Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Stockholm Syndrome is a funny thing. Well, maybe not overtly, but Pedro Almodovar tries to tease out its roots and strange perversity in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, a movie that makes good use of its NC-17 rating for an emotional but colorful roller coaster.

Stockholm syndrome, for those of you who aren't over the age of 12, is what happens when a victim of a kidnapping begins to identify with their captors. You may have caught this in films like The World is Not Enough, Buffalo '66, or Cars. (No, seriously, it's tagged for Cars on IMDB, I'm not even joking about that.) It can either be taken one of two ways: plot contrivance, or an examination of the failings of misguided empathy.

The film starts with Ricky (Antonio Banderas) in a mental hospital. Having spent most of his life cycling through various institutions, he's picked up a variety of skills: lock picking and seduction two of the handier ones. The latter gets him released early, even though the warden is afraid for him-- he's simply too innocent to survive in the real world.

This is illustrated as he takes a quest upon himself as soon as he leaves. There's only one thing he'd been dreaming of for the years he'd spent incarcerated in the asylum, and only one thing he wants: Marina (Victoria Abril), the porno actress he's spent years fantasizing over.

Lucky for him, she's attempting a cinematic comeback on a nearby sound stage. Under the watchful eye of a crippled (and ridiculously horny) director, she's taking on a dramatic role in a serious film, one where her character is stalked by a muscle bound man in a gimp outfit-- a nice joke about the situation ts coming Marina's way.

Marina is not a simple character, which is a great change of pace in terms of portrayal of porno starlets. By the end of the film, we know her life: young actress on the stage with her sister, pornography, heroin problem, strings of bad men, disappeared, came back, cleaned up, and an attempt to break this cycle of addiction. She is a woman fully in control of her sexuality, but mentally she's a hodgepodge. Like a lot of Almodovar heroines, this is where the real conflict of the film lies.

See, this subtitle is where the conflict in this film arises for me.

Ricky manages to entrap Marina in her own apartment after the film's shoot has wrapped, and he slowly and carefully explains how's he's come to help straighten her out and be a good, devoted husband. They'll soon be very happy with their two or three kids. She just needs to understand this.

Compare this film thematically to something like William Wyler's The Collector-- which I'll admit is fairly obscure, but a film that takes Stockholm Syndrome with a deadly seriousness. Through The Collector we watch Terrence Stamp's character abduct a pretty young nurse, we see her gradual psychological breakdown as she finds there's no possible way to intelligently reason with his madness. Her final solution is to completely sublimate herself in a last ditch effort to survive, and we get to see the ugliness that that entails with a disgusting, unwavering gaze.

Tie Me Up functions in much the same way, but tweaks the tone. Because Marina is indeed a flawed person, unlike the innocent nurse in The Collector, her arc is remarkably different: her personality becomes easier to repress the closer she returns to her addictive nature. Throughout the film, as an old toothache flair or a bruise from a scuffle appears, she pushes Banderas to get her the drugs she needs to overcome the pain, which, considering her former addictions, grow more and more illicit.

By the time Banderas is brutally beaten for an attempt to get her actual heroin, he's gone from being her kidnapper to her enabler. She realizes this, and begins to reciprocate his affections, perhaps even more aggressively than he'd prefer.

An extra bent emerges once the bondage play starts coming into the fold. Every time Banderas leaves her alone, he must tie her up to make sure she does not run away. As their relationship grows more complex, it's obvious that the bonds aren't necessary, and by the end, she's tying herself up. We never go so far as for the bondage to physically occur during the lovemaking scenes, but by that point the bonds begin to take on a more metaphysical nature-- he controls her, she accepts it and gives herself freely.

It'd be creepy if Almodovar didn't treat it with such a laid back cadence. Banderas and Abril, under his watchful eye, have a playful chemistry with dark edges that lurk into view. Almodovar throws in cute bits of characterization every chance he gets to create a vibrant, silly world: Ricky's constant use of a Walkman indicates his disconnect from reality. Marina's movie set is setting us up for all of the daddy issues that she's about to play out with Banderas, especially the ending with her ending up hanging from a rope, swinging for a near infinity.

This wig means ROCK 'N' ROLL.

The closing shot of the film-- and this is a spoiler, believe it or not-- calls to mind another pair of great closings, namely The Graduate and The Long Good Friday. All three focus on a character, and their internal moments of reckoning. Tie Me Up goes a step further, as we have Abril driving while Banderas and the woman playing Marina's sister begin to sing a cheery tune that's come up on the radio. Marina's look, that of a woman who's trying to convince herself that she made the right decision, is heartbreaking.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is one of the rare breed of films to carry an NC-17 rating, and I won't pretend like it doesn't earn it. There are some intense scenes of lovemaking and a bit of violence, but the undercurrents aren't anything I can imagine anyone under a certain age sorting out.

It's an aggressively adult film, but a smart and thrilling one. When it comes down to it, it may take some work, but it's well worth the effort to untangle all of its knots.

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Posted by Danny

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