(A warning for sensitive folk: This essay discusses and uses screen captures from a short film in which a man conquers mammoth bare breasts and inserts his entire naked body into a woman’s vagina. [And, magically, the number of Culture Snob readers grows exponentially.])
An object within an object of the same type — the novel within a novel, the film within a film — is rarely considered out of its context. Its meanings, and its narrative or thematic roles, are derived from its conversation with the larger work.
But if the object is nearly whole — that is, if it’s not just a fragment, if we have a reasonably full sense of its shape, structure, and content — looking at it in isolation can bear fruit and is an act of respect. If done well, the object-within-an-object-of-the-same type (acronymized as OWaOotST, which is pronounced the same as “owaootst”) technique results in something that was intended (by its fictional author, him- or herself a product of the work’s real author) to be enjoyed and scrutinized by itself. And to only consider the object as a component of another thing is a disservice to its creators, real and imagined.
Just past the center of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her is a short film (in the style of silent movies) that the American DVD suggests is called Shrinking Lover. It starts at the one-hour, one-minute, 52-second mark in the movie, and runs a touch over seven minutes.
A woman scientist accuses her partner of being selfish. To prove her wrong, he drinks a potion she’s been working on, and over a period of days or months he shrinks. Despondent, he leaves the woman to allay her persistent guilt, but she seeks him out and finds him at his mother’s house. He is now smaller than a fist. In a hotel room, the miniature man uses the slumbering woman as a personal playground, treating her breasts like rolling hills, and her vagina like a mysterious cave. He inserts an arm, removes it, and inspects it. He takes off his shirt, and puts his entire upper body inside her, and then withdraws. Then he takes off his shorts, and dives in head-first, disappearing.
It’s been years since I watched Talk to Her in its entirety, and most details about it are fuzzy, at best, in my mind. But in context, the short film represents the way a nurse justifies to himself his rape of a comatose patient. Shrinking Lover is a gorgeously rich and manipulative metaphor, with its playful tone reflecting the nurse’s mindset and turning an act of sexual violence into bawdy comedy. Audience ambivalence is the product of something so ugly being treated with such tender avoidance, and I don’t begrudge anybody their discomfort with Almodóvar’s approach; he appears to want to diminish the rape so that it doesn’t interfere with his intended narrative effects.
But even though that’s not immaterial here, it’s also not critical. The “real world” — the widescreen, color reality of the film — intrudes on the silent movie and requires us to consider some context external to the short itself. Roughly two minutes into the silent movie, the voice of a narrator — the nurse — is heard, and half a minute later we’re in the film proper as a sort of intermission. The nurse is moisturizing a woman’s skin, and her torso is bare. His hands seem to yearn for her bosom. She is an attractive woman, and her nudity makes it easy to miss the breathing tube in her neck.
At the conclusion of the silent film, the nurse — massaging his patient’s thighs — says that the little man stayed inside the woman “forever.” In this little movie, the woman’s name is Amparo, which according to several baby-name sources means “shelter.” Almodóvar cuts to a close-up shot of intermingling fluids.
Even without the remainder of Talk to Her, rape is a reasonable reading of Shrinking Lover. The ecstasy of Amparo is matched with a shot of the comatose patient, and her expression is ambiguous; from the nurse’s mental perspective, it’s easy to see pleasure in her face.
And the nurse progresses from his patient’s abdomen and chest to between her legs, just as the shrunken man does. The parallels are obvious, and the closing shot here — suggesting union and male sexual release — will reinforce that interpretation.
Divorced from the larger story, though, an innocent construction can be formulated. The nurse is telling this story to the patient, and its silent-era form is a reflection of something quaint and more pure — the little man is not looking to get off but wants comfort, which he quite literally finds in her. It can be seen as a story of regression, from full-grown adult to fetus, back into the protection of the womb. The desire is nearly infantile, a reflection of the need to retreat from adult complications.
Yet an asexual reading seems incongruous with Shrinking Lover’s anatomical explicitness, and with its penetration.
Is it possible to find a middle ground, one that acknowledges the short’s sexuality without reading rape? Yes, to the extent that we can overlook the fact that Amparo is asleep, and that the little man urges her to sleep before beginning his adventure; that qualifies as rape.
But they are lovers, one could argue, and she does derive pleasure from him.
Even so, this reading weakens the bond between the short and its modern frame, because the information we have suggests that the nurse and patient don’t have the same type of relationship as the scientist and her lover; we can reasonably infer that the woman was comatose before the nurse ever came into contact with her.
Here, it’s difficult to find a meaningful connection between the two pairs of characters; one does not inform the other.
We are left then with a compelling short film that can be separated from its context, but the most logical reading does not alter its meaning. That doesn’t make extraction and analysis of Almodóvar’s short film pointless. On the contrary, it affirms its value and appropriateness in relation to the whole.
The second half (the “dirty” part) of Shrinking Lover:
(This essay is a contribution to the Short-Film Week blog-a-thon.)