Law of Desire

Law of Desire

“Manypeeplia Upsidownia”

Big-Bosomed, short-waisted, and long-legged, Tina (Carmen Maura) has a hot, roiling temperament; after she has given her nightly performance in Cocteau's monologue-play "The Human Voice," which her famous brother Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) directed, she walks toward a cafe with him and her daughter Ada, and, seeing a couple of streetcleaners who are busy with their spraying, she calls out to them to hose her down. Soaked, her short knit dress clinging to her wide hips, she's deliciously happy at the cafe, until the cool, chic Pablo tells her that she overacted. Overacting is what she's all about; it's what the Madrid writer-director Pedro Almodóvar's LAW OF DESIRE is all about. Tina has a slutty splendor: she swivels around on her clicking high heels, prays to the Virgin, and fills little Ada's head with her sentimental gabbing. She's overacting womanhood, which is the role of her life. She started out as Pablo's brother; as a teen-ager, she ran off with their father and had the operation to please him, but he finally left her, and she hasn't had anything to do with a man since. Little Ada is actually the daughter left behind by her lesbian lover. Almodóvar adds another layer of topsy-turvydom: Carmen Maura, the transsexual here (and the slum mother in his WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS), is a powerful actress in the manner of the early Anna Magnani, with the trippiness and self-mockery of Bette Midler; the strikingly beautiful lesbian is played by a low-voiced male transvestite.

If Tina lives in make-believe so does the less flamboyant Pablo, who adores her. In story terms, Pablo, who imagines himself a discreet homosexual, is the protagonist. The sexual effrontery of his stage productions and his classy homoerotic films (which delight the public) have made him a glamorous celebrity, with a wide choice of lovers. (His sleek dark-blond hair, cleft chin, and steely-blue eyes help him along.) Pablo's liaisons don't make him happy, though, because he's in love with a curly-haired young workingman, Juan (Miguel Molina), who values his companionship—a rather steamy companionship—but isn't fully committed to homosexuality, or to Pablo's upper-bohemian style. One night, Pablo takes home Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a government minister's son, who has been stalking him; by morning, Antonio loves him and is determined to possess him completely. Determined also to possess anyone dear to Pablo, Antonio becomes the central horror of Pablo's life. And the film winds up in a demonstration that Antonio's desire, which is grotesque, uncontrollable—crazy—simply can't be denied. It gets so all-encompassing that Pablo has to respond to it. This will come as no surprise to people who have found themselves in bed with people they despise, or with ex-spouses or ex lovers whom they have fought to get rid of—a sexual paradox that can have a passionate, oh-well-what-the-hell quality on the screen.

Almodóvar's tone is not like anyone else's; the film has the exaggerated plot of an absurdist Hollywood romance, and even when it loses its beat (after a murder) there's always something happening. This director manages to joke about the self-dramatizing that can go on at the movies, and at the same time reactivate it. The film is festive. It doesn't disguise its narcissism; it turns it into bright-colored tragicomedy. (Almodóvar is the director who might have brought off the sultry spirit of Manuel Puig's "Kiss of the Spider Woman.") I've never been to Spain, but the temperament of Almodóvar's Madrid—his temperament—goes with the world I know. Partly, this may be because his sensibility is steeped in Hollywood movies and underground films, but it's more than that. In a recent interview in the Times he said, "My rebellion is to deny Franco ... I refuse even his memory. I start everything I write with the idea 'What if Franco had never existed?'" Well, that's America. He opens with a metaphor of moviemaking—an autoerotic film is being shot in a studio—and he goes on side excursions that are also metaphorical. Some of these are the best jokes in the movie—such as Tina's taking Ada to the church where she used to sing as a choirboy, and introducing the child as her daughter to the courteously befuddled, somewhat pained choirmaster priest. And straight-faced gags keep popping up, such as Pablo's telling Tina she should get a guy and go straight. Even better: the ten-year-old Ada, worried about her developing body, asks Tina whether she'll soon grow breasts, and Tina says, "Sure. At your age, I was flat as a board." This gagster-artist Almodóvar loves Tina's religious view of herself as a woman; she has surrendered to the movies she saw as a boy. Her eyes shine when her sentimental fantasy of herself as a woman and a mother is intact; when some guy rudely disturbs it, she unconsciously throws a punch like a man. Carmen Maura, whose plumpish figure is baffling, succeeds in looking neither masculine nor feminine—her Tina is a great satirical flip-flopping creation.

Almodóvar seems to have skimped on the three men. They're wonderful romantic types, but they're involved in the more conventionally melodramatic side of the story, and in some fairly conventional homosexual romanticism. And they're almost too sensually handsome, too well built. Eusebio Poncela's Pablo lacks a goosey, comic side; he's stone-faced in scenes involving letters to Juan and Antonio—scenes that could have a flaky vivacity. (His porno movies can't be as much fun as we're led to think they are.) And Miguel Molina's Juan is boringly, honorably straight and decent. (Is Almodóvar, who comes from a rural, working-class background, taking this hardworking lad more seriously than he should?) Luckily, the well-heeled Antonio isn't held down by virtue, and the actor Antonio Banderas gets to suggest a little of the spoiled-rotten instability of Bellocchio's pug-dog hero (Lou Castel) in FISTS IN THE POCKER. Banderas has a sly, funny side: when Antonio first goes home with Pablo, he explains that he's never been with a man before, and when Pablo mounts him he has a comedian's chagrined, quizzical look that says, "This isn't going to work." (Pablo makes it work, all right.)

Antonio has already interrupted their lovemaking to ask Pablo if he has any diseases. Pablo answers contemptuously, implying that if you care about sexual pleasure you can't worry about such matters. His manner says, "Go home, little boy, if you're worried about syphilis." It's the grand attitude of an earlier era. LAW OF DESIRE is a homosexual fantasy—AIDS doesn't exist. But Almodóvar is no dope: he's a conscious fantasist, and the movie is as aware of AlDS as the audience is. This wild man has a true talent. When Tina gives to the poor, her expression is exalted—she's Jesus and she's Eva Peron

[April 20, 1987]

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