Matador: Almodovar’s Saltry, Erotic Perversion, Starring Assumpta Serna and Anronio Banders

“Matador” and “Law of Desire,” the two follow-ups to “What Have I Done to Deserve It?” could not have been more different from the 1984 feature.

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

The plot of the 1986 “Matador” contains every form of deviance and crime: abuse, murder, mutilation, suicide, necrophilia, rape. But the thematic and visual treatment of these crimes is so inventive and so excessive (by design) and the stylization so distancing that they become less offensive than they would have been if contained in another narrative or made by another director. Almodovar combines intense emotionalism, seductive eroticism, and cool irony, while playing with audiences’ expectations of how a narrative should evolve, and what’s a satisfying closure. These notions are applied to the themes of the distinction between self-eroticism and eroticism, homosexuality and heterosexuality, feminine and masculine behavior.

The beautiful heroine Maria Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) is a criminal lawyer who develops morbid attraction for the 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 harbor longing for danger, blood, and violence years after his career had tragically ended. For sexual stimulation, Diego watches mutilation movies. This is depicted in the opening scene, which is shocking and funny, pleasing and disturbing. Diego sits in front of his TV set masturbating to a montage of images of cheap slasher movies.

One of Diego’s naïve and uneducated students, Angel (Antonio Banderas), trying to prove to himself he is a real man and not queer, takes his admiration of Diego to an extreme by trying to rape his teacher’s own 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 as a mass-killer, Angel is represented by no other than Maria, a lawyer whose personal agenda is to get closer to her own heartthrob, who happens to be Diego. The police inspector (Eusebio Poncela) who follows the case believes that Angel is innocent. Visiting Diego’s academy, the inspector himself stares intensely at the leotard clad students, specifically their crotches—they’re seen from his subjective point of view.

As in his other films, Almodovar provides links between eroticism and violence, ecstasy and death. Maria, dressed in a cape and sporting sleek black hair, picks up a man on the street. They go to a nearby empty office, where after hot lovemaking, she removes a pin holding up her hair and plunges it into his neck. The man is instantly killed. Intercut with this scene are parallel shots, in which Diego, a national hero bullfighter, teaches students in his class the precise and concise techniques for thrusting a sword into the bull.

It’s only a matter of time before the paths of the two criss cross. When Diego and Maria finally meet, she tries to kill him by sticking her hairpin in the back of his neck (a gesture, we are led to believe, she had used on all of her victims). Diego prevents her, and the duo, shocked and impressed with each other, falls in love.

Eccentric characters, lead and supporting abound in the picture. When Angel reports at the police station, the sergeant who’s a woman, says, “Some girls get all the luck.” Almodovar himself plays an effeminate director of a fashion show revolving around bullfight couture. “I told you not to shoot up in the dressing rooms,” he yells at one of his models.

It its broad structure, the plot sounds like a trashy Spanish soap opera. But if the motives behind the characters’ actions aren’t explored, it’s because Almodovar deems them irrelevant. What matters to him is not what people say, but how they behave, in and out of bed. Concrete conduct is always more reliable expression of individuals’ feelings than verbal declarations of love.

Almodovar lacks the subtlety to make the links between his beautiful images more meaningful, but they serve his purpose, setting the stage for wilder, hilarious flights of imagination. Like his strategy in other films, Almodovar places the viewers in a space where camp, pornography, and lyricism converge or conflict–depending on the viewer’s subjective perceptions. The characters in “Matador” pursue kinkier frills and thrills that exist outside the realm of conventional norms. As noted, the matador is seen at the beginning exciting himself with grisly excerpts from horror videos. Later, while in bed, he is aroused by his girlfriend Eva, only after she pretends to be a corpse. Almodovar is not interested in normalcy, instead aiming for excess. He pushes the narrative all the way to a lunatic edge–“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, and the choice of the lead’s professions (matador and his students) justifies the focus on surfaces and appearances as bull-fighting is very much about public performance.
“Matador” addresses the deviant and the perverse in human behavior with relish and gusto. 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 fully exploiting (in both senses of the term) cinema’s erotic dimension.

There are no gender distinctions. Equally 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 ecstatic moment. Diego’s girlfriend Eva, who overhears the couple’s plan, alerts the cops, who pursue the lovers to their country retreat, but, alas, it’s too late.

In the final scene, Diego and Maria retreat (escape?) to her country house, where they can enact their ultimate erotic fantasies. They spread out a cape in front of the fireplace and sprinkle it with rose petals. Almodovar’s camera pans over the totally naked bodies of the couple. Diego holds a red rose in his teeth caressing Maria’s vagina and nipples with it. Diego penetrates into Maria, and she plunges a hairpin into his neck, forcing him to look at her up close and personal before shooting herself in the mouth. The lovers fulfill their ultimate erotic fantasy through the ultimate experience of sex through death.

The scene suggests the fine line between soft-porn and hard-porn. Thought the movie shows female (but not male) genitalia, it is replete with phallic images, long narrow horny 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 preceding, illogical narrative. It’s a ceremonial ritual for their final pleasure, which deliberately evokes mixed, contradictory reactions of discomfort, disbelief, and laughter.

Throughout the narrative, Almodovar contests traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. Maria is more sexually aggressive than all the men in the film. In one of the first scenes, which is sexually graphic (and for some harsh critics pornographic), 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 she has removed from her hair (designed in a phallic coiffure) and sticks it with passion into his neck. Maria’s orgasm is not only one-sided but achieved with a dead man!

In a 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 factual 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 the surfaces and visual pleasures. Which may explain why the film was misunderstood upon its initial release 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 only the streetlamps providing light dark shadows. The light is sufficient enough to observe that Angel is wearing a red sweater and Eva a bright pink jacket. Assaulting Eva, Angel tears her panties and climaxes very quickly (in what is clearly a parody of straight male sexuality, the tendency for selfish, premature ejaculation). The rape is not motivated by erotic desire but by deep psychological anxiety, perhaps sexual panic. Angel is trying to prove to himself and to his instructor Diego that he is straight–Diego had earlier asked him explicitly if he likes girls. Almodovar turns Angel him into an ultra-sensitive male. After apologizing to Eva for the assault, she moves away from him but trips down and injured herself. At the very sight of her blood, Angel faints.

Almodovar may have deliberately named Banderas’ character Angel, to suggest that he is pure, naïve, innocent, and sexless (he certainly 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: “Ï’ve come to report a rape.” The police inspector then asks: “Have you been raped?” “No,” says Angel, “I was the rapist!” Still unconvinced, the cop persists, “Are you sure?”

It may be significant that of all the figures, the police officer is the only sexless or asexual character, the one who doesn’t engage in sexual conduct. In a brief scene, he rejects the overtures from a female psychiatrist, who is hitting on him. Almodovar constructs him as “sober, skeptical, and dispassionate,” allowing him to look and engage in voyeurism. As a male, Angel mediates between the overtly sexual and oversexed Diego and the sexless/asexual police inspector. And there are enough clues to suggest that the officer might be bisexual, perhaps even latent homosexual.

It would not be much of a stretch to claim that in “Matador,” heterosexuality is criticized, and in at least one scene compared to necrophilia. When Diego is in bed with his girlfriend Eva, he instructs her “to play dead,” before penetrating into her and reaching an orgasm. This scene, combined with the first one, which depicts Diego’s auto-eroticism, presents an unfavorable portrait of heterosexuality. For most of the film, the characters display narcissistic behavior, making love to themselves, whether they masterbate in solitude, or climax in coupling situations. The sexual encounters and orgasms are essentially subjective and one-sided, either initiated by, or more gratifying for, one partner.

This is reversed in the last, consciously lethal scene, which makes clearer the link between eroticism and death, indicating Almodovar’s deep-held belief in the impossibility of long-enduring love, hetero or homo. The formation of new couples, based on mutual love and respect, is the exception to the rule, and more often than not applies to heterosexuals rather than homosexuals, as would be the case of “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “The Flower of My Secret.” (See below).

Technically, “Matador” is striking, offering images and sounds, courtesy of cinematographer Angel Luis Fernandez’s flamenco color schemes and Ernando Bonezzi’s provocative score, which are bold and precise, in complete congruency with the film’s erotic subject matter.