Labyrinth of Passion (1982): Almodovar’s Second Film, Screwball Comedy, Starring Cecilia Roth

labyrinth_of_passion_posterExcessive elements in narrative, visuals, and music also prevail in “Labyrinth of Passion,” (“Laberinto de passiones”) Pedro Almodovar’s second film, made in 1982 but released in the U.S. in 1990, after the commercial success of the 1988 “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown.”

A screwball comedy about Madrid’s new, invigorated lifestyle, “Labyrinth of Passion” tells an outrageous plot based on unexpected twists and turns.  A tracking shot of the clientele of a local bar depicts Almodovar’s favorite screen characters, drug dealers, addicts, drag queens, trendy urban teenagers, and so on.  On a more serious level, however, the film offers a critique of dominant culture’s definition of erotic desire, romantic love, and homosexuality.

The great Argentinean actress Cecilia Roth plays Sexilia (Sexi for short), a carefree nymphomaniac whose father (Luis Ciges) is a world-renowned fertility specialist.  Hoping to exorcise her fear of sunlight (which she associates with her father), Sexi consults a therapist who determines that her chief problem is an incestuous attraction to her father. The therapist then confesses her own attraction to the father, whose patients include the manipulative and aristocratic Toraya (Helga Line), Former wife of the deposed ruler of Tiran.. Toraya, in turn, has set her eyes on Riza Niro (Imanol Aria), her gay step son, and she is in Madrid searching for him.

Riza just wants is to cruise the gay bars and straight discos incognito, but he has difficulty maintaining low profile, let alone anonymity. Reading “El Pais,” Riza centers on three stories, shown by Almodovar as inserts a la Hitchcock. The first depicts the flight of Tiran’s Emperor to Paraguay, the second concerns a Spanish bio gynecologist who has experimented with canaries, and the third is an ad for porn star Patty Diphusa, which is, of course, Almodovar’s name for the character he had created for the magazine, “La Luna.”  There are scandalous reports about Riza’s activities, especially after he goes to bed with Sadec (the young Antonio Banderas)and soon, revolutionary student-terrorists plan to kidnap him.

Riza finally meets Sexi in person in the night club Carolina, in which both Fabio de Miguel (Fanny McNamara) and Almodovar himself perform a song titled, “Suck it to me,” with Almodovar in fish-net stockings and Fabio in drag.  The name of the second song which is lip-synched by Riza, is also telling, Gran Ganga (Big Bargain).  Predictably, the duo immediately falls madly in love.  Also predictably, the course of their love is not smooth–it never is in Almodovar’s work.

In the first scene, based on parallel montage, Almodovar establishes the links between the two lead characters.  Both Riza and Sexi are wearing dark glasses to conceal their eyes as they stare intensely at their objects of desire, focusing on the same parts of the body, crotches and butts of anonymous guys strolling down the street.  The only difference between the homosexual and the heterosexual is that Riza tries to conceal his Arab origins by dressing like a European man, while Sexi seems more comfy garbed as a punk.

Another of the film’s issues, and of all of Almodovar’s work, is introduced in the first sequence, the multiple, fluid, and fractured nature of identities.  “Labyrinth of Passions” offers a rich sexual landscape full of erotic possibilities, going beyond permissible behavior and conventional labels of gay and straight.  Almodovar deals with incest, drugs, orgies, and other “shocking” habits, demonstrating skill in treating offensive material with vivid color and cartoonish abandon, which tend to make them less offensive.   In a nonjudgmental way, Almodovar (who appears in a cameo as a leather-jacketed transvestite rock singer) includes older and younger, fat and thin, beautiful and homely figures.  He then pairs them off and breaks them up according to whimsical plans, paying little attention to conventional notions of biological age and physical appearance.  In the end, an optimistic message is delivered with a sharp satirical bite.

Consider the scene in which a drag queen, chest made up to appear bloodily butchered, looks at the nasty drill hovering over him before uttering with boredom, “I deserve it, I’m so bad, I’m wicked,” while a photographer takes pictures of the site.  Or the middle-aged laundry proprietor, who takes sexual potency infusions before tying up and raping his own daughter—albeit with tenderness.  When she’s not secretly squirting her lusty Dad’s tea with sex-diminishing drops, the girl devises ways to deal with her weak fingernails and dry lips.

There is no underlying logic to the convoluted narrative, suitably titled “Labyrinth of Passion,” other than the wish to subvert accepted norms. How else would one explain the love between the bisexual-gay son of an exiled Mideast emperor and a nymphomaniac.  Or the unusual declaration of passion: “I went to an orgy,” Sexi tells Riza. “I couldn’t stop thinking of you.”  In the first part of the narrative, we are led to believe that the attraction between Riza and Cecilia is random and arbitrary, and that her ability to convert him into a happy heterosexual is inexplicable, but then, through a revelatory flashback to their childhood, we understand their emotional bond and why the two are fated to reunite.

As will be shown, most of the characters in Almodovar’s film have already “met,” or at least encountered each other in the past (often in public spaces) before they actually meet in the present, turning their emotional and romantic connections into an almost preordained fate.  Phrased differently, Almodovar’s persona never really meet for the first time.  In “Labyrinth of Passion,”the protagonists have met as children, and a similar situation prevails in “Bad Education,” in which some of the characters have met as boys in a Catholic school.

It’s noteworthy that “Labyrinth of Passion” is the only Almodovar film in which a homosexual (Riza) is convered into an adjusted heterosexual through the love of a woman.   I am certain that this kind of coda would not have been made in his later, more mature films. Despite the happy and straight ending, however, what linger in my memory are the film’s perversive moments about the various forms of incest and deviance.  In the course of the film, stepmother Toraya sleeps with her gay stepson. Even more outrageous is the sublot, in which Queti (the daughter raped by he rfather) is transformed by plastic surgery into Sexi, which enables her to consummate at last her sexual obsession with Sexi’s father.

Making “Labyrinth of Passion,” a movie determinedly grounded in the present and dealing with the here and now, refusing or avoiding Spain’s past, Almodovar has also acknowledged the influence of Richard Lester, especially his Beatles films, “Help” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” visceral and spontaneous chronicles, reflecting Swinging London in the mid-1960s.  For both artistic and economic reasons (to save money), he composed and performed the soundtrack, prompted by the live concerts and recordings of his group, Almodovar Y McNamara.

The movie shows the “aberrant” inhabitants of Madrid’s world of street hustlers, exiled princes, transvestite punks, sensitive nymphomaniacs, and angry terrorists, all trying to enjoy sexual gratification, even if it’s fleeing.  Context is crucial: The tale occurs between the end of Franco’s authoritarian regime and the onset of the AIDS era.  Containing young characters, “Labyrinth of Passion”is targeted at Spain’s youth, viewers who were too young to vote in Spain’s first general elections since 1936, and were also indifferent to politics.  Almodovar has refrrred to this phenomenon as “pastotismo,” meaning political apathy and indifference.  Contrasted with Almodovar’s subsequent, more assured works, “Labyrinth of Passion” is not a major work, but at the time it was made, the movie contained sufficiently enough funny, poignant, and outrageous moments to both shock and entertain its viewers.