an effect of how the narrative is structured or whether it also involves our everyday moral standards.

In an article on what he terms "perverse allegiances," in reference to films like A Clockwork Orange, Silence of the Lambs and Pulp Fiction, Murray Smith discusses to what extent an audience can be said to identify emotionally with psychopaths, serial killers and gangsters. Identifying emotionally with a character is basically what he refers to by the concept of allegiance. He says:

Allegiance refers to the way in which, and the degree to which, a film elicits responses of sympathy and antipathy toward its characters, responses triggered - if not wholly determined - by the moral structure of the film. [6]

Thus, he establishes a strong and causal bond between morality and identification in which one determines the other. Even though he does not say that our emotions are triggered by morality as such, but by the moral structure of the film, he nevertheless later on characterises those films as being "mildly subversive of moral norms," [7] that is, norms and morality in general.

It should be obvious that films not only can but actually do shape our emotional responses by means of different narrative techniques. They can emphasise some good character traits while they suppress others, including less flattering qualities; they can withhold information that would be devastating to our sympathy, and they can make some characters less bad than others, that is, relatively good. But even though film structure can modify our moral evaluation of a character by underemphasising that which would trigger negative reactions and overemphasising that which would trigger positive reactions, it remains to be clarified whether emotional responses are wholly triggered by morality.

Smith argues that if we watch morally "perverse movies" and take pleasure in them, it can be for one of two reasons. Either we know it is an act of transgression towards moral norms and we enjoy this transgression in and of itself, thereby making ourselves culturally distinguished from those who cannot do that, or we are - in a clinical sense - simply perverse. [8] But it seems to me that the kind of engagement offered by a film such as Talk to Her can neither be described in terms of second-order pleasure, nor as simple perversion. To argue for this, we need to take a closer look at Talk to Her.

Talk to Her
Talk to Her has two male characters at its centre: the journalist and travelling author, Marco, and the nurse, Benigno. As the film opens, they are sitting next to each other watching a dance performance, but do not know each other. Later, Marco's girlfriend, the bullfighter Lydia, is injured by a bull. In a state of coma, she is brought to a hospital where Benigno works as a nurse. His major job is to take care of Alicia, a dancer who, like Lydia, is in a coma after a car accident. Thus, the film establishes a parallel protagonist structure as the two men both devote themselves to nursing brain damaged and comatose women. The film is very much the story of their strange friendship and - with Marco as the mediator - the slow uncovering of Benigno's disturbing obsession with his patient, with whom he is actually in love. Whereas Lydia dies, it turns out that Alicia is pregnant and Benigno has raped her. In prison, Benigno is never told that she miraculously recovered after giving birth to a dead child and at some point he takes his own life. As Benigno explains in his suicide note, he wants to die in order to be with Alicia again.

Despite the disturbing uncovering of Benigno's twisted character, the film also provides him with credibility and trustworthyness in several ways. In one of the opening scenes, Alicia's father - who is a psychiatrist - asks Benigno about his sexual orientation. Benigno's answer is that he probably has a sexual preference for men. But in the very next scene, Benigno tells his colleague that he lied to the father because the lie was what the father wanted to hear. Benigno's lying to someone front stage and acknowledging it to another backstage actually creates consistency in his character and builds up his credibility in relation to the film audience. [9] Benigno also tells Marco that Marco has to talk to Lydia the way he, Benigno, talks to Alicia. In the end, Lydia dies and Alicia not only survives but also recovers. The film asks us to accept the sincerity and meaningfulness of Benigno's dedication and, further, the narrative seems to suggest that Benigno was somehow right in his obsessive ideas.

The nature of Benigno's sexuality is discussed several times in the film. The psychiatrist - Alicia's father - asks him twice whether he is attracted to men or to women and several of his colleagues consider him gay. But Benigno seems to be closer to the truth himself: he is neither. He is a man without sexual orientation, without sexuality. In the beginning his love is purely romantic. But halfway through the film, as he is about to give Alicia an oil massage, he suddenly hesitates and says: "No. There is something wrong." Now he obviously feels strangely uneasy about the intimacy and Alicia's naked body, which previously in the film has been aestheticized and thereby de-sexualised. In confusion, he places himself in an armchair and begins to explain to Alicia - who is still in a coma at that point - that yesterday he saw a film that "made me a little uneasy." In a subjective flashback, in which we hear Benigno as narrating voice, we see him in front of the cinema with a poster for the film The Shrinking Lover. The film is an erotic melodrama in which a scientist named Alfredo becomes a victim of one of his own inventions: a mixture that makes him shrink. Alfredo's female co-worker, Amparo, is driven to tears by the sight of her diminished lover. Then Alfredo departs, planning to live with his mother, whom he has not seen for ten years. But Amparo finds her little Alfredo, and they stay together in a hotel. At the end of the movie, Alfredo crawls across Amparo's naked breasts and stomach, which appear oversized, like a bodily landscape, and jumps between her legs. Finally, he crawls into her vagina as Amparo opens her mouth and, blissfully, turns her head on the pillow. Benigno ends his recounting by saying: "And Alfredo stayed in her forever."

In and of itself, the dwarfed lover can be seen in parallel to how both Benigno and Marco admire the two women, both in states of coma and therefore unreachable. Further, this bizarre action is inter-cut with close-ups of Alicia's face as Benigno gives her a body massage. Thus, the eroticism of both the silent film and Benigno's massage are made clear to the film audience. But it is obvious that Benigno does not understand what is happening to him. As it later becomes clear, the erotic film melodrama turns him from a passionate romanticist into a sexual being and, finally, a rapist.

In most films this would probably be the end of any sympathy towards such a character. But in Talk to Her it is different for several reasons. At one point, Benigno tells Marco that he is in love with Alicia and that he wants to marry her. These are obviously signs that Benigno is somehow mentally disturbed, but they also give his obsession with Alicia an air of sincerity. Second, Benigno's sexuality is a surprise to him and not something he recklessly pursues throughout the film. Thus, his act appears as unintended or innocent. Third, his actions actually have a good outcome: the birth makes Alicia wake up from her coma and thus Benigno has produced the miracle that medical science had refused, but Benigno himself believed in. And, fourth, Benigno's suicide at the end of the film confirms his sincerity in a melodramatic way, as his commitment to love makes him choose death.

Emotions and morality
Even though not all members of the audience will accept the film's premise, many will probably do so. One reason, I believe, is that morality and emotion are not necessarily causally connected. If someone kills another we will immediately feel sorrow for the person killed. We consider him to be a victim. But if the killer is a father and the person killed has previously killed his daughter, we might still consider the killing a wrong thing, but we nevertheless understand why the father kills his daughter's murderer. We may even feel that we would do it ourselves if we were in that very situation.

My point is that we can indeed have a so-called perverse allegiance without being perverse. In the example about revenge, our morals may tell us that it is wrong and that we should not feel like that. But the feeling of revenge may simply be stronger than moral imperatives at that point and, furthermore, in this case emotions and morality are different in kind. The major component of this revenge-scenario has nothing to do with morality. It has more to do with interests, with bonds to other people and with our investment of emotions in different kinds of relations. When we see a character in a film, the film will most certainly make us understand how this person sees the world and what is at stake in it from his or her point of view. In everyday interactions we not only react to what other people do to us, but we also adopt other people's viewpoints in order to understand them so that we can be better at interacting properly with them. Seeing a film is very much about taking on other people's viewpoints, although not in the sense that we have inner discussions with ourselves as we watch the movie. Rather, we pick up important information about character intentions, emotional states, etc. And most films help us by emphasising aspects of non-verbal communication, by musical underscoring, editing and the like. We watch films as we watch everyday interactions - but even more so because the film has ordered this information into a pattern that leads our emotional investment in certain directions at specific moments. Thus, emotions are not only a question of morality, but of psychology. And of course psychology can be modified by morality, but morality does not come first. Often morals do not trigger emotions, rather they bend them.

The film as a balancing act
I am not trying to say that morality does not play any role at all. The rape of Alicia does make our sympathy for Benigno problematic. It happens exactly at the film's midpoint, which in terms of narrative structure is also a way to emphasise its importance. But we never see the rape. It is only represented by analogy and by its positive consequences as it makes Alicia wake up from her coma and slowly recover. It creates a paradox, as the film makes us feel sympathy as well as a lack of empathy towards Benigno. It is exactly this balancing that makes the film interesting. A platonic lover would not hold our attention during two hours of film, nor would a simple rapist. But the combination provides a twist.

Peter Brooks almost invented melodrama as a contemporary genre category, and he emphasised melodrama as a dramatic form that - in a post-sacred era - makes it possible to express moral conflicts. [10] Almodovar uses it for another purpose in most of his films and certainly in Talk to Her: to transgress moral conflicts between good and bad characters by means of strong emotions such as sentimentalism and passion, which both have the power to reach for poetic justice at a level above good or bad. This looks like religion and smells like romanticism, but really tastes like a celebration of film art.

Plato was right that art may bring us to consider things differently from what our moral standards would dictate. On the other hand, one of his shortcomings was not to consider this to be an eye-opening potential for an audience that gathers to be entertained by art and popular fiction.

1 Plato: Medium Cool (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955; reprint 1983), 436.

2 Plato: 436.

3 Plato: 436.

4 Ronald de Sousa: Medium Cool (Cambridge, Mass., 1987).

5 Nol Carroll: Medium Cool (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 263.

6 Murray Smith: "Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances", Medium Cool, ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 220.

7 Smith: 228.

8 Smith: 219-23.

9 Erving Goffman has extensively described how people act differently in front- and backstage social space. Goffman: Medium Cool (New York: Anchor Books, 1959).

10 Peter Brooks: Medium Cool (London: Yale University Press, 1976).

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