Screened November 27 2008 on Sony Pictures DVD in South San Francisco, CA
Or more accurately, “Law of Submission.” Pedro Almodovar’s international breakthrough is not so much about the destructive power of love and lust as our willingness to be controlled – and devastated – by such emotions; in other words, not desire but the desire to be desired. Almodovar’s fantastical screenplay is a super-trashy soap centered on a director (Eusebio Poncela) of both lowbrow porn and highbrow theater, whose life, as well as those of his ex-lover (Miguel Molina), his transvestite sister (Carmen Maura) and her daughter (Manuela Velasco) are steamrolled following the director’s initiation of an emotionally disturbed young man (Antonio Banderas) to gay sex. The plot is stretched to the limits of credibility, no doubt with hysterical, gleeful intention by Almodovar, who nonetheless holds things together by investing outrageous incidents with a dignified deadpan, allowing his ensemble to give their loving all to their characters, without a single smirk of camp knowing. (Most impressive is Carmen Maura as the transvestite, whose scenes brim with fierce sense of both selfhood and sacrifice, a central paradox to Almodovar’s characters.)
Almodovar’s steady pacing, playful sense of composition and eye-popping ‘80s color clashes keep the proceedings lively. But his true gift is in making his cartoonishly colorful creations as real as life, endowing even the most destructive or smug among them with a core of aching melancholy and a disarming willingness to be subsumed by the tides of emotion. Practically every other scene involves one figure being drawn in – at times at their own behest – by the narratives or imperatives of another: a profound sense of community as a web spun by stories. Almodovar’s vision of society showcases some of the most flamboyantly self-defined characters of cinema, and yet their independence is belied by a primal impulse that invokes the moment the first homo sapiens uttered its first memory – or first falsehood – to another, casting the spell of another dimension to the human experience.
Want to go deeper?The following citations were counted towards the placement of Law of Desire in the TSPDT 1000:
Barbara Schweizerhof, Steadycam (2007)
Suzi Feay, Time Out (1995)
Tom Hunsinger, Facets (2003)
Rough Guide to Film, Spain: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007)
The Guardian, 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)
Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant treatment of gay life in post-Franco Madrid has a lot to recommend it, but little of this has to do with its contrived plot, which bears a queasy resemblance to the earlier Fatal Attraction and resorts to hackneyed devices such as amnesia. What keeps this 1987 movie alive are the characters: a porn director (Eusebio Poncela); his transsexual sister and onetime brother (the wonderful Carmen Maura), whom he casts as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau’s The Human Voice; a devout little girl (Manuela Velasco), whom the sister takes over from her lesbian ex-lover (Bibi Andersen) as her own; the director’s working-class lover (Miguel Molina); and the lover’s neurotic replacement (Antonio Banderas), who causes all the trouble. It’s typical of Almodovar’s wit that he casts a man as the little girl’s real mother and a woman as her false one.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
Narrowly beating Fatal Attraction to the screen in 1987, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Law of Desire concerns a similarly unhealthy relationship, although in the director’s colorfully kinky Spain, the dangerous romance is shared by adult film director Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) – a sexually promiscuous artist whose last lover Juan couldn’t quite reciprocate Pablo’s love and thus left to work at a coastal town’s lighthouse – and his new stalkerazzi lover Antonio, who’s fandom quickly morphs into frightening obsession. The director embellishes this primary storyline with incest, rampant cocaine use, promiscuity, and jabs at the Catholic Church, as well as with a secondary plot involving Pablo’s transsexual lesbian sister Tina (the sensually chic Carmen Maura), a budding actress taking care of her ex-lover’s daughter while working on Pablo’s stage version of Cocteau’s The Human Voice (a monologue about a woman and a suitcase that formed the basis for Almodóvar’s subsequent Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). The plot is set in motion by Pablo, who, dissatisfied with Juan’s first letter home, writes an idealistic replacement letter that expresses the longings and sadness Juan didn’t convey in his own letter, sends it to Juan to sign, and then has Juan send it back to him. When new boy-toy Antonio discovers this missive, his clingy behavior goes from mild to maniacal, eventually throwing both men’s lives into sweaty, sexy tumult. Pablo’s typewriter and, by extension, his fiction writing – not only the author’s screenplays and plays, but also this fake letter to/by Juan – becomes both an outlet for his desires and frustrations (he’s writing a new play about Tina’s transexuality) and the cause for his sexual and emotional frustrations. Almodóvar’s affection for his characters’ foibles and fetishistic carnal appetites makes his engagingly loopy narrative more than a simple Telemundo-on-acid joke, and his boldly candid depiction of homosexual love – including a couple of amorous go-rounds between Pablo and Antonio which exude the heavy panting hysteria of unbridled lust – contributes to the film’s hot-blooded vigor. That said, I can’t help but shake the feeling that, had Banderas exhibited similar homosexual desire in his American movie debut, the dashing Spanish actor’s Hollywood career would have sunk faster than a stone.
Unquestionably, surrealist Luis Bunuel ranks as the most influential Spanish filmmaker of all time (the only ambiguity being his nationality since he crossed numerous boundaries during his career). Following in his legendary footsteps is Pedro Almodovar, whose brand of surrealism often borders on bad taste while entertaining with colorful characters in absurd melodrama. Frequently featuring strong females, Almodovar invariably also includes gay and transgendered characters in his comedic mix. Although many film buffs have followed Almodovar’s work for over two decades, pretentious cineastes seeking more serious foreign fare frequently overlook contemporary Spain’s preeminent director.
The Law of Desire contains plenty of Almodovar touches, which makes for great fun. Brightened considerably by the acting talents of Maura and Banderas, it’s no puzzle to see why Almodovar employed these two in multiple films. American audiences more familiar with Banderas’ low key supporting role to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia can revel in wide-eyed amazement over his full raging homoerotic lust in this 1987 film. Banderas’ intensity transforms what could have been bizarre off the wall melodrama into a provocative psychological study about the potential devastating cost of wanton love.. Almodovar clearly demonstrates that weighty subject matter need not be presented in a meditative manner. Light-hearted touches often deliver more effectively–just like Life.
What’s fascinating about Almodóvar is that a career so fully built around tactics of appropriation is regularly discussed in terms of authenticity, whereas another ace borrower who immerses himself in genre like Brian De Palma receives little slack from critics. If Law of Desire is a homosexual rereading of Play Misty for Me, Almodóvar’s first shot steals outright from Blow Out, with a nude Juan writhing under the gaze of a few palpitating older men, the whole thing revealed as part of Pablo’s newest film providing a ready counterpoint to the fake co-ed stalking that opens De Palma’s film. Where the general line of reasoning for “mature” Almodóvar goes that the filmmaker has finally found a way to sublimate his own innate, gaudy sense of composition, influences from his homeland, and obvious, obsessive love of cinema, Law of Desire can easily be argued as more rough-hewn, more indebted to forbears who were in turn indebted to Hitchcock, more openly ribald. In its day it must have seemed a breath of fresh air.
Twenty years on, the film’s certainly dated, but not irrevocably so. Its problems are the same as any young filmmaker trying to stretch (not unlike early Assayas)—incomplete tonal control highlighting a few moments of brilliance, which cast the rest of the film in stark relief. The dichotomy is, admittedly, part of what makes the work exciting as well. The bulk of Law of Desire features all the gaudy art direction, seedy melodrama, and intrusive scoring we might expect, but something’s lacking on the order of composition and camerawork which might have masked those points at which the narrative lags or ties itself up in its own complexity. Appropriately enough, this is all remedied in the finale—Antonio’s shot himself after one last session of lovemaking with Pablo (and his earlier murder of Juan, of course), and while Pablo cradles the bloody body, Almodóvar cuts to the massed policeman and interested onlookers (including Tina) arrayed on the street below. All look up towards the window as Almodóvar undertakes a hugely elegant tracking shot that reveals the crowd to be as immaculately and artificially arranged as the cast of some Broadway musical (opera might be more to the point). Then, in an unexpected, brilliant move—he cuts to show the front of the building, as the assembled cast (including Tina) rushes to climb the scaffolding, Keystone Cops-style. Freeze-frame on the madness, and Fin. Viva Pedro, indeed.
– Jeff Reichert, Reverse Shot
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the film, and certainly a major point for Spanish audiences, was Carmen Maura’s tour-de-force rendition of a man transformed into a woman, a role whose emotional complexity dwarfs the essentially comic renditions of Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie or of Julie Andrews’ Victor/Victoria. Unlike those protagonists, Maura is not given the luxury of camping up her role. She portrays a transsexual, not a cross-dresser, and therein lies the power of her performance. As Almodovar explains: “[A]rtifice is her only truth:; artifice, not lies: they’re two very distinct things. Artifice is her only truth, andif the individual is not crazy, and the character Carmen plays is not, she knows herself to be artificial and she relishes with that imitation the essence of being a woman, the most intimat part of femininity. Carmen is required to imitate a woman, to savor the imitation, to be conscious of the kitsch part that there is in the imitation, completely renouncing parody but not humor.”
Law of Desire was Almodovar’s biggest box-office hit to date, winning a number of major international film awards, with the exception of two significant local ones: the Goya, given by the members of the Instituto de Cine, and the Spanish Association of Film Directors. The film is conspicuous as one of only two Almodovar films (along with Bad Education) to be completely snubbed by the Goyas. It has been widely conjectured that this was due to a generalized homophobic response among Spanish film critics and members of the film industry toward what amounted to the groundbreaking treatment of the normalization of gay romantic narratives in Spanish film.
– from Pedro Almodovar, by Marvin D’Lugo. Published by University of Illinois Press, 2006. Pages 56, 57, 59
When Antonio leaves the bed after last making love with Pablo, the latter is shot from behind a sheet which is like a shroud. It is Antonio, the obsessive lover, who is about to shoot himself, choosing to pay the price of a criminal passion. But it is as if Pablo is dead already, in life. It is an ominous image for gay men in Spain, an unnerving pointer to the pleasures and perils of a shared or effaced subjectivity, sceptical of a community or a politics founded on sexual practice. But if in its disavowal of AIDS and homophobia La ley del deseo reveals a refusal to deal with the everyday life of lesbians and gays in Spain, it is because Almodovar seeks to intervene at the more potent and fluid level of fantasy, of the constitution of new cinematic subjects. And his self-producing characters, scornful of fixed gender identity and object choice, have earned him attacks from both the homophobic right, who would enforce silence, and the moralistic left, who would insist on more positive images. Almodovar has thus also paid a certain price in incomprehension for his own passion without limits, the love of cinema.
– from Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar. By Paul Julian Smith, 2000. Published by Verso, 2000. Page 90
About the Sony Pictures Classics DVD
Review by Henrik Sylow for DVD Beaver
About Pedro Almodovar
His personal blog
It is Almodóvar’s ambivalent relationship with the country of his birth (and where he has made all of his 16 feature films to date) that has proved symptomatic of the complexities surrounding the filmmaker. While subversion of identity is the key subject matter of his cinema, Almodóvar has consistently flirted with his own sense of “Spanish-ness” (most frequently in his recourse to – and resignifying of – the symbolism of the Catholic Church). This has led often to a mixed domestic reception, which takes the form of unconditional acclaim by certain sections of the Spanish media but that has also seen him vilified by conservative critics. Whatever reaction he provokes, there is little doubt that Almodóvar rarely – if ever – inspires indifference.
The intense, difficult and invariably complex relationship with the country of his birth provides us with the key to understanding the cinema of Almodóvar. The central issue in his films, and it is one with which he engages in a myriad different ways, from his earliest work to his most recent is the question of identity. This key feature of Almodóvar is never more consistently depicted than through the motif of writing. Writing reality into existence (and thereby changing it) through fiction is a means of interrogating all forms of subjectivity and subject formation. One need only note the abundance of characters who adopt multiple pseudonyms, the repeated images of typewriters, the information transmitted through found notes, the eerie presence of ghostwriters.
On March 11, 2004 a series of explosions ripped through three commuter trains as they approached Madrid. 191 people were killed and thousands more were injured in Europe’s worst ever terrorist attack. The bombings came three days before the Spanish general elections and a week prior to the programmed release of Almodóvar’s 15th feature, La mala educación. The right-wing ruling party in government at the time sought to capitalise on the event by blaming it on the Basque separatist group ETA, while simultaneously concealing information that indicated that an Islamic terrorist group was responsible. Very quickly it became apparent that the government had lied and on March 14, in the face of all predictions to the contrary, the opposition Socialist Party won the elections. Almodóvar applauded the result. Almost exactly a year previous to the bombings Madrid had hosted one of the largest demonstrations ever held to protest Spain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The three main speakers at the end of the march were Pedro Almodóvar, his leading actress in Hable con ella, Leonor Watling, and veteran director and actor Fernando Fernán Gómez. At the premiere of La mala educación later in the month of March 2004, a right-wing mob outraged at Almodóvar’s statements gathered to insult and hurl rotten vegetables at those entering to see the new film. After winning two Oscars and numerous other awards both at home and abroad, it is testimony to the enduring reputation for transgression that Almodóvar remains a refreshing source of contention and controversy.
– Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio
Pedro Almodóvar is more than the most successful Spanish film export since Carlos Saura. At home, the production of Almodóvar’s films, their premiers, and the works themselves are surrounded by scandal, and the Spanish popular press examines what the director eats, the qualities he looks for in a lover, and his weight fluctuations in a fashion normally reserved for movie stars and European royalty. Abroad, the films have surprised those with set notions of what Spanish camera is or should be; Almodóvar’s uncompromising incorporation of elements specific to a gay culture into mainstream forms with wide crossover appeal has been held up as a model for other gay directors to emulate. The films and Almodóvar’s creation of a carefully cultivated persona in the press have meshed into “Almodóvar,” a singular trademark. “Almodóvar” makes the man and the movies interchangeable even as it overshadows both. The term now embodies, and waves the flag for, the “New Spain” as it would like to see itself: democratic, permissive, prosperous, international, irreverent, and totally different from what it was in the Franco years.
Almodóvar’s career can be usefully divided into three stages: a marginal underground period in the 1970s, during which he personally funded and controlled every aspect of the shoestring-budgeted, generally short films, and which culminated in Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas de montón, his feature film debut; the early to mid-1980s, during which he was still writing and directing his increasingly costly though still low-budget films, but for other producers and with varying degrees of state subsidization; and, from The Law of Desire in 1986, a period in which he reverted to producing his own films, which now benefitted from substantial budgets (by Spanish standards), top technicians, and maximum state subsidies. Though critical reaction to his work has varied, each of his films has enjoyed increasing financial success until Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which became 1989’s highest-grossing foreign film in North America and the most successful Spanish film ever in Spain.
In Almodóvar’s films, the various paths to pleasure lead to a destination and fulfillment (Matador), a dead end and disappointment (Dark Hideout, Women on the Verge), or an endlessly winding path and continuous displacement (The Law of Desire), but never resignation. To explore these varied roads Almodóvar has over the years accumulated a rep company of actors (including Antonio Banderas, who graduated to Hollywoood stardom). When in an Almodóvar film, no matter how absurd the situation their characters might find themselves in, all the actors are directed to a style that relies on understatement and has often been called “naturalist” or “realist.” For example, when in The Law of Desire Tina tells her brother that “she” had previously been a “he” and had run off to Morocco to have a love affair with their father, Carmen Maura acts it in a style considerably subtler than that used by, for example, June Allyson to tell us she really shouldn’t have broken that date with Peter Lawford. This style of acting is partly what enables Almodóvar’s often outrageous characters to be so emotionally compelling.
Almodóvar’s signature, and a unique contribution to the movies, is the synthesis of the melodramatic mode with a clash of quotations. This combination allows Almodóvar both a quasi-classical Hollywood narrative structure (which facilitates audience identification) and a very self-conscious narration (which normally produces an alienation effect). This results in dialectical moments in which the absurd can be imbued with emotional resonance (the mother selling her son to the dentist in What Have I Done); the emotional can be checked with cheek without disrupting identification (superimposing a character’s crying eyes with the wheels of a car in The Law); and camp can be imbued with depth without losing its wit (the transference of emotions that occurs when we see Pepa dubbing Joan Crawford’s dialogue from Johnny Guitar in Women on the Verge). At his best (What Have I Done to Deserve This?, The Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), Almodóvar drills a heart into the postmodern and fills it with an operatic range of feeling.
Although Almodóvar’s movies have garnered increasingly heady praise in the 1990s, one senses the critical establishment is consciously trying to legitimize him in their eyes. Why is it that when a comedy expert grows more “serious,” he is, perforce, taken more seriously? Fortunately, Almodóvar’s mature works remain vibrant, unpretentious melodramas (unlike Woody Allen, whose art films seem like Xerox copies of the masters he slavishly imitates). Although Almodóvar has been chastised for trying to have his soap opera and send it up, too, he accomplished just that impossibility with earlier works like Law of Desire. As arrestingly sentimental as All about My Mother is, and as disturbingly mournful as Live Flesh is, they lack the kick of less-acclaimed works like High Heels, an unabashed glimpse into the soul of Lana Turner. Whereas Almodóvar once passionately embraced the Hollywoodness of Douglas Sirk’s women pictures, his most recent movies merely buss those stylized conventions on the cheek. Why is there such a frenzy to commend the new-improved maverick, simply because he now uses humor only as a diversionary tactic, instead of an integral part of his canon? Despite reservations about the shift in his approach, one admires Almodóvar’s unabated insight into role-playing, his debunking of machismo, his celebration of tackiness, and his unsurpassed skill with actresses. If something joyful seems missing from latter-day Almodóvar, something has also been gained in his collaboration with actress Marisa Paredes, a gravely beautiful dynamo, whom the director uses to suggest the melancholy behind emotional extravagance. If films like The Flower of My Secret are high-wire acts between pathos and humor, then Paredes helps him keep his balance. Even if one reminisces about Almodóvar’s teamwork with efervescent comediennes like Carmen Maura and Victoria Abril, one is relieved that he hasn’t become the Spanish John Waters, a filmmaker whose rebelliousness now seems quaint. Exploring his gay sensibility, Almodóvar appeals to straight audiences, who share his appetite for the resurrection and re-invigoration of old movie cliches. In overlooked works like Kika, characters literally die for love, and this slick director understands that classic escapism has undying appeal for a reason. The genius of Almodóvar lies in succumbing to the absurdity of Hollywood romanticism, while recognizing it as an impossible ideal. After enduring bloodless Oscar-winners and critically correct masterpieces, the audience rushes to Almodóvar’s movies because they act like a tonic.
—José Arroyo, updated by Robert J. Pardi for Film Reference.com
Pedro Almodóvar is the most successful film director to have emerged from post-Franco Spain. In works that always bear his distinct cinematic and narrative style, Almodóvar presents absurd situations tightly framed by the trappings of everyday life.
An average-looking nun who methodically seduces “lost women” (Dark Habits, 1983), a modest housewife who discusses her sado-masochistic desires during sewing class (Pepi, Luci, Bom and the Other Girls from the Heap, 1980), and a priest who is slightly disturbed by the return of his altar boy lover as a voluptuous transsexual (The Law of Desire, 1987): these are the forms of queerness that Almodóvar presents as just plain ordinary.
The brilliance of the director’s cinematic style, however, lies not merely in the amusing creativity of these situations, but also in the yawning gap between their queerness and their everyday context. In fact, Almodóvar’s success resides in his ability to stretch the divergence of this queerness and its normalizing context to an extreme without compromising the believability of either. Although he denies that this strategy has anything to do with his being gay or with gay cinema in general, with it he manages to achieve a radical queering of vision.
Much of Almodóvar’s success has come through a conscious adjustment and marketing of his own image. Therefore, the line between fact and fiction has often blurred in his frequent autobiographical reflections.
– GLBTQ biography by Andres Mario Zervigon