Almodovar: Law of Desire (1987) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Almodovar: Law of Desire (1987)

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"I love you more than my own life."

The beauty of Matador which I looked over a few weeks ago is that it's funny, weird, and wonderfully morbid. Laws of Desire, while containing many of the same actors, ideas, and situations, pales in comparison because on some level it belies an awful sense of earnestness.

Here is a film about a homosexual director who can't manage his passions. Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) is so desperate to be loved in the way he wants to be loved that he will write the letters he wants to read and ask for his lovers to send them to him. He's so unceasingly convinced of his own superiority in all matters, that one beau's disinterest doesn't sway Pablo from ordering him around too. Pablo's confidence is his power, and, until that is shaken, there's nothing in the world that can stop him.

Pablo's passions are matched by that of his brother. Or, well, currently sister; she's now called Tina (Carmen Maura), and she's an aspiring actress. Aspiring being a code word, of course, for not very good.

Family, for all intents and purposes.

Tina watches her niece, Ada (Manuela Velasco), who has a crush on Pablo. This incestuous aura is not new for an Almodovar film, and not even new for this film: Tina and Pablo have had a troubled history, since, besides at one point being Pablo's brother, Tina became his sister to placate their father's sexual urges. They'd run away together and spent a life of sin together in Morocco until both parents passed away.

Oedipal issues aside, the siblings make due. Besides spending a great deal of time high on cocaine, Pablo's career masterminding popular films lets him transition to crafting his own stage play, which he graciously gives the main roles to Tina and Ada. They play (and Tina) flop, but that hardly matters when there's cocaine to spare.

Tina and Pablo do seem to be two sides to Almodovar's own psyche. Law of Desire has the same texture as something like Fellini's 8 1/2 where you immediately understand that sense that you're not watching a normal narrative film, no matter how it tries to present itself, but are instead watching a deep spiritual struggle. The nuances to each characters cry out for extrospection, an examination of Almodovar's life and how it's being reflected on screen.

The siblings and their murky history certainly indicate a quiet, desperate inner life. Pablo is never showy, but demanding and talented. Tina is fiercely showy (dancing under a fire hose in one scene to show off), but insecure, and unable to control her sexuality. Together they're usually in a quiet truce, but the desperate outlets they search for to expunge their torments. That they both end up the plaything of the same devious man can't be a coincidence.

Let's set ourselves on the plot, shall we?

"You don't kiss like you're trying to unblock the sink!"

The plot that brings the conflict between Tina and Pablo comes in the form of a pair of sexy men. Juan (Miguel Molina) is a much younger, pretty young man who doesn't seem to be deeply invested in Pablo. He behaves civilly and even sleeps with him, but the tension is all on Pablo's end: Pablo wants him, and thus Pablo knows that Juan must want him too.

Pablo moves away from Madrid to work at a bar next to a fully erect lighthouse, and that's when Antonio (Antonio Banderas) shows up. Well, actually, we've already seen Antonio at this point-- he's been stalking Pablo at a distance, eagerly waiting for his time to swoop in. He's always playing videogames that are controlled with air rifles-- oh, that doesn't belie a nasty temperament, I'm sure.

Antonio is just as obsessed with Pablo as Pablo was with Juan, but Antonio lacks the creative outlet or experience to express it. Pablo and Antonio's first kiss is a disaster-- Antonio wants to violently, gratingly insert himself into Pablo as fast and quickly as he can. Antonio is consumed with a desire to both placate and dominate.

Which would be, honestly, a great name for a rock band.

Tina and Ada in Pablo's play. Having Ada wheeled across the stage, mouthing an operatic while Tina's character undergoes a complete breakdown is pretty nifty staging, though it's artifice here can't hide how unwieldy it would have looked in real life.

Pablo never manages much enthusiasm for Antonio, continually trying to break it off with him and failing. Eventually he manages to do so by saying that he's running away with Juan; Antonio takes the threat personally and opts to first try and seduce Juan and, failing that, murdering him. Right next to that quite phallic lighthouse.

Antonio reveals his deeds to Pablo, which drives Pablo to being sick with grief, crashing his car, and ending up in the hospital with amnesia. Almodvar's love for the soap opera melodrama shines through here, as this is played for masterfully cheesy effect. Tina dotes on him and finally reveals the truth about why she became a she.

Pablo finally regains his memory when he discovers that Antonio has seduced Tina in an effort to remain close. He discloses to the police all that he's learned, and they race to the apartment building, where a suspicious Antonio has taken hostages. He demands an hour alone with Pablo, and uses that time to make love to him.

Pablo, so used to being the one in control, expressing his sexuality freely, eventually becomes subservient to Antonio once he understands that the depths of Antonio's obsessions aren't afraid of death. Using the name Antonio for the character is either Almodovar revealing a bit much about his admiration for Banderas, or tacitly admitting something else, since, possibly coincidentally, Antonio is the name of Pedro's own father.

Almodovar's fondness for symmetrical compositions returns here, though it never feels quite as inspired as the work he did in Matador. Boy, I just sound like a broken record today, huh?

The sex in this film is remarkably brazen, with Almodovar opening the film with a homosexual scene from one of Pablo's films played straight. It's entirely an off-screen narrator ordering a lithe young man to undress and then molest himself-- mirroring Pablo's own treatment of Juan.

Almodovar quickly undercuts this by showing us the voice actors at work, dubbing in both the horny young man and the unseen narrator, which is also a great starting point for understanding the film. We're not seeing reality, but a playful recreation; some old pros at work. But there are still layers of truth to what's on the screen, both within and outside the film, which is what makes so much of the film captivating.

Laws of Desire succeeds admirably as a revelation of Almodovar, of a man's portrait of himself. Unfortunately, compared to the tight and masochistic vibes of Matador, it still feels remarkably derivative-- I just saw all of these same people in a better film last week! Coming into it fresh, without the memory of Matador shaking around in my head and with a deep knowledge of homosexual subculture and Almodovar's personal history, I could see this movie as being quite a treat. As a document from a different, more neon era, it's also quite telling. But as an Almodovar film, it can't quite escape the feeling of just being old hat.

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Posted by Danny

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