Law of Desire (1987): Almodovar’s Gay Erotic Thriller, Starring Antonio Banderas and Carmen Maura

Having dealt with straight sexuality in “Matador,” it was logical for Alomodovar to follow up with a similarly themed erotic thriller, only this time set in a specifically gay milieu and dealing with the more particular varieties and vagaries of homosexual love.

Made in 1987, Law of Desire (“La Ley Del Deseo”) boasts a more complex narrative and more intriguing characters than those of “Matador,” but to me, it’s a less enjoyable movie.

Grounded in the specificity of Spanish culture, the film was largely acclaimed after its world premiere at the 1987 Berlin Film Fest, where it played to enthusiastic response.  “Law of Desire” became the first Almodovar film to be sold right away worldwide.

Intertextuality: Splendor in the Grass and Paris, Texas

A self-conscious director, Almodovar is aware of those links, as he himself has said: “I focused ‘What Have I Done’ on the Mother figure, and I’m focusing on the Brothers now. I didn’t know what type of fraternity to opt for men when I started writing the screenplay.  Given my temper, I turned for reference to Warren Beatty and Barbara Loden in ‘Splendor in the Grass.’ I’ve always been sensitive to stories of siblings, even in those with a good main love story, my interest was always on the siblings.  Pablo and Tina are the type of siblings working in show business. Like Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter, they are attracted to the same man (In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’).  And like Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell (in ‘Paris, Texas’) they support one another when necessary.”

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.  “Law of Desire” is also one of the director’s more personal films since the protagonist, Pablo Quintero, is a successful director who makes 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 life, such as the scene in which Tina confronts the choirmaster, who had abused her as a boy (Almodovar would return to this issue in “Bad Education”).  For him, the more significant fact was the exploration of erotic desires, expressed in different way by the tale’s male characters.  “This is a movie about guys,” Almodovar proudly declared, “from now on nobody can accuse  me of only directing women.”

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,” an exhilarating erotic thriller whose title could describe each one of Almodovar’s works, as well as his entire oeuvre. His production company, overseen by his producer brother Agustin, is named “El Deseo,” simply meaning, Desire Unlimited.

In the opening scene, one of the most sexually graphic 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 Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), who then commands the boy to rub his crotch, take off his underwear, caress himself and then masturbate to completion. The brief shot ends with a close-up of the cash money paid to the performer.

At a party after the premiere of his new picture, he meets Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a handsome closeted gay, who becomes obsessed with Pablo. At the end of the evening they go home together and Antonio experiences anal sex for the first time. The provincial Antonio is easily impressionable and he’s also opportunistic.  After seeing one of Pablo’s movies, Antonio rushes to the men’s room and begin to masturbate while reciting the same words he had heard onscreen, “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 Antonio’s character to suggest the immediate and visceral influence of movies, their seductively dangerous appeal.  Antonio is a psychotic whose particular social background is used as an explanation.  He is the product of a rigid politician of a father, and a conservative and obsessive mother.  The mother who’s of German origins is perpetually worried about her husband discovering Antonio’s homosexuality and, later, finding out Anonio’s involvement in Juan’s death.

Pablo parts with his blue-collar lover, Juan (Miguel Molina), who’s heading south for the summer.  Unhappy with his life, and confused about his sexuality, Juan needs some time to contemplate his future.  The narcissistic Pablo insists that Juan send him love letters.  His plan is to write the letters by himself, and then have Juan mail them back to him with Juan’s signature.  In a touching moment, the two men undress quietly and spend their last night together quietly, while the soundtrack plays the iconic French chanson, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”) by Jacques Brel.

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, sex with Antonio means just a lusty sex, a one-night stand, but Antonio misunderstands his intentions.  He wants to have a long-term relationship, and he gets dangerously jealous when ignored or disrespected.  Indeed, upon discovery of Juan’s existence, the jealous Antonio tries to rape Juan and kills him, throwing him off a cliff.

 

Driving south to see his dead lover, Pablo confronts Antonio, and they argue ferociously before the devastated Pablo drives off.  Pursued by the police, Pablo gets injured in a car crash, and in the next scene, he wakes up in the hospital suffering from amnesia. The police suspect both Tina and Pablo for the murder, and only a sympathetic doctor keeps them at bay.

A parallel, far more engaging dramatic story involves Pablo’s transsexual sister, Tina (Carmen Maura), a struggling actress. In the film’s most shocking scene, Tina visits Pablo at the hospital and makes a typical Almodovarian confession.  Born as a boy, Tina had undergone a sex change operation in order to experience a full relationship with her father. After running away with their father, he left her for another woman.  As a result, Tina has come to hate men so much that people think she might be a lesbian. Tina is now responsible for raising alone a teenage girl named Ada, whose mother (played by the famed Spanish transsexual actress and singer, Bibí Andersen) is seldom at home.

Never a bashful or discrete director, Almodovar piles up one bizarre narrative strand atop another.  Tina announces she has found a new lover, and to Pablo’s dismay, it turns out to be Antonio. Regaining his memory, Pablo observes the manipulative Antonio socializing with Tina. Worried that Antonio might harm Tina, he calls the police. Taking Tina hostage, Antonio agrees to let her go if Pablo would talk to him, and the stunned and limping Pablo agrees. The story accelerates to its tragic finale.  The couple experience some tender moments for the first time, after which Antonio suddenly shoots himself.

At first glance, the thematic transition from “Matador” and “What Have I Done to Deserve It?” into “Law of Desire” seems sharp and radical, but a closer look reveals that in Matador, one of the subplots is the relationship between powerful mentor and disturbed student, and in “What Have I Done,” there is concern with two brothers, who are vastly different, and sibling rivalry. Thus, it’s not a stretch to claim that “Law of Desire,””+ though gay-themes, revisits the issues of fraternity and bonding of various kinds between older men and younger guys.  That the younger guy is played in both “Matador” and “Law of Desire” by Antonio Banderas provides a further link between them.

Upon release, “Law of Desire” was attacked by both the homophobic right wing and the left wing critics for different reasons.  Some reviewers were upset by the politically incorrect depiction of sex, seen by gay viewers during the height of the AIDS crisis.  When Pablo and Antonio are about to have sex for the first time, the former asks the director whether his promiscuity has made him vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.  Denying the charge, Pablo gets irritated.  However, when he penetrates Antonio upon the latter’s request, Almodovar shows Pablo using lubricant but not condoms, which led to charges of promoting “unsafe” sex.  Almodovar claimed defiantly that he was highly aware of the health crisis, but defended the scene due to its specific context and particular characters.  Moreover, the director felt that the critics were more upset by the dialogue lines: “Men, especially straight ones, cannot tolerate hearing a man asking another man, ‘fuck me.’”

Almodovar was “more nervous shooting the film’s sex scenes than the actors.”  None of the actors was gay, which made it easier for him, “because then the performers act and represent, they are not reliving.” In general, Almodovar does not view his work as mimetic but as stylized and redemptive. He felt that in this particular scene, instead of obeying the dictates of reality, he was relieving the spectators of that reality by conjuring it away, by turning it into an excessive fantasy.

A similar logic has guided the casting of Carmen Maura, based on his idea that, “a real woman would represent a transsexual more poignantly.”  For the director, the real desire in the film is personified by the transsexual Tina, not by any of the gay men.  The goal was “to make Tina and the whole film look fresh and natural and these straight people proved so natural about their bodies, they had no shame about their physicality, no sense of something unnatural or prohibited. And after the first half an hour, the audience forgets that the lovers are men; they accept it as a love story.  That’s a big change in Spain and really healthy.”   The film’s more significant aspect was Tina’s betrayal by all those around her, especially the two men that she really loved, the priest, her spiritual father and mentor, and her biological father, who took her to Morocco, forced upon her a sex change operation, and then abandoned her.  It makes things worse that Tina is later deserted by her lesbian lover and is left alone to take care of her daughter, Ada.

Some of the men try to forget the past, but not Tina, who stresses the importance of memory and the inevitable burden of the past on the present.  When the priest urges Tina to forget their love affair, Tina cannot (and is unable to), because all she has now are memories. Similarly, when Pablo suffers from amnesia, Tina insists on maintaining the past and their filial bonding.  “Your amnesia deprives me of memory,” she says, pointing to an album of old photos when they were happy boys, a scene that reduces both of them to tears.

La Pieta

That older gay men can–and do–play surrogate fathers-brothers to their younger lovers is manifest in two scenes, both involving Pablo, in which Almodovar evokes the religious image of “La Pieta.”

In the first, Pablo carries his lover Juan to the bedroom on their last, chaste night, “as one would carry a child.” And in the end, after the psychotic Antonio shoots himself, Pablo holds him in his arms as a baby, evoking religious iconography of La Pieta.  “Law of Desire” is a dark amour fou, where passionate love leads to death, but it’s also a portrait of gay men who, despite promiscuity with many lovers, can still be tender and sensitive.  Juan leaves Pablo, because he feels that he cannot love him as the ultra-narcissistic Pablo wants and needs to be desired.

Almodovar has also singled out the hose sequence, where Tina, hot, bothered, and frustrated in the night, shouts at a street cleaner to drench her, as one that’s more erotic for him than the intercourse between the men, because the scene is “very physical,” and “I made her giant on screen.  It’s a great release, something I’ve always dreamed of doing.”  Hence, charged by a policeman of “not being a woman,” Tina knocks him down with a punch usually associated with macho men.  The inspiration for the wet scene came from Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, “La Dolce Vita,” when the lush and iconic Anita Ekberg suddenly jumps into the Rome’s Fontana de Trevi.

Antonio Banderas, in his pre-Hollywood era, prompted headlines in movie and gossip magazines due to the explicit masturbation scene and the “gay kiss,” reportedly the first seen explicitly in Spanish film history.  “Law of Desire” shows stylish elegance and more assured filmmaking, two attributes that would mark the rest of Almodovar’s endeavor, reaching their height in “Broken Embraces” and “The Skin I Live In.”

In hindsight, “Law of Desire” may be more significant as a film experimenting with storytelling than as an explicitly gay feature.   At the end of the film, in what is a variation of amour fou, Pablo reacts to the suicide of Antonio, who he has learned to love in spite of himself and despite the circumstances, by throwing the typewriter out of the window.  Sure enough, the typewriter lands in another of the director’s favorite locales, the trash container, where it explodes into flames.

Why blame the typewriter? Why accord it so many close-ups?  Because Almodovar treats the object as a major character, both binding together and separating individuals in unpredictable but always intriguing ways.  (The same motif recurs in another autobiographical work centering on a writer, “Bad Education,” in 2004).

 

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