on 23 October 2015
Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Átame!, 1990) is his eighth feature and the third he made under the umbrella of his own production company, El Deseo. Absurdly derided in certain quarters (especially in the States) as sexist, sado-masochistic, male-chauvinist and even irresponsible, perhaps the first thing I should emphasize is the sweetness of the film. Coming with minimal sex and violence, it is a dark but genial satiric romantic comedy in which nobody gets hurt, nobody dies and everyone lives happily ever after. It amounts in total to a beautiful meditation, a celebration even, of love in its myriad different forms – passionate/obsessive love between man and woman, dutiful love between husband and wife, officious love between the State and its citizens, Christian love between God and his children, family love between sisters and their mother, father love between a director and the film he has created, voyeuristic love held by the artist (and his audience – us of course!) for his muse and addictive love for all things that make life bearable – from companionship to artistic creativity and from sex to drugs. Sure the film acknowledges the dark, painful and even disturbing aspects of love, but that surely is the nature of the beast. Where powerful emotions are ignited there are always going to be consequences, both unforeseen and uncontrolled. If you want to ignore the realities of the subject you should go see something bland and blinkered like the feel-goody goody Love Actually. Here Almodóvar has crafted a stunningly achieved, deceptively simple, but highly perceptive masterpiece on the subject. Undoubtedly one of his finest films, as Rupert Smith in Time Out says, it can be set beside Luis Buñuel’s Belle du Jour and not be found wanting.
Almodóvar is one of cinema’s finest story tellers and the complexities of his narratives are legend. To dig deep and really do justice to this film I am going to have to reveal everything that happens. One of the chief pleasures of this director is his ability to surprise and astonish and I strongly recommend you don’t read what'follows until you have seen it.
The first thing we hear as the credits are revealed superimposed over the title of a painting is the sound of a heart beating. The camera slowly zooms back to reveal the painting’s subject to be Jesus and Mary holding hearts before them imploringly. Love, the central message of Christianity (of our very civilization) is to be the film’s central subject. The main love we see is the wild, untamed love of 23 year old Ricky (Antonio Banderas), a young man just released from a mental institution, for porno actress and junkie Marina (Victoria Abril). Having visited the film set where Marina is just finishing her debut non-porno film for wheelchair-bound director Máximo Espejo (Francisco Rabal) and having stolen her apartment keys, he kidnaps her. He holds her hostage in her own place, tying her up and gagging her when necessary while he waits for her to fall in love with him. Eventually, of course, she does! On the face of it this is outrageous and Almodóvar’s refusal to moralize is the main reason for the film’s controversy. It is however a thematic constant in Almodóvar’s work and transparently tells us that for him the obsession of one person is in itself a romantic notion. In interview he later said: “For there to be a loving relationship it is only necessary for one person to love. For there to be communication within a couple, it is enough for there to be only one person who communicates. Even though a couple consists of two people, if one of the people in a couple puts all their effort into moving a couple along they will move along. All of this relates to pure romanticism.” This theme was first stated in The Law of Desire (1987) in the character of Antonio (again played by Banderas) and appears much later in Talk to Her (2002) in the character of the nurse Benigno (Javier Camara).
Our shock at the transgression of the central premise should be dissipated by our knowledge that it is on one level a simple restatement of the central theme behind the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast and that in some ways the film comments on Jean Cocteau’s treatment of the story in La Belle et la bête (1946). There are also mitigating circumstances which help us understand Ricky’s behavior. Key to this is the fact that Marina had already made love to him a while before the film begins. At that time Ricky promised to come back and take care of her, and here he simply delivers on his promise. Then there are the circumstances of Ricky’s childhood. Having lost his parents at the age of three he’s been raised in an orphanage and then a mental institution and has nobody in the world. These things later prove instrumental in changing Marina’s initial hostility into love. Then there is the tender way he takes care of her. His violent intent is evident only when she tries to attract the attention of a third party. He hits her once at the beginning to stop her screaming, threatens her twice with a knife when in public and ties her up/tapes her mouth when he has to leave her alone. Against that however is his refusal to rape her when she suggests it, his concern for her not cutting her feet on broken glass, the aversion of his eyes when she changes clothes, and his acceptance of her demands to find softer rope and tape. Then he takes her to a doctor to get morphine and even goes on the streets to score heroin for her. It is revealing that the film’s most violent moments don’t come from Ricky. They come from Marina hurling a glass into his face and then from drug pushers beating him up on the street. Banderas is amazing in this film, simultaneously making his character psychotic and immensely sympathetic. When Marina calls him “pathetic” and tells him point blank she will never fall in love with him, Ricky reels away and starts to cry. A moving moment, our hearts really go out to the poor boy. Almodóvar brings off the juxtaposition between sinister threat and acute sensitivity in a superbly articulate script tailored exactly to his actor’s strengths – his devilishly handsome good looks coupled with an innate vulnerability.
Of course it takes two to tango (even in an Almodóvar film!) and opposite Banderas Victoria Abril is simply sensational as the object of his passion. Ricky represents love as a blind passionate/obsessive impulse and Banderas plays him throughout as an abstract emotion more than anything else. Marina represents a variety of different forms of love and the transformation she undergoes in the film demands extraordinary adaptability from Abril. At first she is an addict to life’s pleasures and has been marked by exploitation. She has a past as a porno star and is a recovering heroin addict. A neurotic fruitcake with a penchant for not wearing underwear and harboring a heroin-induced toothache, her efforts at self-redemption are conveyed in her making a film which isn’t porno for once, and her staying away from drugs. Central to both is her love for her sister Lola (the wonderful comedienne Loles León). Lola keeps an eye on her, but is also the production manager of the film Marina is making. It isn’t specified, but we can guess Lola may have been instrumental in getting Marina the role and with it the chance of establishing a clean reputation. Once kidnapped and tied up by Ricky, Marina experiences a whirlpool of emotion. Out of the initial hatred for her assailant slowly comes the passionate/obsessive love that Ricky represents so that eventually (her addictive nature being what it is) she issues the command “Átame!” (“Tie me up!”). She goes from wanting to escape to wanting to be tied to Ricky. It is no mean feat that Abril makes this transition so natural, the love/hate emotions existing at the same time. At one point she disrobes. Ricky averts his eyes as she told him to do earlier. He asks if she minds him looking now and she signals she doesn’t. She puts on a robe and then instantly the prior revulsion comes back and she angrily moves away from him. Another time she desperately tries to escape her bonds while Ricky has gone out to score heroin, but when he comes back severely cut and bleeding (without the smack) her revulsion turns instantly into concern. Then in the bathroom as he tries to take of his shirt with her worrying over his wounds, he tells her his only memory of his parents. This pushes her completely over the edge into a vortex of passion. Even in the superbly-played comic love scene Abril manages to get across the crazy mess of contradictory desires her character embodies. The first of three starring roles for Almodóvar (she had a walk-on role in The Law of Desire and was considered for both What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) Abril’s performance here is a veritable tour de force.
The realization and eventual celebration of consummated passionate/obsessive love constitutes the film’s main text, but bedded within the narrative lie parallel meditations on other manifestations of love. We are hit by the main all-embracing one right at the beginning with the depiction of Jesus and Mary holding hearts in a painting. It is to be noticed that this very painting is later found hanging over the marital bed in the apartment where Ricky moves Marina into. The fact that their love is eventually consummated on this bed beneath this picture suggests not only that Ricky and Marina are God’s children simply doing what they should with his blessing, but also that the characters represent Jesus and Mary themselves. The hearts in the picture are bright red. Ricky wears red T-shirts throughout the film. En-route to the studio Ricky buys a red heart-shaped box of chocolates which he slips into Marina’s handbag. His love may be obsessive, but it is pure, addictive and eventually all-embracing, carrying all before it just like Christianity itself. Notice the other religious paintings displayed around the two apartments – Joseph minding his flock, God towering over Job and his wife and others which remain indistinct. Christian love is ever-present and informs everything we see in the film. Almodóvar uses religious iconography much as Luis Buñuel did in another film set mostly in a confined interior – The Exterminating Angel, but with a subtle difference. There the tone is condemnatory whereas here it is celebratory.
Closely associated with (in fact born out of) Christian love is the country of Spain itself, possibly represented here by Ricky’s mental hospital. The two are connected again at the beginning when the painting of Jesus and Mary fades gradually onto a building presented as a freeze frame in the manner of a colored x-ray photograph with the colors heavily saturated to look like an expressionist painting. The real colors gradually come back and the freeze frame bursts into activity. The effect is to stress Christianity giving birth to the building. We connect the mental hospital to Spain because Ricky is 23 years old. This film was made for release in 1990. That means Ricky was born in 1967 during the time of Franco’s fascist dictatorship a full ten years before democratic Spain was born. Ricky then represents the dangerous new hope born out of an institution (Spain) governed by a twisted Francoist government. Ricky’s unfortunate childhood and experiences of orphanages, reform schools and mental institutions are perhaps all to be inferred as Franco’s legacy. Marina has also been damaged by the same historical time frame and the film perhaps shows how the last generation born and raised under Franco deal with a collectively dysfunctional past. Interestingly, the mental hospital is governed by a director (Lola Cardona) and nurses who between them have provided Ricky with his sex education. This could be inferred as the love of the State for its charges and undoubtedly sends Ricky out to conquer all with his new-found religion. Almodóvar went on to make another possible ‘State as institution’ analogy in Bad Education where the lust administered by a pederast priest destroys rather than creates the possibility of love.
Another institution inculcated by Christianity is marriage, and the film riffs merrily on the theme, offering Ricky and Marina as a parody of marital love. There’s a funny scene where the two prepare to go out to get drugs from a doctor (Maria Barranco). Ricky puts on a false moustache and jokingly says they look like husband and wife. The visit to the doctor is disturbed by her two babies crying so Ricky picks them up, one in each arm looking every bit the father. Many of the later scenes in the apartment are played as possible husband/wife vignettes, both taking care of each other, peeing in front of each other, making love in a grand marital bed. When Marina needs something (drugs or phoning her mother) the ‘husband’ obliges as kindly as possible. Ricky becomes Marina’s emotional rock with whom she can’t live without at the film’s conclusion. Many married couples will note the many realities in marriage essayed in this film, especially the wish to tie each other down and make each other prisoners of the others’ desire. These ties can be both feared and desired, a dichotomy hinted at by the English title of the film – Tie Me Up! (masochistically) and Tie Me Down! (emotionally as a stabilizing factor). The Spanish title (Átame!) suggests just the former, but far from just exhibiting the sado-masochism as perceived by the film’s critics, the ropes and the tape visualize the essential emotional needs that run through all relationships, not just marriage. They become symbols of that thing that keeps all couples together – love itself.
There is another form of love present throughout this film, and that is the love of the film medium itself. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is Almodóvar’s child and he loves it and fusses over it like a devoted father. This is expressed through the film-within-a-film device set up with the director Máximo Espejo playing the role of doppelgänger. This is part of Almodóvar’s essentially postmodern worldview which received first expression in another film-within-a-film in The Law of Desire and has continued right the way through to Broken Embraces (2009). Five postmodern features are very apparent to varying degrees in all his work and perhaps get their clearest expression in Kika (1993), Abril’s last film for him. They are all present and correct here, but the collective effect is much warmer given that passionate/obsessive love takes center stage and the couple drive off into the sunset completely free of the paranoia one usually associates with postmodernism. The five features are inter-textual pastiche (the genres of romantic comedy and horror welded together via meta-fiction), meta-fiction itself (the foregrounding of the creative process and the acceptance of more than one voice controlling the narrative, in this case Almodóvar speaking through Espejo who is making his own version of La Belle et la bête which merges with our main film from time to time), faction (a merging of real life with fiction shown in the ‘fact’ of Espejo making his film merging with the fiction of our film which he may or may not be controlling. Also the incorporation of a hilarious insurance TV CM comparing lifestyles for the old in Germany and Spain), paranoia (Marina is a classic postmodern heroine sucked into a vortex of conflicting desires and passions with no control over her addictive tendencies or her ultimate direction in life), and constant referencing to other art either existing or invented (the religious paintings, Espejo’s film, the CM, horror films – Frankenstein , Invasion of the Body Snatchers , Night of the Living Dead , rom-coms – Pillow Talk , That Touch of Mink  – , and another hostage thriller – William Wyler’s The Collector  based on a John Fowles novel).
It is significant that Almodóvar gives the role of Espejo to an icon of Spanish cinema, Francisco Rabal (famous as a Spanish star mainly for his Buñuel films who is thus associated with the ‘old’ tradition that Almodóvar is consciously now moving on from) and that he puts him in a wheelchair to make him a virtual human movie camera. Not only does this speak volumes about the voyeurism inherent in the cinematic process (Jimmy Stewart was in a wheelchair in Rear Window  remember) with the director capturing everything he sees and being basically besotted by Marina whose old porno movies he studies morbidly while his ever-suffering wife (Julieta Serrano) looks on, but it also posits the whole filmmaking process as somehow sick, twisted and even dangerous. Espejo gets a couple of hilarious scenes, one where he leaves a romantic message on Marina’s answering machine equating himself with a famous matador being fêted on his balcony by the crowd, and another where he plays the bull to Lola’s matador when she dances at the party. A high shot looks down on the two, Lola’s red dress capturing the lunges of the wheelchair in various directions. The director’s love of his child (the film he is making) is conveyed in the scene after Ricky and Marina’s love scene where the final film runs out of the editing machine and Espejo fumes about needing to get Marina back to shoot a couple more scenes. His wife explains to Lola that he loves his film so much he doesn’t want to finish it. Also confirming this paternal love is the presence of the mother. Almodóvar’s own mother appears at the party dancing in the background and then later acts as Marina’s mother on the phone when Marina has to call home to ease people’s worries about her disappearance. This is also one of the pivotal scenes of the film where Marina’s hatred for Ricky turns into love.
Finally, though Almodóvar’s postmodern meta-cinematics run out and the film finishes on a beautiful and very moving statement of three key themes for this director. The first is a return to one’s roots, to one’s hometown. In this case Ricky’s hometown has ceased to exist and he returns only to sift through the ruins. We ponder his loss movingly as a car bears Marina and Lola toward him. This is the second theme of sisterhood surviving the perils of male patriarchy (Lola surviving the sexist comments of Espejo and Marina moving on from porno-stardom and transcending her initial repulsion to Ricky). From near the start of the film to the very end we have been treated to an inspired double act by Abril and León, León in particular pouting amazingly for the camera. A vivacious bundle of fun, she perfectly counterpoints Marina’s neurotic excess. Only a broad mind can accept her sister falling in love with her kidnapper and she proves her heart is as big as a mountain by not only accepting the situation but also welcoming her new (we assume) brother-in-law to the family fold. Indeed they all drive off together to live with their mother who is also Almodóvar’s mother of course! Finally, we have to acknowledge the tremendously moving statement of Almodóvar’s biggest theme of all – love. Love or “passion” dominates all his films, but here it gets its clearest, its boldest and possibly its greatest statement. As the car bears the three off singing into the sunset we acknowledge what a life-affirming experience watching this film is.