Almodovar: Matador (1986) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Almodovar: Matador (1986)

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"I love you more than my own death."

There's an intricate inexorable link between sex and death. Looking at it plainly, one is an intense act of emotions and physical activity, the other is the complete opposite. It's difficult touch on both of these in cinema, since one is incredibly controversial, and the other is unabashedly morbid.

You can get playful hints of it-- Clive Owen shooting down thugs while intercoursing the hell out of Monica Bellucci in Shoot 'Em Up springs to mind-- but to get some of the more thoughtful and crazier ideas about the intermingling, you're going to have to look at some very adult films.

Luckily, that takes us back to Pedro Almodovar, whose works I've been trekking through-- incredibly slowly, I'm afraid. Almodovar has a deep fascination with both of these issues. While sex and bondage got its turn to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and we've dealt with hidden passion back in Dark Habits, Matador is a rich experience that delves into every ugly desire people can conjure and contrasts it to the savage brutishness of cold blooded murder.

Diego is trapped. In fact, if you love cage imagery, this is the movie for you.

The murderer here... well, we don't really get that to begin with. We start with Diego Montez (Nacho Martínez),a former matador who has opened up his own training school. Here he teaches lessons about slowly killing the noble beast, and the link between this violence he reveled in and the fame he once had are tied together in a very noticeable limp.

Eva is displeased.

In this class is the socially maladjusted Angel (Antonio Banderas)-- and, no, his character's name isn't very subtle-- who idolizes Diego to an unhealthy degree, up to the point that he finds Diego's girlfriend, Eva (Eva Cobo), disgusting because of her attitude but desirable because of her intimacy with Diego.

Angel takes this to the next level and attempts to rape Eva. I say attempts when by all means he succeeds-- except he's too passive to finish inside her. She angrily punches him and marches off until she trips and cuts her face. Seeing the blood, Angel faints.

The next day, because of his guilt complex instilled by one of those fantastic mothers who believes their children are pure evil and they're put there to obstruct it, Angel turns himself in at the station. Eva is forced to come down, and she refuses to press charges-- people attempt to rape her all the time-- and Angel is further shamed.

I love the way Angel's room is designed, because it says so much about him: the totally generic sports poster, the tidy to a fault desk, the spotlight on the cross, and the picture on the table is of his mother, always giving him that look of supreme disdain.

In what first appears to be a bid to regain his masculinity, he then confesses to a pair of murders-- a pair of m``en have been stabbed in the spine in the same manner that a matador would stab a bull. It doesn't help that two of Diego's students have gone missing over the last, hinting at further implications.

This scene pretty much represents a lot of what's happening between Angel and his mother; she's a distorted, hideous figure who gives him no privacy.

Hearing about his confession, attorney Maria Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) agrees to take on his case pro bono. The twist is, of course, that Maria is the one who's been committing the murders-- she enjoys killing the men when they reach the apex of their sexual excitement, and even goes so far to use the corpses to finish herself.

This movie is rated NC-17, by the way, in case all the rape and murder and, most importantly, the fact that it's foreign hadn't tipped you off.

But that's where the movie becomes something more tangled. Maria has for a long time had a crush on Diego, and Diego becomes fascinated with a woman who's into killing as much as he is-- he took care of those two missing students himself. The pair of murderers take cues from bullfighting, and become fascinated with its glorious dance of death. They have trouble resisting letting all of their dark passions loose, while Angel sits in jail and Eva tries to regain her distant boyfriend.

It's a nakedly morbid piece of work, and distinctly imprinted by Almodovar's usual flourishes. Almodovar does paint the film with his trademark bright colors, especially reds and blues, but eschews his usual straight drama for something a bit more out of thriller director Brian DePalma's specialty.

He ups the visual humor in this film significantly as well, crafting some images that are both startling and remarkably silly. I've tried to take a few more pictures than usual to give you an idea; needless to say, any film that spends a great deal of time linking a bloodsport and sex isn't going to let a few metaphorical zingers fly unscathed.

Analyzing the film, it's amazing how much you can use to read into mid-80's Spanish ideals. Here's the lines between Angel and a female police officer when he goes to confess to the rape he perpetrated:

I like this gag. This is where Eva is berating Angel for being a terrible rapist, and, hey, giant phallic object, stage left.

"I want to turn myself in for raping a girl."
"Some women are lucky."

We also later see Eva's mother wearing the same outfit that she wore during the rape, casually, without comment. Either Almodovar is implying that it was so innocuous that the incident was humorously, quickly forgotten, or that the mother is attempting to steal her daughter's own sense of sexuality when hanging out with Diego.
The characters in the film are drawn broadly, but with inklings of morbid detail at the edge. Take Eva, for instance: a model who still lives with her mother. When she is dressed by the photographers, she's sexy. When she's on her own, she looks like she's wearing the clothing of a child. In her room, it's filled with stuffed animals.

Eva haunting Maria, dressed again like how a child would think an adult would dress.

Now contrast this to how Diego treats her, entreating her, during sex, to pretend like she's dead. The only thing she must be thinking is "this must be what grown ups do!" Her adolescent drama meltdown near the end of the film merely confirms it: she clearly is in way over her head.

Diego is another matter. His cockiness that fame and a tragic career have made him into a morose, seething monster. He's taken to killing women with the same flare as he took on the bulls. We even get to see the movie demonstrate just how far he's gone, as the entire film opens to him masturbating to a series of gory deaths from a schlock slasher movie. Not to spoil it, but it looks like he's really enjoying it.

It goes even further when we briefly see his murders in flashback, as they're performed in the matador school, in the ring he uses to teach where and how to insert the swords to kill the bull. He undresses the women, puts on his Matador outfit and... well, I did say they were murders, didn't I? None of them are especially gory, but they somehow manage to be titillating as they always arrive at a passionate climax.

Maria's costuming throughout the movie is a mixture of black and white plaid. She's always stylish, but also always blends in with her surroundings. It helps sell her placid exterior as we learn more about the true maniac contained within. Oh, and check out that lipstick and those bars-- you'd almost think she was the one in jail from this shot.

"Men think killing is a crime. Women don't see it that way."

The real standout of the film is Banderas, as his Angel is both a creature of quiet madness and an utter pathetic mindset. He's wrapped in an unusual ecstasy, and Banderas isn't afraid to allow this character to be both henpecked and completely unflattering.

Great use of reflection as the police inspector and Angel ponder each other.

The end of the film, and this involves spoilers naturally, pushes the film even further over the top in dramatic excess. The story approaches a climax when the police inspectors realize that Maria and Diego are the murderers and that they're up to something. Angel begins to be able to see them with his psychic powers as they rush out to the country to find the two murdering each other in the throes of sexual ecstasy.

It's a weird ending, with a lunar eclipse and magical powers coming pretty far out of left field. But then, when you're at this point in the story about a pair of serial killers who are feasting on each other's mutual fetishistic madness, upping the ante never manages to feel unnatural. Angel's realization of his own innocence gives him clarity, and that clarity is, you know, magic. Somehow. It's very soapy, very silly, but somehow still in tune with the rest of the picture's spirit. That speaks highly of both the film's imagination and own loose sense of reality.

Everyone in Matador is, to put it delicately, pretty fucked up. Almodovar has finely tuned his sensibilities to a Hitchockian sense of flair, delivering both black humor and grand guignol in a tantalizing manner.

And you know what the best part of making a Hitchcockian thriller always is? The director's cameo.

Nice 'stash, Pedro.

Next time (should that ever come) we check out Laws of Desire. Stick around!

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Posted by Danny

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