film responses: Talk to Her & Spider

Originally published April 10, 2003 on

I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach the misogyny contained (revealed?) in two movies I saw on the same day last week: Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and David Cronenberg’s disappointing Spider. In the former, what’s explored is the way misogyny contours heterosexual relationships and gender; in the latter, it’s part of the method by which Cronenberg and novelist Patrick McGrath adapt McGrath’s own novel. These are crude generalizations, to be sure, but some of the central ideas I thought about watching and thinking about these movies.

Judging by how Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman scrambled to their feet at the Golden Globes when Almodóvar appeared, and similar reactions at the Oscars, I was expecting somewhat of a feminist movie with strong female characters. Even the movie posters present this tease: two women’s faces, their eyes shaded by sunglasses, faces tipped slightly towards one another. In fact, the two female leads never really figure in any kind of traditionally central way: they both end up and remain in comas for much of the movie. The relationships between the two male leads and the narrative itself becomes completely contingent on those feminine absences and silences, so much so that it starts to look, well, gay. I was intrigued by this apparent exploration of a “gay subtext” placed as it is in a culture that’s already supposedly “post-gay.”

Unfortunately, the description of this set-up sounds a lot more interesting than the way it’s dramatized in the movie. It ultimately prevented me from really becoming invested in the two male characters at all — I found myself wondering a lot more about the lives of the women in comas. Another side effect of this set-up is that the melodramatic, almost sentimental treatment of the male nurse who rapes and impregnates one of the comatose women comes close to making the misogyny of a character feel like a misogynist movie.

Beyond those issues, I was continually distracted by the designer trappings of the mise-en-scène, admittedly an Almodóvar affectation at this point in his career. I kept wondering what nice linen Euro ensemble the lead was going to be wearing in the next scene. So, there’s no doubt that the movie is pretty to look at but I’m more affected by the low-budget energy of Almodóvar’s earlier, grungier flicks, pre-Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But I’ve never been a big fan.

Misogyny is directly applied as a method for adapting Patrick McGrath’s novel, Spider, for the screen. That method is made explicit in Miranda Richardson’s deft triple performance as the Mom, the Whore, and the Matron (also played by Lynn Redgrave) of the halfway house. In the book, as Spider deteriorates he starts to think the Matron might be the Whore but the parallels are certainly not spelled out in CAPITAL LETTERS as they are in Cronenburg’s movie.

Missing from the movie is Spider’s obsessive love for his mother and what’s left is a hollow, unmotivated psychological murder tale with an uninteresting character at its center and without any horror whatsover. I can’t think of another Cronenburg movie that left me so completely dissatisfied. Stylistically it’s no great achievement; but, at least it’s consistent: every frame is the same drab grey and shot with the same wide angle lens. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Ralph Fiennes’ mumbly performance as Spider nor by Patrick McGrath’s simplistic screenplay (adapted from his novel).

eXistenZ, for all its obvious themes, still had bold visuals; Spider had me slumped down in my seat and lookin’ at my watch far too often. I did chuckle when the Whore, after beating the Father off under a bridge, flings the cum off her fingers at the camera and into the canal. That’s basically the biggest visual risk taken in this very dull movie.


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