on 5 November 2015
The Law of Desire (1987) is the first film Pedro Almodóvar made under the umbrella of his own production company El Deseo. Deseo means “desire” in Spanish and we should note carefully the title of this film. The meanings are multiple, but first of all this is the film where Almodóvar starts to bottle the wild transgressive ingredients of his first five features within the organized confines of genre. It imposes law and order on the punk Movida Madrileña excesses of Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) and Labyrinth of Desire (1982), the Catholic satire of Dark Habits (1983), the bizarre neo-realist slice of life social conscience of What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) and the bull-fighting sexual machismo of Matador (1986). All of these films amount to an attack on the patriarchal values of old Francoism and a robust celebration of freedoms repressed by 40 years of fascism.
From The Law of Desire onwards the attack and celebration continues, but the point is sharper, more disciplined and more mature. The effect is devastatingly brilliant in the first 3 films made by El Deseo which amount to a ‘Trilogy of Desire’ (my title). Fundamentally postmodern by inclination, Almodóvar treats the subject through a pastiche of different genres which is different in each film. The one constant genre is melodrama, but in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) this is refracted through romantic comedy, horror and the hostage thriller. In Women on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) melodrama is merged with comedy, farce and elements of Hitchcock. In The Law of Desire we have melodrama filtered through a delirious mixture of love comedy, porno, psycho thriller and detective murder mystery. Almodóvar has always relished putting extreme opposite ingredients next to each other (tragedy with comedy, sex with horror, serial killer thriller with screwball comedy, etc) and when the ingredients are transgressive (drug abuse, rape, trans-gender bending, female masochism, etc), the tone of his films invariably slides into humorous camp and kitsch. Underlined by glossy chic production values in which bright primary colors constantly jump out at us with an aggression that matches the high octane melodramatics of convoluted plots and outrageous performances, we are left with a decision to make. Do we take Almodóvar seriously or not? I think the beauty of this director is that we can do both. We can treat his films (especially this ‘trilogy’) as trashy fun. The surface is so beguiling that we can simply enjoy the ride. On the other hand, we can dig deep and find the films are richly rewarding for those interested in love, human relationships, sexual identity, the role of the artist in society (in this case post-Franco Spain), the act of film-making itself, and the whole rationale under-lining postmodernism (inter-textual pastiche, meta-fiction, faction, paranoia, serial referencing to other art, the rejection of any one way of quantifying the world). The Law of Desire then is Almodóvar’s first great film which works wonderfully on the surface as a rollercoaster ride of wild emotions, but which also works as a profound examination of the director’s law of desire and how we interpret that law through his characters. Almodóvar explains: “[The Law of Desire] is the key film in my life and career. It deals with my vision of desire, something that’s both very hard and very human. By this I mean the absolute necessity of being desired and the fact that in the interplay of desires it’s rare that two desires meet and correspond.” What follows contains spoilers.
First, let’s take the rollercoaster ride. The film’s delirious tone is set right at the beginning with the vicious Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony (said to be a musical portrait of Stalin) playing furiously over opening credits which unfold in a dramatic spotlight. Suddenly there is complete silence and we are in a bedroom with a young man wearing only underpants. In what turns out to be a porno film within a film, the director in a voice-over directs the man to masturbate on a bed. Long, intensely homo-erotic and wickedly funny, it is one of the most audacious opening sequences in any film I can recall. For its time (1987) this was outrageous and it’s amazing how Almodóvar could get away with it. With the title ‘The End’ showing on the screen three characters leave the theater and are freeze-framed together as the title ‘La ley del deseo’ appears on the screen. The characters are Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), a gay film writer-director whose latest feature we have just seen finishing; Tina Quintero (Carmen Maura), Pablo’s erstwhile brother, now sex-changed sister who is now a lesbian down-on-her-luck actress; and Antonio (Antonio Banderas) who lusts after Pablo from afar and whose actions will determine the film’s melodrama.
The main story is in essence a love triangle which starts comically and ends tragically. Pablo is a well-intentioned free spirit in love with Juan (Miguel Molina). Juan loves Pablo but is straight and after spending a sexless night with him, leaves Madrid for the coast where he minds a local bar. Into his place steps Antonio who pursues Pablo with a blind obsessive passion especially after Pablo lets him into his bed. In love with Juan and flattered by the attentions of Antonio, Pablo distances both lovers to work on his latest project – a staging of Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine with Tina playing the central role. This distancing established by fateful letters and phone calls has disastrous results. Antonio is pushed to jealousy and visits Juan one night. A violent confrontation finishes with Juan falling from a cliff-top. The killing may or may not be intentional (you watch and decide for yourself) and soon the police are on Antonio’s trail. At first thinking Pablo may be the killer because he wears an identical shirt to the one Antonio wore the night of the killing, they chase the distraught director (blinded by tears having lost his Juan) and his car straight into a tree. Pablo ends up in hospital with amnesia while the police search his house and meet Tina. In the film’s most touching scene, the amnesia enables Tina to talk to her brother as if for the first time. Tina meanwhile has hooked up with a new lover who Pablo eventually realizes (once his memory returns) is none other than Antonio. To get to Pablo Antonio has bedded Tina. Pablo recognizes the danger to Tina and the climactic final scene of the film has everyone including the police converge on her apartment. In a hostage situation, Antonio agrees to release Tina in exchange for one hour alone with Pablo. In a typical Almodóvar moment, instantly the mood changes from tragedy to romantic comedy as the two go to bed while everyone waits anxiously outside on the street. The hour up, Antonio kills himself and Pablo realizes he loved the boy after all. Not only that, but he sees it was his own unwitting emotional manipulation that led to both loves of his life dying. The pursuit of his own art has led to this tragic impasse and the film’s most extraordinary image has him throwing his typewriter (the very symbol of his artistic creativity) through the window only for it to burst into Satanic flames.
As can be gathered from this description, the film’s melodrama is bouncy and rockets along at a fair clip, but what makes it really scintillate and sparkle is Almovódar’s sensual visual imagination combined with absolutely electric performances from his cast. Both features are tied very closely to a careful depiction of how every character defines their own individual law of desire, and how unlikely it is that the desires of any two people can ever match exactly. At the center is Pablo, the free-spirited artist who has love and desire to spare for everyone. Audiences weaned on feel good morally upright Hollywood fare might incline to judge Pablo as hedonistic and lacking in morality. It is important however to appreciate that Almodóvar does not judge his characters. He merely presents them together with their own takes on morality. Pablo is presented as a nice guy who doesn’t knowingly do harm to anyone. He enjoys life to the hilt, makes his films, parties, drinks, takes drugs and beds whomever he pleases. He loves Juan and has enough to spare for Antonio and (we infer) anyone else who comes along. The images Almodóvar gives us here are wonderfully loud and racy – cocaine falling on a copy of the Cocteau play as Pablo rides his motorbike with his latest pick-up, he and Juan draped over each other in bed, he grabbing a jar of Vaseline as he’s about to take Antonio for the first time. These scenes could easily be sinister in other hands, but with Almodóvar they are sensual, richly comic and depict one character’s fulfillment of what desire means to himself.
Pablo’s desire is directed in two other key ways. In the first, he is deeply attached to his sister Tina and her ‘adopted’ daughter Ada (Manuela Velasco) and in several scenes they play as a surrogate nuclear family. There’s a beautifully relaxed scene near the beginning where Tina visits him with Ada to borrow money which he is only too pleased to proffer. Later the three are walking down the street in the heat when Ada suddenly leaps on his back and Tina (also rejoicing in this new-found domestic security) gets a hose-down in another of the film’s highlight scenes (Maura absolutely radiant). Ada rejects the empty promises of uncertain love from her real mother (Bibí Andersen) for the greater security of ‘mother’ Tina and ‘father’ Pablo. In one scene she makes a silent wish and then as if by magic Pablo arrives and she is contented. Secondly, Pablo expresses his desire through his professional work as an artist and it is here that the results are problematic for just as the need to channel his desire through his vocation is a positive quality (as an artist he has to believe in what he does), it is also negative for it distracts him from the other people in his life who need to feel his desire. It also has a tendency to steal and take away other people’s private thoughts and emotions and broadcast them for anyone to see. In the film Pablo distances both Juan and Antonio in order to work which creates the feelings of uncertainty and jealousy which in turn leads to tragedy. Also, Pablo is planning to use elements of Tina’s past in his next film, something that Tina doesn’t like at all. Almodóvar goes even further by tying the double edged nature of the artistic process into a deeper inquisition into his own creative method (movie making as a devouring passion). I will come to this shortly.
Pablo enjoys the privilege of both desiring and being desired back. Tina is his diametric opposite. She is brimming over with desire aplenty, but is unable to requite it let alone have it returned by anyone. On the re-bound from a failed relationship with Ada’s mother, she has nobody in the world and is rooted in loneliness. This is stated several times during the film, not least when she assumes the central role of the jilted woman in Cocteau’s play. Two further scenes are also remarkably effective and showcase Maura’s superb depiction of this sadness. The first has her visit a church she used to frequent as a young boy. She sings to the organ being played by her old priest. On learning that Tina was once a young boy in his charge, the priest turns moralistic and Tina baulks at being confronted with the very conformism that hurt her so much as a child. It is hinted vaguely that sexual abuse may have occurred and this little scene was the seed that led to Almodóvar’s 2004 film Bad Education. The second scene occurs in the hospital while Pablo is suffering from amnesia caused by his accident. Seeing the chance to square herself with her brother by telling him her deepest secret, she explains how their father abused him as a child. He took ‘Tina’ to Morocco to get a sex change before deserting her for someone else. This story is, to be blunt, ridiculous, but Maura puts it across with such sincerity that we are deeply moved. She finishes by stating she has nobody in the world except for Pablo and by association the kind of domestic security celebrated in the film’s earlier hose-down scene represents what she desires most of all. Of course, her hopes are raised once more by Antonio only for them to be dashed immediately. The character of Tina is a wonderfully subtle depiction of unfulfilled desire purposely designed to offset Pablo’s easily sated passions and Carmen Maura puts it across amazingly well.
Antonio’s desire is stated bluntly and directly as passionate/obsessive and Banderas plays him as emotion pure and simple. He IS desire personified and will appear exactly as he is here in the later Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! The one who pushes this basically freewheeling hedonistic comic-celebration of desire into tragedy the most, we should dislike this character. After all, he is the villain of the piece. He aggressively pursues Pablo, assaults and kills Juan in a jealous fit and then resorts to kidnapping Tina and Ada to get what he wants. And yet, as per usual with Almodóvar, there is sympathy aplenty for this character and in the end we can easily forgive the poor deluded boy. First of all, Almodóvar makes it clear that Antonio is a virgin. He chases Pablo as a young kid might chase a famous star for an autograph and when they are alone it is Pablo who teaches him how to kiss (“not like you’re unblocking a drain”) and who takes the initiative in bed. The look of nervousness that flits across his face while Pablo reaches for the Vaseline is comic brilliance from Banderas as we know this is an innocent kid being deflowered by a knowing senior. The possibility that he may turn psychotic does not occur to Pablo who perhaps should ‘read’ his latest conquest a little better. He has been aggressively pursued however, and his actions are understandable in this context. Once taken though, Antonio’s desire is set on one track which will destroy anything in the way barring him from Pablo. We are given more insight into him when we see his suffocating home environment with his Hitchcock-style hen-pecking mother (Helga Liné) looking over his shoulder all the time. Certainly, Antonio’s depiction as desire incarnate is heavily underlined when he rides his motorbike to the café by the lighthouse to confront Juan. Walking into the bar with normal clothes topped with a bulbous helmet he looks every inch like an erect penis. The phallic associations are increased by the Johnny Walker whiskey bottle exchanged between them as well as the lighthouse itself so that the final tussle on the cliff top followed by Juan’s orgasmic fall depict the triumph of desire over everything. It is a doomed desire of course, and the eventual confrontation between desire and its very object can only be met with tragedy when so much violence has taken place. Almodóvar is on record as saying the performances of Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas in this film are the best he has ever directed. I agree they are wonderful, but it’s a tad unfair on Eusebio Poncela whose quiet but highly effective presence is perhaps necessary for the other two to really stand out. An unselfish portrayal, Poncela deserves more praise than he has received.
The film’s postmodern meditation on desire rests on an inter-textual pastiche which depicts the characters through a number of different genres – porno, love comedy, straight melodrama, psycho-thriller and police procedural. It also rests on an ingredient new for Almodóvar, namely meta-cinema. This is the first of a number of films where the director puts himself and his own creative process in front of the camera. The desires of the characters are one thing, but they are only fictional characters created by the over-arching writer-director. Collectively they state the view of the law of desire as held by him through the story. On another level this desire is expressed through the very act of creation itself. As Almodóvar has said, “[film-making] is a passion for me. It is probably the closest thing to being in love.” The concern with meta-cinema is clearly stated at the very outset with the use of the film-within-a-film porno. A director and his assistant instruct a young male model to strip and masturbate while repeating the words, “f**k me, f**k me, f**k me.” We see the model and hear the instructions as well as his words, but we also see the director and his assistant speaking and getting off with each other at the same time. When the porno finishes and Pablo is introduced exiting the première of his new work we realize the director in the film is a doppelgänger for Pablo. Furthermore, we realize that both the director in the film and Pablo are doppelgängers for Almodóvar himself. The words spoken by the model quote Almodóvar’s first (unreleased) film, F**k Me, F**k Me, F**k Me, Tim (1978), a point emphasized afterwards by Antonio cooling off in the bathroom repeating the same words as Almodóvar deploys an extreme close up of his lips. Two things are emphasized here. First, Almodóvar lays down a marker for a new beginning in his career as inaugurated by his new production company and its first product. From now on postmodernism (and meta-cinema in particular) will be a permanent feature of his work. This is stated most clearly in Kika (1993) and in Broken Embraces (2009). Second, in this film Almodóvar speaks to us directly through his characters emphasizing their artificiality and re-creating them as cyphers who state his law of desire. This is most obviously stated through Pablo. Pablo’s free-spirited desire is transparently Almodóvar’s as well. Pablo’s decision to distance both Juan and Antonio with disastrous results echoes a dynamic which may exist in Almodóvar’s own life wherein he sacrifices everything for his art. Tragedy and loss are presented as the inevitable consequences of an artist losing himself in his work – for Pablo this is the Cocteau staging and early preparations for his next film, and for Almodóvar it is the very film we are now watching. When we watch this film we may conclude Antonio’s passionate/obsessive desire is what drives everything to an impasse, but it is actually Pablo’s/Almodóvar’s own passionate/obsessive artistic impulse which is the most destructive of all. Pablo/Almodóvar unwittingly turn Antonio into a psychotic through letter-writing (re script writing) at the typewriter, but of course it is Almodóvar himself who created not only Antonio, but also all the other characters in the first place. The desires of both Antonio and Tina as articulated here depict different facets of desire which Almodóvar has possibly experienced himself in real life – blind passion/obsession in the case of Antonio and emotional rejection in the case of Tina. Their role as surrogates for displaying the director’s own artistic process is highlighted by the sheer ridiculousness of the plot – the absurdly phallic presentation of the clifftop confrontation between Antonio and Juan is very much how Pablo/Almodóvar sees these characters, and the equally absurd backstory of Tina’s past. It is a tribute to both director and actors that the balance between artificiality and realism is so perfectly achieved in the presence of so much contrived melodrama.
The thing we most notice in Almodóvar’s depiction of Pablo moving from happy-go-lucky hedonistic successful artist to virtual murderer by default is Almodóvar making a clear statement on the double-edged nature of the creative process. Artistic endeavor can be spectacularly creative, but it can also be demonically destructive. Pablo starts the film Lord and Master over his artistic powers as represented by his typewriter – at one point he types in tune with music and is shown to be completely in control of his gift. However, the typewriter exerts control over him during the course of the film as he subverts his desire completely into his work. At the end he is completely enslaved and controlled by this desire with the typewriter taking on the role of a malignant force set to destroy him. This whole idea is encapsulated by the narrative framework of the film. The film begins with the opening credits displayed (to Shostakovich’s demonic music) as typewritten on scrunched-up paper torn from Pablo’s/Almodóvar’s typewriter. Note the Hellish red hue with the words picked out in a dramatic white spotlight. The film finishes with Pablo/Almodóvar throwing the same typewriter which (it is implied) has written the whole of the film we are watching, through the window. Like a Biblical vision of Satan, it bursts into flames. Pablo’s/Almodóvar’s passionate/obsessive artistic creative impulse has not only destroyed the objects of desire (Juan and Antonio), but it has destroyed their creator as well. In total the film shows Almodóvar laying down the delights and the perils of the artistic process wherein desire is both a necessity and a curse in a world where the desires of no two people can ever perfectly match. Taken either as a rollercoaster ride or as a meditation on the artist’s creative process, this film is irresistible.
As you may have gathered, for me The Law of Desire is a wonderful film. On the same level as Women on the Verge… and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the three make for an outstanding trilogy which amounts to some of Amodóvar’s best work. It may even be his greatest work, though I would also point to the string of melodramas from Live Flesh (1997) through to Volver (2006) as being of similar high quality. This DVD is excellent quality, the picture (aspect ratio: 16:9) clear and the sound very good. It comes with a useful introduction by José Arroyo. Best buy it as part of Optimum’s Almodóvar Collection Vol.2 which also includes Matador, Kika and The Flower of My Secret. All these films are unmissable. Strongly recommended.
This was the film that established Almodovar's reputation abroad, and it has to be said it is a very daring melodrama shot with great verve. The story is tightly wrought, passions ride high, it is very homoerotic, and has a brilliant performance from Carmen Maura as the transsexual Tina, looking after the daughter of her lesbian lover, played by a transgender actor. This is just one of many playful meanings the film has, and it is beautifully shot, very Eighties in terms of clothes and lighting, interiors, the music played in clubs. the prevalence of pornographic comics, even. Every shot is exquisitely set up and lit, and the material is so strong, having a magnificent story to tell which builds and builds, and many passing pleasures along the way. Two standout moments are: Tina going into the church where she had sung as a boy, only to find the priest who implicitly had abused her at the organ, to which she sings along like a penitent Magdalene in full makeup and sexy clothes, painted nails etc - a moment of sheer fabulousness - and the famous scene where she is hosed down in the street and goes ecstatic as the jet of water is directed at her. But Eusebio Poncela is also very fine as the main character Pablo, a gentle film director whose films are a bit pornographic, but is sweetness itself, his lover Juan, another touching but sexually conflicted figure filled in in few brush strokes, and the obsessed Antonio, played by Antonio Banderas, who spends half the film is his underpants and looks very good like this, as well as having a number of steamy scenes the like of which you'd never see in Hollywood. It's not just a question of explicitness; the whole screen is suffused with an erotic charge right from the daring opening scene. Between these four roles, and the delirious emotions on display, it is impossible not to be wholly swept up by this, as long as one has no resistance to the themes, because Almodovar doesn't pull any punches, and the actors really put themselves on the line.