Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990): Almodovar’s Kinky Psycho-Sexual Thriller

Almodovar Tribute

In 1990,”Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (“Atame”) had the misfortune of being released after Almodovar’s most appealing and commercial picture to date, “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 most controversial film went to the courts in the U.S. after its distributor Miramax was slapped by the MPAA with an X-rating, “Tie Me Up!” divided critics sharply. In hindsight, it’s considered to be a bold but not entirely satisfying work in the director’s impressive output.

“Tie Me Up!” begins as a hostage melodrama, but then, after a series of unpredictable turns, it morphs into a bizarre love story. The film moves at a deliberate pace and with disrupted momentum toward a sentimental-romantic ending that evokes both laugher and disbelief. Continuing Almodovar’s exploration of a world dominated by women, “Tie Me Up!” depicts a clique of women, a milieu within which 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 info about her late husband. Her two daughters, Marina and Lola, are career women, working in fact together in the film industry. Marina is single, strong, vibrant woman who, before being kidnapped, stands up to men, including her older and sleazy director (in the movie-within-movie). Her sister, Lola, has a daughter, but no husband or man in her life.

In 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 the top-grossing picture in Spain that year, it was not particularly popular in the U.S., perhaps because of the NC-17 rating (after Miramax appeal of the X rating) and 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 the follow-up “Talk to Her,” in 2003.

“I’ll never love you . . . ever!” the sexy Marina (Victoria Abril) says to 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 screen character? Almodovar has constructed him as an immature guy who has nothing in life, and therefore nothing to lose. He has to force everything that he has or wants—including love.

Ricki is a boy who has spent all his life institutions. Orphaned at three, his life has been an unending trek through orphanages and mental institutions. When Ricki is let out on the street, Ricki doesn’t know what to do with his newly gained freedom. 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.

Marina, the film’s heroine, is a “B” movie actress, making cheap slasher films, while trying to adjust to her recent success after years in the porn industry, not to mention a persistent drug problem. Ricki has just been released from an asylum. He 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.

After the credits, Ricki, in tight blue jeans and red weather, is shown at the psychiatric hospital trying to fix something with a screwdriver, which is just of many phallic objects in the film, serving as symbolic reminders of the relative sexual potency/impotency of the male characters. Called to the ward’s office by its female director, he is interviewed by the stern and severe woman, 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. To which the director says abruptly, “You are not a normal person.”

Rest assured that Almodovar would subvert these stereotypes of masculinity and femininity right away. Going to the window, the 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 and 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.” To that extent, the asylum’s director joins other professional women in Almodovar’s films (the lawyer in “Matador”), who compromises her code of ethics.

As for Ricki, he has a hustler mentality; he is used to pay for everything he needs or owns. With a big smile on his face and macho bravado, 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. At a quick stop at a candy story, managed by a young femme who also looks at him in a sexual way, he gets a red heart-shaped chocolate box, for which he underpays, then hops on a red bus.

Sneaking into the studio, he heads into Marina’s dressing room, picks and smells the underwear that she had removed earlier, places the chocolate in her purse, steals some cash from another dress, picks up a pair of handcuffs from her desk, dons a long rock-star black wig, stands in front of the mirror while playing an air guitar, and walks out to the set incognito, as a spy-voyeur.

Ricki is dismayed to see the film’s older and dictatorial director, Maximo Espejo (vet actor Francisco Rabal), hitting so blatantly on his leading lady. In a parody of male voyeurism and male 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 one of two knives (a phallic symbol) to be used in the horror flick he is shooting, and he 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 (likely to be young males for this kind of genre), and later Ricki. But she can hold onto her own in a male-dominated milieu. She tells Maximo to stop staring at her “that way,” and the lusting 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 continue to look. When he is denied attention, or when she is missing 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 foermer porn videos, including a scene of anal intercourse. Many of the movie-within-movie scenes are also 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.

After completing the last scene, Marina goes home to change for the post-shoot party. She takes a luxurious, erotic bath, playing with an electronic male-shaped toy, which approaches her slowly, while flipping its legs, until it penetrates into her. With a big smile on her face, Marina removes the toy and places it on her chest. Bursting into Marina’s apartment, Ricki 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 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 future as one big happy family. But his persistent wooing and manipulative attempts fail.

Shocked by the confessions, 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 position, he attacks the drug dealer, played by Rossy de Palma as a tough femme on a motorcycle, who later asks her groupies to beats Ricki in retaliation, leaving him unconscious. While he is gone, Marina finds a way to get out of her chains, but not out of the place. When Ricki returns home wounded and bleeding, she is 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 carried 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, and Almodovar goes out of his way to make the point that Ricki is using the softest rope available. After Ricki takes severe beating from the thugs, Marina begins to understand Ricki’s devotion to her, and her feelings towards him soften. For the first time, the couple makes love that’s passionate and mutually satisfying. The worried sister Lola (Loles Leon) makes periodic trip to Marina’s apartment, leaving notes under the door, which Ricki retrieves and destroys. As a precautious measure, Ricki moves Marina to the far more lavish apartment of his neighbor.

In the end, when Lola arrives and Marina has real 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 the popular disco hit, “I Will Survive.”

For Almodovar, “Tie Me Up!” was 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 questions concerns, such as can passion be sketched in advance? Can it be calculated, planned, and forced upon another person? 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 debut about forced love, from Jennifer Lynch, better known as David Lynch’s daughter.

Many critics dismissed the notions of forced love and the sado-masochism in “Tie Me Up!” Some female 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. Others complained about the uncertain tone of the film, in which some scenes are boisterous and hilarious as befits a farce, while others are serious and dramatic in dealing with anguish and pain.

Responded 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 ‘Í love you.’ She says, ‘tie me up!”