Law of Desire (1987): Almodovar’s Gay Romantic Melodrama

Made in 1987, “Law of Desire” (“La Ley Del Deseo”) boasts a more complex narrative and more intriguing characters than those of “Matador.” One of Almodovar’s few explicitly gay melodramas in which most of the characters are gay, the film contains fully developed characters with distinctive personalities and psychological drives.

“Law of Desire” is also one of the director’s more personal films, as the protagonist, Pablo, is a successful director, who claims to his credit shockingly erotic films bearing such bizarre titles as “The Paradigm of the Mussel.” Publicly, Almodovar has acknowledged that only two or three of the plot’s elements draw on his own life, such as the scene in which Tina confronts the choirmaster, who had abused her as a boy (He would return to this issue in “Bad Education,” in 2004).

Almodovar has always said that his ultimate goal was “to reach audiences directly through their hearts, their minds–and their genitals.” This is clearly achieved in “Law of Desire,” a film with a title that could describe each one of his works, as well as his entire oeuvre. His production company, overseen by his producer brother Agustin, is named “El Deseo,” simply meaning, Desire.

In this exhilaratingly erotic romp, the hero is a gay filmmaker, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela). In the opening scene, one of the most sexually graphic acts in Almodovar’s work, an authorial voice is heard instructing a gorgeous-looking boy to strip to his underwear, go to the mirror, and kiss himself. The voice belongs to Pablo, who then commands him to begin rubbing his crotch, take off his underwear, caress himself sensually and then masterbate to completion.

At the tale’s start, Pablo parts with his blue-collar lover Juan (Miguel Molina) who’s heading south for the summer. Unhappy with his life, Juan leaves Pablo to contemplate his future. The narcissistic Pablo insists that Juan keep in touch by sending him love letters. His plan is to write the letters himself, and then have Juan mail them back to him with his signature. In a quiet, touching moment, the couple undress and spend their last night together, while the soundtrack plays the iconic French chanson, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”) by Jacques Brel.

Meanwhile, Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a handsome closeted gay, becomes obsessed with Pablo. The provincial Antonio is easily impressionable but he’s also an opportunist. After seeing one of Pablo’s movies, Antonio rushes to the men’s room and begin to masterbate, while repeating the same words he had heard on screen, “Fuck me. Fuck me.” First showing Antonio from the back in a medium shot, Almodovar then cuts from a shot of the boy’s tight jeans to a close up of his red lips. Almodovar may be using Antonion’s character to suggest the immediate, visceral influence of movies, their seductively dangerous appeal—Antonio is obsessively psychotic by any definition of this term.

As always in Almodovar’s tales, when couples first meet, they engage in steamy sex, as if the director is in a hurry to entrap his spectators, especially his gay fans. For Pablo, the sex means one-night stand, but Antonio wants to have a long-term relationship, and he gets dangerously jealous when ignored or disrespected by Pablo.

Upon discovery of Juan’s existence, Antonio kills him. Driving south to see his dead lover, Pablo confronts Antonio. They argue ferociously before Pablo drives off. Pursued by the police, Pablo gets injured in a car crash, and in the next scene wakes up in a hospital room, suffering from amnesia. In the film’s most shocking scene, Tina (Carmen Maura), Pablo’s transsexual sister, visits Pablo at the hospital and makes a typical Almodovarian confession. Born as a boy, Tina had undergone a sex change operation after running away with their father. Tina is now the mother of a teenager, fathered by her when “she” was a “he.” (The same subplot would appear in “All About My Mother”).

Pablo regains his memory to discover that the manipulative Antonio is now socializing with Tina. Worried that Antonio might harm Tina, he calls the police. Taking Tina hostage, Antonio agrees to let her go only if Pablo would talk to him. Never a bashful or discrete director, Almodovar piles up one bizarre narrative strand atop another. The story accelerates to its tragic finale, when the duo spends an hour together after which Antonio shoots himself.
It’s noteworthy, that Antonio Banderas, in his pre-Hollywood era, prompted headlines in Spain’s movie and gossipy magazines, due to the explicit masterbation scene and the “gay kiss,” reportedly the first to be shown explicitly in Spanish film history.

More importantly, “Law of Desire” shows for the first time stylish elegance and smoother, more assured filmmaking, two attributes that would continue to mark Almodovar’s endeavor, reaching their apogee in “Broken Embraces” and “The Skin I Live In.”