Dir: Pedro Almodovar. Spain. 2002. 116mins.

Hable Con Ella (Talk To Her) shows director Pedro Almodovar getting back to his roots after the heady international success of his last, Oscar-winning effort All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre). In the wake of Mother, Almodovar could probably have made any film he wanted, including a long-awaited crossover to English-language fare. Instead he chose to return to Spain, working in familiar settings with locally respected - but not yet internationally renowned - actors. Possibly Almodovar's most modest and serious feature in recent years in terms of both story and scope, Talk is a lovely and well-rounded film from an auteur director who maintains a freshness and originality within his trademark style. At the same time it also advances on the groundwork laid by Mother, functioning as a straight drama with only glimpses of the director's usual offbeat blend of tragi-comedy and kitschy melodrama.

Although Talk has enough typically Almodovarian moments and humorous touches so as not to disappoint fans of his inimitable style, with the right marketing its universal subject matter and appealing Spanish aesthetic could also attract more mainstream audiences. Certainly Mother's highly publicised success should contribute to Talk's draw beyond the foreign-language arthouse circuit. In Spain, where the film opens wide on 275 prints on March 15, a boycott by animal rights' activists over the filming of bullfighting scenes shouldn't seriously affect business. Talk premieres next in Italy (March 29) and France, where it will open the Paris Film Festival on April 1.

Once again Almodovar mixes traditional gender roles in a send-up of patriarchal Spanish society. Lead characters include female bullfighter Lydia (flamenco-pop singer Flores in a tailored-to-fit role), whose name is a play on the Spanish "lidia," or bullfight; the physically imposing but emotionally susceptible Argentine journalist Marco (a subtle, sophisticated performance by Grandinetti); comatose former ballerina Alicia (Watling, memorable despite having few spoken lines); and effeminate male nurse Benigno, another meaning-laden name (proven comedian Camara in a touching performance which should bring him well-deserved attention as a serious dramatic actor). Geraldine Chaplin heads a supporting cast showcasing Spanish talent, including Almodovar regulars Chus Lampreave and Loles Leon.

Just as Mother ended with a curtain dropping, so Talk opens with a curtain lifting onto a disturbing modern dance performance. In the audience, Benigno is touched by the tears of the man sitting next to him, who happens to be Marco. In the next scene Benigno recounts every detail of the evening to his patient, Alicia, while he tenderly gives her a professional manicure. Meanwhile, at home, Marco is intrigued by a beautiful yet melancholy female bullfighter getting harassed on TV about her failed love life by an exaggeratedly prying interviewer (the first of two funny scenes parodying Spain's national obsession for gossip which should draw laughs anywhere). Marco arranges to meets her and the two eventually begin a relationship, but Lydia is soon gored by a bull and winds up in a coma down the clinic hall from Alicia. There the solitary Marco and lonely Benigno embark on a deep friendship.

In a departure from his usual lineal style, Almodovar bounces back and forth in time to construct the parallel stories of the four characters. It is an effect which may disorientate at first, but only until the drama really kicks in. One flashback, Marco's brief recollection of an old girlfriend on a trip to Africa, seems superfluous. Also unnecessary are the subtitles introducing the couples by name.

The narrative is spliced with other artistic performances, including live dancing, music and even a full seven-minute silent film-within-the-film, a fantastic mini-creation which stars rising Spanish actors Paz Vega and Fele Martinez in career-making dialogue-less turns. The cuts aren't new to Almodovar - think of Antonia San Juan's stage monologue in Mother or Joaquin Cortes' flamenco stomp in The Flower Of My Secret (El Flor De Mi Secreto) - and although they risk removing the audience from the story, they do further the narrative. For instance, the silent film recalled in detail by Benigno for Alicia represents Benigno's own feelings and actions.

The striking poster by designer Juan Gatti of Flores and Watling, like the film's title, capitalises on Almodovar's notoriety as a director of actresses and writer of female-driven scripts. Yet the female characters here are central only in so much as they define and shape the lives of the male characters, even from their vegetative states. Benigno, who thinks his relationship with the comatose Alicia works better than most marriages, is full of seriousness and respect when he says "the woman's mind is a mystery".

Typically colourful sets and the distinct Spanish sunlight are captured beautifully by veteran cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others, The Quince Tree Sun), and set to rhythmic tunes by habitual composer Alberto Inglesias.

Some images are truly unforgettable, including segments in the silent mini-movie of a shrunken man scaling the giant, naked body of his sleeping lover before stepping into her vagina; Lydia being dressed for the bullfight and Alicia being undressed and bathed in her hospital bed; and aerial views of the red-earthed, olive tree-dotted hills of Andalucia.

Prod co: El Deseo
Sp dist: Warner Sogefilms
US dist: Sony Pictures Classics
Int'l sales: Good Machine International
Exec prod: Agustin Almodovar
Scr: Almodovar
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Prod des: Esther Garcia
Ed: Jose Salcedo
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Main cast: Javier Camara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Mariola Fuentes, Geraldine Chaplin