Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Almodovar’s X-Rated Film?

tie_me_up!_tie_me_down!_posterIn 1990,”Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (“Atame”) had the misfortune of being released after Almodovar’s most appealing and commercial picture, “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown,” which, among other accolades, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The winner, however, was the Danish film, “Pelle the Conqueror,” starring Max von Sydow. Almodovar’s follow-up became his most controversial film to date, after its distributor, Miramax, appealed in court its initial rating by the MPAA.  Put in perspective, however, “Tie Me Up!” is considered to be by most critics a bold, but not entirely satisfying, work in the director’s large and impressive output.

“Tie Me Up!” begins as a hostage melodrama, but after a series of unpredictable event, it turns into a wildly bizarre love story. The film moves at a deliberate pace and with disrupted momentum toward a sentimental ending that evokes a mixed reaction of both laugher and disbelief.  Continuing Almodovar’s exploration of a female-dominated world, “Tie Me Up!” depicts a clique of women in a milieu in which, initially, men have only temporary presence. The mother of the two central sisters, Francesca Caballeras (played by Almodovar’s real-life mother), is a matriarch, but there’s no information about her late husband.  Her two daughters, Marina and Lola, are career-oriented, working in the film industry.  Marina is a single, strong, vibrant woman, capable of standing up to all kinds of men, including her older and sleazy director (in the movie-within-movie). Her sister, Lola, has a daughter, but there’s no husband or man in her life.

oculus_3In placing the story in a heterosexual milieu, Almodovar might have tried to broaden the appeal of his work beyond the art-film and gay film circuits.  While the movie was Spain’s top-grossing picture that year, it was not very popular in the U.S., because of the NC-17 rating, but also its divisive critical response.  It would take another decade for Almodovar to enter into the mainstream with two melodramas, “All About My Mother,” in 1999, and its follow-up, “Talk to Her,” in 2002.

“I’ll never love you . . . ever!” the sexy Marina (Victoria Abril) tells the love-struck Ricki (Antonio Banderas), while being handcuffed to a bed.  In Almodovar’s world, the way to conquer a woman’s body and heart doesn’t exclude forced captivity and physical abuse—at least initially. Who is Ricki as a character?  Almodovar has constructed him as an immature guy who has nothing in life, and therefore nothing to lose.  He has to work at getting everything he has or desire—including love.  In a sense, he has only the night, the day, and the vitality of an animal—just like the flamenco singers say in their song. Orphaned at three, Ricki has sent most of his life in orphanages and mental institutions.  When Ricki is let out on the street, he knows what to do with his newly gained freedom.

tie_me_up_tie_me_down_3_almodovarMarina, the film’s heroine, is a “B” movie actress making cheap slasher films, trying to adjust to her recent success after years in the porn industry, not to mention dealing with a persistent drug problem.  Ricki had slept with Marina once during an escape from the mental ward, and now he’s determined to marry her.  Ever since that glorious night, Ricki has been thinking of Marina.  Determined to win back her affection, Ricki shows up unexpectedly at the studio where Marina is shooting her latest horror flick.

When first seen, Ricki, in tight blue jeans and hot red sweater, is at a psychiatric hospital trying to fix something with a screwdriver, which is just one of many phallic objects, serving as symbolic reminders of the relative sexual impotency of the male characters. Called to the ward’s office, he is interviewed by its stern female director, who projects

authoritative tone even in her chain-smoking.  Interrogated about his plans, Ricki claims he wants to get married and have children–live like a “normal” person. The director then cuts him abruptly, claiming, “You are not a normal person.” And on at least one level, “Tie Me Up” goes out to show the fine line that Ricki (and others) is navigating between “normal” and “abnormal” life.

tie_me_up_tie_me_down_1_almodovarBut, expectedly, Almodovar immediately subvert notions of normalcy and social order.  Going to the window, the female principal turns the shades up, and the light comes in.  Standing behind her is Ricki who, as a gesture of gratitude for what she has done for him, begins to kiss her. The two have sex (off screen), after the director turns the blinders down.  The supervisor, like all the women in the film, cannot resist Ricki’s appeal, a combination of charming childishness and sexual animalism.  Almodovar describes him as a child-man, “a guy with a smile of an innocent child and eyes of a tiger.”   The asylum’s director joins other professional women in Almodovar’s films, such as the lawyer in “Matador,” who compromise their code of ethics for immediate sexual gratification.

Ricki boasts a hustler’s mentality; he is used to paying for everything that he needs or owns.  With a big smile on his face and macho bravadaggio, Ricki leaves the hospital and joins the masses walking on a busy Madrid street.  But he always stands out, even amongst the lonely, anonymous crowds.  Stopping at a candy story, managed by a young femme who also looks at him in a sexual way, Ricki gets a red heart-shaped chocolate box for which he underpays before hoping on a bus, whose color is, of course, red.

Sneaking into the studio, Ricki heads into Marina’s dressing room and smells the underwear that we had observed her removing earlier.  He places the chocolate in her purse, steals some cash from another dress, picks up a pair of handcuffs from her desk, and dons a long rock-star wig. Standing in front of the mirror while playing an air guitar, he walks out to the set incognito, sort of a spy-voyeur.  Ricki is dismayed to see the film’s older director, Maximo Espejo (veteran actor Francisco Rabal), hitting so blatantly on his leading lady.  The movie-within-movie scenes are observed from the P.O.V. of Ricki, who feels that this is his last chance to rescue Marina from the clutches of the sleazy director and claim her as his own grand amour.

In a parody of male voyeurism and potency, Maximo, a victim of stroke, is seated in an electric wheelchair, restlessly moving around the set while always keeping an eye—gazing—on Marina.  In an inside joke, he is asked to choose between two knives (phallic symbols) to be used in the horror flick that he directs, and he predictably opts for the longer, sharper knife.  Talking to Marina while seated in a wheelchair, Maximo’s staring eyes are at the level of her crotch.  Marina is used to being the object of male gaze by her director, crew members, spectators, and now Ricki.  But she can also hold onto her own in a male-dominated milieu.  She tells Maximo to stop staring at her “that way,” and the director says that he is not looking, he’s just admiring her (It sounds better in Spanish, “No te miro, te admiro”). Marina then coolly observes that she has no use for such admiration. This doesn’t deter Maximo who continues to stare intensely.  When he is denied attention, or when Marina is absent from the set, in frustration, he circles around and around in his wheelchair—going nowhere.  Back home, the dirty old man watches on his big TV screen Marina’s former porn videos, including a scene of anal intercourse, shown in mega close-up.


After completing the day’s last scene, Marina goes home to change for the post-shoot party.  Taking a luxurious bath, she begins playing with a toy in a semi-erotically mode. The electronic male-shaped toy approaches her slowly, flipping its legs until it penetrates into her.  With a big smile on her face, Marina removes the toy and places it on her breasts.   Suddenly, Ricki bursts into Marina’s apartment and knocks her to the floor while she’s kicking and screaming.   In the next scene, she wakes up with a terrible headache that no painkillers can help (we know that she’s addicted to strong drugs).  Holding Marina captive in her own apartment, Ricki tries to convince her that she does love him, that he is good for her, that they have a future as one big happy family. But all of his persistent wooing and manipulative attempts end in failure.

Shocked by his confession, and still in pain, Marina persuades Ricky to take her to the doctor.  Unable to get the drugs in the pharmacy, Ricki decides to get them on the black market. Not knowing his place, he attacks the drug dealer (played by Rossy de Palma), a tough dyke on a motorcycle.  In retaliation, the cyclist later asks her groupies to beats Ricki, which leaves him unconscious. While he is gone, Marina finds a way to get out of her chains but not out of the apartment. When Ricki returns home wounded and bleeding, Marina is both touched and upset.  Now it’s her turn to tend to his needs. As the plots thickens, the kidnapper and hostage engage in a bizarre role-playing, sort of a parody of bourgeois marriage, including breakfasts served in bed, domestic arguments in the bathroom, trips to the doctor, with Marina handcuffed and Ricki holding a knife.  When Marina tries to escape, Ricky ties her up, albeit tenderly–Almodovar goes out of his way to show that Ricki is using the “softest” rope available.

Ricki’s beating is a turning point in the relationship, and gradually, Marina begins to understand his devotion to her, and her feelings towards him soften.  For the first time, the couple makes love that’s genuinely passionate and mutually satisfying.  Meanwhile, Marina’s worried sister Lola makes periodic trips to Marina’s apartment, worryingly leaving notes under the door, which Ricki destroys.  As a precautionary measure, Ricki moves Marina to another, more lavish apartment that belongs to his neighbor.

In the end, when Lola arrives and Marina gets a chance to escape, she makes a choice to stay.  She no longer needs or wants to be rescued.  The very last image depicts a newly- formed family, a triangle composed of Marina, Ricki, and Lola. Significantly, Lola is in the driver’s seat, Marina next to her in the passenger’s seat, and Ricki is in the back. Driving off into the distance, the trio sings loud Gloria Gaynor’s popular disco hit, “I Will Survive.”

Thematically, “Tie Me Up!” echoes some of the themes seen in William Wyler’s 1965 “The Collector,” based on John Fowles’ novel and starring Terence Stamp as the kidnapper and Samantha Eggar as the captive.  And in turn, Almodovar’s movie might have influenced “Boxing Elena,” the 1993 controversial indie about forced love, from Jennifer Lynch, better known as David Lynch’s daughter.

For Almodovar, “Tie Me Up!” is a story of “how a man attempts to construct a love story in the same way as he might be studying for a degree or diploma—by means of effort, will power, and persistence.”  But underlying the film are some more philosophical concerns: Can passion be calculated? Can it be planned, and forced upon another person?  Nonetheless, some reviewers criticized the notions of forced love and the sado-masochism in “Tie Me Up!” and several feminist critics were downright offended.  Questions were raised about the film’s outrageous title, which was found to be disturbing in its depiction of romantic yearning, even if it took place in a heterosexual milieu.  Still other critics singled out the film’s uncertain tone: Some scenes are boisterous and hilarious as befits a farce, while others are serious and dramatic in dealing with the anguish and pain caused by a fatalistic love.

Responding to criticism at home and abroad (the picture world-premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to mixed response), Almodovar rationalized: “The moment when Marina says, ‘tie me up,’ is the moment when she realizes she cannot live without love.  At the same time, she sees that she’s accepting with love a whole lot of things she doesn’t desire–the knowledge that Ricki is a little crazy and that the world they’re going to live together is a hostile one.  She cannot live without this passion, but at the same time, she has to accept everything that goes with it.  In my movie, the heroine doesn’t say ‘I love you.’ She says, ‘tie me up!’”