Matador: Almodovar’s Great Sexual Thriller, Starring Assumpta Serna

matador_almodovarMatador” and “Law of Desire,” the two follow-ups to “What Have I Done to Deserve It?” could not have been more different.

Sultry and erotic, perverse and anarchic, they are gender-bender features reflecting more directly the liberalization of Spanish culture and the director’s strong resolve to test the limits of what’s tolerable in terms of graphic sexuality on screen.




Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

The plot of the 1986 “Matador,” one of my favorite Almodovar films, contains every form of deviance: abuse, rape, murder, mutilation, suicide, and even necrophilia.

But the thematic and visual treatment of these crimes is so inventive and excessive (by design), that they become less offensive than they would have been, if contained in another narrative made by another director.  The distinction between self-eroticism and eroticism, homosexuality and heterosexuality, femininity and masculinity are explored in a boldly stylized and distanced way. Almodovar combines intense emotionalism, seductive eroticism, and cool irony, while playing with the viewers’ expectations of how a narrative should development and what kind of closure it should have.

The beautiful heroine Maria Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) is a criminal lawyer who develops morbid attraction for the former matador Diego (Nacho Martinez) after seeing him gored in the ring (he’s of course hit in the groin).  The disabled matador is now teaching precision-killing at a bullfighting academy, though he continues to long for danger, blood, and violence, years after his career had tragically ended.  For sexual stimulation, Diego watches mutilation movies, depicted in shocking and funny, pleasing and disturbing ways.  Sitting in front of his TV set, Diego masturbates to a montage of images of cheap slasher flicks.

One of Diego’s naïve students, Angel (Antonio Banderas), who tries to prove he is a “real” man and not queer, takes his admiration of Diego to an extreme by trying to rape Diego’s girlfriend, Eva (Eva Cobo).  Turning himself in, Angel admits to a string of murders, where the victims have been speared toro-style.  Sent to prison, Angel is represented by no other than Maria, a lawyer whose personal agenda is to meet Diego, her heartthrob. The police inspector (Eusebio Poncela) who follows the case believes that Angel is innocent. Visiting Diego’s academy, the inspector stares intensely at the leotard-clad students– their crotches are seen from his subjective point of view.

ekuhnq22barAs in his other films, Almodovar provides links between eroticism and violence, ecstasy and death.  Dressed in a cape and sporting sleek black hair, Maria picks up a man on the street and they go to an empty office. After hot lovemaking, she removes a pin from her hair and plunges it into his neck, which instantly kills him.  Intercut with this scene are parallel shots, in which the national hero Diego teaches his students techniques for thrusting a sword into a bull.

In “Matador,” Almodovar was able to apply his dramaturgical theory: “I want the characters to live in a universe that belongs only to them, as if they were alone in a world where pain becomes the only protagonist in their life.”  When Diego and Maria finally meet, she tries to kill him by sticking her hairpin in his neck, a gesture she had used on all of her victims.   Diego prevents her, and the duo, shocked and impressed with each other, falls in love.

It its broad structure, the plot sounds like a trashy Spanish soap opera.  But if the motives behind the actions aren’t explored, it’s because Almodovar deems them irrelevant. What matters to him is not what people say, but how they behave, what they do in and out of bed.  Concrete conduct is more reliable expression of feelings than verbal declarations of love.  Setting the stage for wilder and more hilarious flights of imagination, he places the viewers in a space where camp, pornography, and lyricism converge, or conflict–depending on the viewers’ perception.

The characters in “Matador” pursue kinkier frills and thrills that exist outside the realm of conventional norms.  Eccentric characters, lead and supporting, abound in the picture.  When Angel reports at the police station, the female officer says after sizing him, “Some girls get all the luck.” Almodovar himself plays the cameo of an effeminate director of a fashion show devoted to bullfight couture. “I told you not to shoot up in the dressing rooms,” he yells at one of his models.

As noted, in the first scene, Diego excites himself with grisly horror videos. Later, while in bed, Diego is aroused by his girlfriend Eva only after she pretends to be a corpse.   Not interested in normalcy, Almodovar aims for excess, pushing the narrative to edgy lunacy–“the end of the line,” to borrow a popular line from the 1944 noir melodrama,  “Double Indemnity,” by Billy Wilder, one of Almodovar’s heroes.  Almodovar and his co-scribe Jesus Ferrero (it’s the first scenario not written solo) draw their characters with conviction.  The choice of profession (matador) justifies the film’s focus on surfaces appearances, as bull-fighting is very much about lavish costumes and public performance.  (Just watch the preparations made by the female matador in “Talk to Her”). With relish and gusto, “Matador” addresses the deviant and the perverse in human behavior.  There’s no denying the pleasure that Almodovar, his characters (who also serve as spectators in the plot) and, by extension, the film’s viewers derive from exploiting (in both senses of the term) cinema’s potential for extreme eroticism.

Next to Bernardo Bertolucci’s seminal “Last Tango in Paris,” made in 1973, only two European directors, Almodovar in the 1980s and Lars Von Trier in the 1990s, brought back to the big screen the “forbidden” subject of sex, sexuality, and sexual politics, topics that are seldom dealt (if at all) with such honestly in Hollywood movies of any era.

Indeed, none of the influential directors of the New American Cinema–Arthur Penn, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese—has ever depicted those issues on screen in a similarly (or even close) candid and graphic way as Almodovar.

Almodovar’s achievement is remarkable, considering that his movies were made at the height of the AIDS epidemic and the anxiety and homophobia around it.  Almodovar has placed special emphasis on the libidinal pleasure of the human body and its sex organs.  His characters are driven by a relentless, obsessive pursuit not of power, status, or money, but of pleasure, though in his universe, there is no pain without pleasure, and no pleasure without pain.

Obsessed with desire, sex, and death, Maria and Diego represent a match made in heaven–literally and figuratively.  They plan to kill each other in one ultimate fantastical ecstasy.  Diego’s girlfriend Eva, who overhears the plan, alerts the cops who pursue the lovers to their country retreat, but, alas, it’s too late.  The lovers find their violent passion and death mirrored and inspired by Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in King Vidor’s excessive Western melodrama, “Duel in the Sun,” which they had previously watched together in a movie house.

In the final scene, Diego and Maria escape to her country house, where they enact their ultimate erotic fantasy.  Spreading out a cape in front of the fireplace, they sprinkle it with rose petals, as the giddy camera pans over their naked bodies, offering unusual visual pleasure.  Diego holds a red rose in his teeth, caressing Maria’s vagina and nipples with it.  Diego penetrates Maria, and she plunges a hairpin into his neck, forcing him to look at her up close and personal before she shoots herself in the mouth.  The lovers fulfill their ultimate experience of sexual pleasure through death.  The ceremonial ritual of the couple’s final ecstasy evokes contradictory reactions of discomfort, disbelief, and laughter. The scene also suggests the fine line between soft-porn and hard-porn. Though the movie shows only female genitalia, it is replete with phallic imagery, such as long and narrow objects (the long sword, the horny rose, the sharp hairpin, the pointed gun).  The last scene is profoundly disturbing and yet it offers logical closure to the illogical narrative.

Gender distinctions, traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity, are revisited and contested.  Maria is much more sexually aggressive than all the men in the film combined.  In one of the film’s most sexually graphic scenes, Maria undresses an anonymous man, pulls him to the bed by his own belt, sits on him while still dressed in a tight corset, presses the jeweled hairpin that she removed from her hair (designed in a phallic coiffure) and sticks it with passion into his neck.  Maria’s orgasm is thus one-sided, achieved with a corpse!  In another revelatory scene, when Maria heads to the men’s bathroom, Diego protests: “This is the men’s lavatory.  Didn’t you see the sign?” to which Maria responds with chilly contempt, “Don’t put your faith in appearances.” The inevitable gap between appearances and reality is a motif running through all of Almodovar’s work.

Put in perspective, what is most striking about “Matador” is how ambiguous the text is when looked at beyond its visual surfaces and guilty pleasures. This may explain why the film was misunderstood upon initial release, both in Spain and in the U.S.  For example, early on, Angel follows his neighbor Eva down the street.  It’s a nocturnal scene with the street lamps providing dark shadows.  The light is sufficient enough to observe that Angel is wearing a red sweater and Eva a pink jacket.  In his assault, Angel tears Eva’s panties and climaxes quickly (clearly a parody of straight male sexuality, the tendency for selfish and premature ejaculation).  The rape is not motivated by erotic desire but by psychological anxiety and sexual panic.  Angel is trying to prove to himself and to Diego that he is straight–Diego had earlier asked Angel if he likes girls.   Almodovar turns Angel into a sensitive male, when he apologizes to Eva for his assault. While moving away from him, Eva trips down and injures herself, and the very sight of blood causes the squeamish Angel to faint.

Significantly, of all figures, the police officer is the only sexless or asexual character, the one man who does not engage in any sexual conduct.  He rejects the overtures from a female psychiatrist who is hitting on him.  Almodovar constructs him as “sober, skeptical, and dispassionate,” allowing him to engage in voyeurism.  Almodovar has named Banderas’ character Angel to suggest that he is pure, naïve, innocent (he knows nothing about women).  Judged by his appearance and insecure demeanor, no one believes Angel when he claims to be the wanted serial rapist.  At the police station, Angel in an act of sexual self-assertion states: “I’ve come to report a rape.” The police inspector asks: “Have you been raped?”  “No,” says Angel, “I was the rapist!” Still unconvinced, the cop persists, “Are you sure?” As a boy-man, Angel mediates between the sexual and oversexed Diego and the sexless-asexual police inspector.  And there are enough clues to suggest that the officer might be a latent homosexual.

In “Matador,” heterosexuality is criticized, and in at least one scene compared to necrophilia.  When Diego is in bed with Eva, he instructs her “to play dead,” before penetrating her and reaching an orgasm.  This scene, combined with the one depicting Diego’s auto-eroticism, present an unfavorable portrait of heterosexuality.  The characters display narcissism, making love to themselves, whether they masturbate in solitude or climax in couplings.  The sexual encounters and orgasms are subjective and one-sided, initiated by and more gratifying for one of the partners.

This is reversed in the last, lethal scene, which clarifies the link between eroticism and death, indicating Almodovar’s belief in the impossibility of a romantic love that’s truly long-enduring.  The formation of new couples, based on mutual respect, is the exception to the rule, and more often than not, this trend prevails among heterosexuals than homosexuals, as would be the case of Almodovar’s own movies, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “The Flower of My Secret.”